My younger brother Daryl was living with me in the parish when, one day, I came home a bit exasperated from trying to help an old woman named Gertrude. She was neurotic and overanxious about life. My brother listened to my grumbles and said, “What Gerty needs is wood-chopping therapy.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Well, I went out to chop some wood this afternoon, and I was angry and frustrated about some stuff, and when I was done chopping wood, I wasn’t angry and frustrated anymore. I reckon it did me some good.”
He had a point, and St. Benedict understood it well. Benedict very wisely established three aspects to the monastic life, and traditional Benedictine monks still follow his advice. The monk divides his time between three pursuits — work, reading and prayer — and Benedict is clear that the work should take the form of physical labor.
St. Benedict understood what Daryl called wood-chopping therapy. He understood that physical labor often helps to clear our mind, direct our attention and facilitate our prayer. Washing the dishes, digging the vegetable garden, feeding the roses, chopping wood, scrubbing the floor — all these ordinary things take on a spiritual function when they are seen as part of a whole spiritual life. In this way, work is sanctified.
As the poet George Herbert wrote, “Who sweeps a room as for His cause makes that and the action fine.”
Benedict’s rule balances physical work with prayer and reading. For Benedict, prayer was essentially the liturgical prayer of the Divine Office. The monks go into church seven times a day to sing the Psalms, pray for the world and worship the Lord. The word liturgy actually means “work of the laity,” so their observance of the liturgical life was also part of their work. In this way, their prayer was their work, and because they are encouraged to pray while they work, their work becomes prayer.
This integrated life — in which prayer is work and work is prayer — is completed by the third aspect: reading or study. In a time when books were scarce, the monks in St. Benedict’s day would have spent their reading time memorizing not only all of the Psalms, but also great portions of other Scripture and selections from the great spiritual writers.
This threefold balance of work, prayer and reading is a practical approach to a balanced life, but it also has a deeper significance. The three aspects of the Benedictine life reflect the three parts of the human person. Work ministers to our bodies. Prayer ministers to our souls. Reading ministers to our minds. Only when we have a balance of all three will we be able to develop as completely well-rounded human persons.
The threefold balance of Benedict helps us address our imbalance. Therefore, the individual who focuses only on the physical aspect of life is missing part of his development. The intellectual is incomplete if he ignores the physical and spiritual, and the person who is focused on nothing but prayer is also lacking in a development of the whole person.
If we want to observe the wisdom of St. Benedict, we will examine our own lives and try to make up for what is lacking, and the way to do that is to bring to mind which one of these three we find most difficult or unpleasant. If we find reading and study to be a bore, unfortunately, that’s where we need to do some work. If physical work is not to our liking, then we need to engage in some “wood-chopping therapy.” If we find prayer difficult, then prayer is what we need to spend more time on.
The final result of this threefold balance is that the whole person is being renewed. This is the final aim of the Christian life, as St. Paul writes to the Ephesians, to “grow up into the full manhood of Jesus Christ.” The final goal is to be transformed into the image of Christ — to become a living icon of the incarnate Lord, who was himself a perfectly balanced harmony of body, mind and spirit.
St. Benedict’s rule is deceptive in its simplicity. While it calls for the monks to engage in work, prayer and reading, all the time Benedict has his eyes on this higher goal. The entire activity in the monastery is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. St. Benedict says the monastery is “a school for the Lord’s service.” In other words, it is the environment in which souls can be sanctified.
How might we apply this same wisdom to our lives outside the monastery? As a husband and father — yes, you heard right; I am a convert to the Catholic faith from the Anglican priesthood — it is part of my responsibility to catch this threefold vision for my family, the domestic church. I need to make sure my children are engaged in the work that is required around the home. Suddenly, the kitchen duties, keeping their bedrooms clean, helping around the house, mowing the lawn and raking leaves all have a deeper significance.
Similarly, study or reading is important. In the modern world, this might include more than just book knowledge. It includes watching good films together, going to the theater to see good plays and opera, and helping the children read a whole range of uplifting, inspiring and challenging literature.
Finally, I must be actively involved in encouraging the family to pray on a regular basis. Seven times a day for liturgical prayer is not possible, but maintaining the discipline of grace before meals and prayer at the beginning and end of the day all help to continue the tradition of prayer as one of the aspects of the threefold balance.
As we develop the threefold balance, we will move to that place where, St. Benedict says, “We do all these things which were once duties because they are now our desire.” When we get to that point, we will “run in the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with an inexpressible delight of love.”
Father Dwight Longenecker, chaplain at St. Joseph’s Catholic School
in Greenville, South Carolina, is online at DwightLongenecker.com