The Practice of Work
Some monastic traditions depend on alms for much of their day-to-day needs. While this dependence on others has its own beauty, the Cistercian tradition instead gives a high place to work, especially manual work.
St Benedict calls the liturgy the opus Dei, the "Work of God" and he calls our labor opus manuum, the "work of our hands." He says that the tools of the monastery should be treated with as much respect as the "sacred vessels of the altar." The monastic ideal is to bring work and prayer as close together as possible. In prayer we go to the well of love; in work we are at the service of love.
Jesus spent much of his early life in the nitty-gritty of work. Prayer can become unreal when it is not tested by our interaction with other people and the world. Our patience, our love, and our willingness to put others first are all tested at work.
Our work is always a response to community needs. We do not choose our own work. Community jobs are distributed by the abbess; at Mississippi we also have a committee of sisters to look at community needs and fit them with sisters' capabilities. Our jobs are changed rather frequently, to help us maintain a detached attitude.
As we work, we participate in God's act of creation. Work that is unpressured but disciplined, that is done in the service of others rather than for one's personal aggrandizement or wealth, can be amazingly satisfying. We try to live simply, to make do with what is at hand when possible. Doing all this in an atmosphere of peace unleashes our natural creativity and adds another spark of joy to our work.
Often we are asked to take on a type of work quite different from the sort toward which we would normally gravitate; we may even be asked to do something for which we feel we have no skills at all. We must rely on God's grace to see us through, and we grow in reliance on God more easily where we cannot rely on ourselves. Being stretched in new directions also calls forth unused parts of our personality and gives them space to flourish.
Then are they truly monks, when they live
by the labor of their hands.
Rule of St Benedict, 48.8