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The monks of St. Benedict’s Abbey have a long and noble history of doing apostolic work, which introduces a foreign dynamic into the monastic equation. How does apostolic work affect the life? Work, by its very nature, pulls one out of the interior, it requires more busyness and external focus than the monastic tradition prescribes, it increases the noise in one’s life and it upsets the equilibrium of occupations in one’s day, rendering it all more unpredictable and more excitable. So how can it fit into the monastic tradition? How can apostolic work be approached as a part of monastic life? If apostolic work is to be monastic, it must be engaged as an extension of the active life in the traditional sense of the words. That is, one must engage it with a desire to be purified.
The silence, monotony, and unceasing regularity of the purely contemplative vocation allow the interior to become bigger in one’s consciousness, allow it to become more apparent. As opposed to the workaday world, where one’s interior experiences are often simply taken for granted and rarely scrutinized, the distance of monastic life from the world is intended to create space for just this dimension of awareness. In seeing one’s inner-workings, one is seeing one’s self: if I think jealous thoughts I am jealous; if I habitually compare myself to others I am insecure; if I frequently have violent interior anger I am violent, etc. These thoughts are mirrors for us, holding up to us what we are in our depths (not ultimate depths, though!).
Work offers to the monk the same benefit, dredging up our weaknesses. The ameliorative resistance of reality, of course, is present in manual labor and quiet work. But it is also present at calendar meetings, in the exchange of ideas at brainstorming sessions, at public speaking events, etc. etc. If I have spoken more times than anyone else at a meeting, then I am assertive; if I clam up when I have felt misunderstood, then I am self-pitying; if I react explosively when challenged, I am an angry person. Witnessing oneself in motion, taking seriously all of our experiences at work, is a monastic manner of working. That is to say that working with a trustful hope that God has scripted the workday in order to prepare me to see Him better, that attitude is a monastic attitude toward our work. That is living the active life in the monastic sense of the word.
If our goal is union with God (and with other persons), each encounter, each challenge that enters our lives can be seen as a good. The resistance of reality, rather than being received as simply a bothersome obstacle to overcome, can be taken as a gesture to correct and lead one deeper into the truth. It all can be a surrogate for the factors of the monastic atmosphere mentioned above. All can be factors especially designed by God to fashion us. One of my favorite authors, Fr. Jacque Philippe, has said that we (each of us) do not know our own holiness, do not know the goodness that we will become; it is a mystery that is unfolded in our lives. The resisting factors in life execute the unfolding. And that is far from discouraging!
This kind of commitment to reality, of course, requires courage. For me, facing my shortcomings can feel like fighting to walk through a blizzard, relentless and painful. The road can seem very long and tiring. But the changes that have begun to occur as I’ve taken on this discipline (which is rooted in unbounded hope!) are worth the price of admission. The “active life” for me continues as I trudge toward the peaceful, serene occupation of perceiving my God. All that comes to me in my work and prayer is relevant for this path.