When Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, a popular spiritual writer, needed to slow the pace of his life, he spent seven months in a monastery in an effort to regain his focus on God's calling in his life.
At the Abbey of the Genesee, a Trappist monastery, Nouwen participated in the activities of the monks who lived there. The abbot assigned to Nouwen tasks of manual labor, as well as time to study and pray. Life in the monastery was different from life outside. Nouwen observed that the monks got up around 2 a.m. to pray and get ready for the day. They ate breakfast between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. then began their daily tasks. Each monk had chores for which he was responsible. There was also a bakery at the monastery, the proceeds from which provided funds to run the place.
When Mike and I visited the Benet Hill Monastery, a Benedictine cloister similar to the Trappist, we noticed that the nuns were industrious. They ran a nursing home at the monastery and a retreat center. They sold crafts and books. All of this helped them raise funds for their monastery, to keep it running and active.
Here is an excerpt from the Rule of St. Benedict, - the definitive guidebook to monastic life:
Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be employed in manual labor at certain times, at others, in devout reading. Hence, we believe that the time for each will be properly ordered by the following arrangement; namely, that from Easter till the calends of October, they go out in the morning from the first till about the fourth hour, to do the necessary work, but that from the fourth till about the sixth hour they devote to reading. After the sixth hour, however, when they have risen from table, let them rest in their beds in complete silence; or if, perhaps, anyone desireth to read for himself, let him so read that he doth not disturb others. Let None be said somewhat earlier, about the middle of the eighth hour; and then let them work again at what is necessary until Vespers.
If, however, the needs of the place, or poverty should require that they do the work of gathering the harvest themselves, let them not be downcast, for then are they monks in truth, if they live by the work of their hands, as did also our forefathers and the Apostles. However, on account of the faint-hearted let all things be done with moderation.
Living with this rule adds simplicity to the monastic life, thus allowing more time for prayer.
In "The Genesee Diary," Nouwen's account of his first stay in the monastery, he wrote that he did not enjoy the manual labor assigned to him. His tasks included working in the bakery and also pulling rocks from a nearby stream that the monks were going to use in the construction of a new church on the grounds.
"I'd better start thinking a little more about my attitude toward work, Nouwen wrote. If I have learned anything this week, it is that there is a contemplative way of working that is more important for me than praying, reading or singing. Most people think that you go to a monastery to pray. Well, I prayed more this week than before but also discovered that I have not learned yet to make work of my hands into a prayer."
What does 'making the work of my hands into a prayer' mean? Surely, the artist understands this concept. An artist can express beauty, scripture, his or her thoughts and feelings by creating in all sorts of venues, but what about expressing the prayer in the work of our hands in manual labor. Art is fun. Certain forms of manual labor are not, especially the repetitive kinds that have no apparent lasting results.
Housework is like this for me. I love having a clean house but it is difficult to motivate myself to dust often. I will just have to dust again in a week! When I was younger I would let the dishes go until I figured out that it took less time to do them everyday than it did to do them every other day. Machines make housework easier. I have a dishwasher - one of humanity's most noble inventions. I would rather put clean dishes away than stand at the sink washing them. Yet, do we lose something when we would rather get the job done quickly and move on to something else?
I noticed that when we did not have a dishwasher, our family helped each other with the task. There would be discussions, problems resolved, and laughter prevailed. Now that we have a dishwasher, it is easier for one person to do the job so there is not as much talk. It is like this with other chores and if we are not careful, machines can take away our ability to work together. Our propensity to rush through tasks takes away the enjoyment of completing a job well done; it adds to our impatience when tasks take longer than expected.
In a world where it is easy to purchase everything inexpensively at the store, we lose our ability to create and to survive with what we have. We accept cheaply made products, rather than enjoying the artisanship of another person or ourselves.
In chapters one and two, Nouwen is learning that the contemplative life is a unified life. A contemplative person does everything for one purpose - to bring glory to God. So everything a person does, whether it is manual labor, reading, praying, creating, sleeping is done with that one purpose in mind. Contemplative living brings simplicity and enjoyment to life. It turns the work of our hands into prayer.
"When God is my only concern, when God is the center of my interest, when all my prayers, my reading, my studying, my speaking, and writing serve only to know God better, and to make him known better, then there is no basis for anxiety or stage fright," Nouwen wrote.
Here is what my version would look like:
"When God is my only concern, when God is the center of my interests" when all of my labor, crafting, meal preparation, child-rearing, laundering, cleaning, writing, reading, praying "serve only to know God better, and to make him known better," then there is no basis for complaining or in not doing my very best in everything.
The contemplative person learns that living in the moment is God's will.
"If I could slowly come to that trust in God, that surrender, that childlike openness ... I could live the simple life ... I would know that here and now is what counts and is important because it is God himself who wants me at this time and place," Nouwen wrote.
Popular Christian musician Keith Green sang Make My Life A Prayer to You, a song that exemplifies our discussion. Enjoy!