Labor Day at Mississippi Abbey
Scripture Readings: 1 Cor 5:1-8; Mt. 13:54-58
A fundamental feature of the Christian faith is the radical commitment that it requires. Specifically, it requires that we give God first place on the scale of values which affect us. No exceptions; no “yes, but’s…” God is the “One Thing Necessary.” This is called simplicity. It unites us within ourselves.
Otherwise we worry. Today’s gospel tells us not to worry about the complexity of life on earth; after all, we’ll never get out of it alive! Jesus points to His Father as Creator and the Father’s providential care. We are to experience Him as He from Whose power and will all things come. We can relax into our dependence on Him.
On Labor Day we, being in His image and likeness, acknowledge our participation in His work as Creator and providential caretaker. It is this sharing that gives all work dignity.
God creates by speaking a word; we must make effort (commonly called “labor”). This effort gives us access to the dignity arising from participation. We are shaped by the end we live for. We do this by being responsive to and governed by the power and purpose of life. This, I believe, is the principle underlying Benedict’s Rule. It underlies Christian life in general. In a word, it is devotion.
Devotion eliminates cowardice and bestows courage for “the labor of obedience.” It is what we give to One Thing. The word “monk” or “monastic” means “One Thing.” One of the few places where Benedict uses the word “monk” in his Rule is when he writes that “when they live by the labor of their hands, then they are truly monks.” Augustine Roberts cites work as a prime expression of one of the three methods of Benedictine spirituality, the method of observance[i]. Observances employ the body in our devotion to God. Work has specific functions in the life of the monastic and her community:
First, it promotes our separation from the world insofar as it helps keep the community independent of needing outside help.
Secondly, work is related to divine worship. We call the daily Office, “the work of God” and at the end of chapter four of the Rule we are told that the listed deeds are “the tools of the spiritual craft.”
Third, in Genesis, when Adam and Eve are caught in their refusal to trust God, work-as-laborious is given by God as a penitential practice.
Yet the final function is that it is a testimony to the larger church and the world of the dignity of work as a contribution to the common good. A penitential practice is transformed into an act of self-giving. Work is now a calling and a duty…and that makes it noble. And wasn’t it the noble that made the call appealing, that brought us to the monastery?
As people made in the Image and Likeness of God, responding to that call and duty carries us beyond the laborious. His call is the “one thing necessary” and devotion to it unites us within self.
[i] The other two methods are lectio and humility of heart.
Labor Day at Mississippi Abbey
Scripture Readings: Gen 1:26-2:3; Mt 6:31-34
A fundamental feature of the Christian faith is the radical commitment that it requires. Specifically, it requires that we give God first place on the scale of values to which we aspire. No exceptions; no “yes, but’s…” God is the “One Thing Necessary.” This is called simplicity. It unites us within ourselves.
Today’s gospel tells us not to worry about the complexity of life on earth. Jesus points to His Father as Creator and the Father’s providential care. We are to experience Him as He from Whose power and will all things come. We are to acknowledge our dependence on Him. This dependence on His benevolence gives rise to gratitude. Gratitude relates us rightly and moves the will to act. Dependence and gratitude require that all of created life correspond to His will. This includes our moral life. We are to be responsive to and governed by the power and purpose of life. This, I believe, is the principle underlying Benedict’s Rule. It underlies Christian life in general, but only if we are willing to put principles before personalities.
Benedict does not use the word “monk” very often in his Rule. When he does, notes Abbot Georg Holzherr, it is for “weighty matters,” such as when he writes that “when they live by the labor of their hands, then they are truly monks.” This is not about sanctity or sincerity, but distinguishes them from communities given to evangelization and associates them with the apostles and “our fathers.” In this and in Ch. 1 the word “monk” has a ring of an honorary title. The real honor and challenge of the monastic, though, is her call to simplicity, to center her life and guide it by One Thing: the object of her gratitude. This center applies to the unity of the monastic and to the unity of the community just as it does to the unity of the Trinity.
There is a lot of complexity in life lived with others, whether in the secular world or the monastic community. It is taken as a sign of maturity that we manage this complexity pretty well. But it takes an interior toll. Simplicity is how we get through the toll booth!
Most of us, myself included, get through it from one difficult situation to another by tolerating situations we would not choose for ourselves. We do it for the sole reason of preferring Christ. This is the acquired virtue of simplicity.
Very few others have the infused state of simplicity. It is a gift of grace rather than an artful accomplishment. It has God as its source and end. Such one’s entire existence is centered on the One Thing Necessary. Everything else gets its importance from harmonizing with that. I believe that our Fr. Kenneth is such a one. He reminds me of Matthew 18:3: “Unless you become as simple as children you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Access to the state of simplicity is partly thru the capacity to admire those who are gifted with it. I count it a great grace to be able to admire Fr. Ken. If there is one grace I would wish for the new young ladies as they aspire to make a radical commitment in this community it is the grace to admire simplicity in the seniors.