At the end of the chapter on the “Tools of Good Works,”d St Benedict says ‘These then are the tools of the spiritual craft, and the workshop where we are to toil faithfully at all these tasks is the enclosure of the monastery and stability in the community.’
The monastery as St Benedict describes it is a workshop. It is not the paradise of the cloister. It is a workshop. It is a very down to earth or prosaic place. A workshop is a place where there is a lot of work rather than talk. A dull place even boring but the work must go on.
Tools are handled without drama, but they are handled every day, becoming tools in the hands of master craftsmen. When we meet master craftsmen, their tools almost seem like extensions of their hands. They are utterly unselfconscious of how they handle their tools but they produce masterpieces.
The same with the monk who handles the tools of good works each day. They become extensions of him,
part of his identity. –Dom Gerard Abbot
There is much about life that can seem absurd, useless, just an endless one ‘thing’ after another. Like Sisyphus rolling up that damn large boulder to the top of the high hill only to have it roll back down again on the other side: He has to roll it back up the hill over and over again. Tedium can deaden the soul, numb the mind, and can bring us to a state of existence that is a form of living death.
To be present as Br. Lawrence was to the pots and pans that need to be cleaned and not trying to escape the endless job of doing dishes is the key to making the so-called absurd activities of our lives into moments of Divine Encounter. A very down-to-earth practice, which, yes, can still seem dull, yet not without significance. For how we respond to the little events in our lives carry more importance that is often understood, or thought about.
How do I respond now? What is the most mindful and loving thing I can do in this moment? How do I get out of my own way when seeking to grow in my relationship with God, my brothers in the community, and just as importantly those outside of the community that I deal with on an everyday basis? How can I stay focused on the endless sameness that makes us my daily life?
Times of Lectio Divina and prayer can be approached in a mindful way, or carelessly. When being careless, we cease to understand what we are doing, and if approached this way in a habitual manner, it will be impossible to continue in its practice, for it will become meaningless. Instead, ways of escape the ‘everydayness’ of our prayer and Lectio will be sought after.
Waiting for the Lord can be the most profound prayer we can ever make, for it is done out of a deep desire to connect with the living waters, that our wanderings can only push deeper under the sands.
How do I respond and relate to myself? How can I be mindful of my brothers with whom I deal with every day? What is the most loving way of communicating with them, both verbally and, most importantly, on a non-verbal level? When mindfulness is lost, then we react often from our unconscious depths. Self-awareness prevents this from happening.
When we lose the sense of the holiness of those around us, of Christ being one with them, we can easily punish those around us without even knowing it. Being overly sensitive towards others often has sources that have their roots that go way back before entering the Monastery. Lashing out at others is an indication of loss of focus and a form of narcissistic self-regard that has a detrimental effect on the community.
Are we here to serve others, or do we simply want to be catered to, listened to, and obeyed? Each member of the community has something important to offer. Each has a connection with the community that is unique. We all have a very specific way that we can communicate what we see, and then, should be let go of. Can we share our unique perspectives with the community and then let it go not worrying about how it will be embraced or not by those around us?
Self-centeredness is one of the greatest causes of suffering I believe in communities. Service to others and not seeking my own comfort, or my place of power and control is the royal road to lessening this all too common human affliction.
We are here to serve, not to be served. In doing that, then all are taken care of, loved and appreciated for each one’s unique contribution to the community. To withdraw, hide, or perhaps a better word, to pout, only makes things worse, since it is a turning one’s back on one of our vows: The Conversion of Manners. We are called to become childlike, not childish.
When we seek to truly put on Christ, over time, our striving becomes a simple extension of ourselves, and as St. Benedict states, we can live our lives without difficulty. Not to seek to transform ourselves into a ‘man-for-others’ is to stay imprisoned in ourselves and our monastic life can be a battleground with ourselves and with those we live with.
In our monastic journey, one of the hardest lessons to be learned is that we can’t really control others, or change them. We are often called upon to be merciful and compassionate, and empathic, towards those who often through no fault of their own cannot return any of the above. We are called to love those whom we may personally think are unlovable.
In my own monastic life, I fail more often than not, yet I get up and try again. I have learned that self-recrimination is a waste of time, but a gentle beginning again is what is needed. It is grace that does the work in our souls at a depth we cannot perceive, yet it goes on. To not learn that the most valuable tool we can cultivate is to love ourselves is perhaps the only true failure.
When the brothers feel loved and accepted despite their human weaknesses and frailties, it is then that they can be challenged. Shame and the use of force do not work. Obedience to the superior and to one another is a choice, and in making that choice, we truly run the race freely and our hearts filled with love become more human, we become approachable by allowing others to be transparent.