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The Order of Saint Benedict

Monastic Topics


Monastic Life as the Community's Primary Work

This is a paper written in 1995 in preparation for the 1996 American Benedictine Academy meeting on "Work and Monastic Life." Linda Kulzer OSB is a member of Saint Benedict's Monastery, St. Joseph, Minnesota. She has spent most of her professional life in college teaching and administration at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University in Minnesota. She currently works in the Studium of her community as Literary Arts Coordinator. She has had a long-term interest in monastic history and has served two terms as a member of the Board of the American Benedictine Academy.

"This is a defining moment for monasteries in the United States," said Mary Margaret Funk OSB, in a talk she gave at the ABA conference at Saint John's Abbey in 1992. She sees American monasteries as dangerously close to being indiscriminately assimilated into the American culture and urges us to work hard at deepening the monastic spirit. A recent event at our monastery seems significant in light of her concern. Early in 1995 we (the Sisters of Saint Benedict of St. Joseph, Minnesota) voted to commit ourselves during the next three years to:

  1. Claim the monastic life as our common and primary work.
  2. Exercise effective leadership personally and communally.
  3. Address the social and environmental concerns of our time through prayer, action and the sharing of our resources.

It is the first of these direction statements--claiming the monastic life as our primary and common work--that seems to resonate with Funk's statement. Most of the members of our community welcomed this direction statement because it was seen as a way to help us focus on the essential purpose of our life together. However, the kind of discussion that occurred around this statement at the time we were voting on its adoption indicated some ambivalence and some actual resistance to it.

This paper presents a limited exploration of some of the questions surrounding this direction statement. I want to open this topic in order to invite others to enter into the discussion with us so we can work together at deepening our understanding of the meaning of monastic life as our primary work. I believe that some of the persons in our community who questioned this statement are already living their lives in accord with it, but the language is new for them. The fact that our community has adopted it seems particularly hopeful in light of Funk's assertion that we are at the defining moment for monasticism in the United States.

Some distinctions need to be made in this paper around the definition of work. In the early part of the paper I will be using the word "work" to indicate the jobs or positions we have in our monastery and/or in our ministry. Attention will be given to the problems that monastics in this culture experience around that concept of work. Next I will turn to "work" in the sense it is used when we speak of monastic life as our "primary work." An effort will be made to analyze the nature of this life work.

Problems Around Work in Our Monasteries Today

Our community mission statement makes the following reference to work:

We, the Sisters of Saint Benedict,. St. Joseph, Minnesota, are a monastic community of women who seek God in our daily lives according to the Gospel and the Rule of Saint Benedict. Through our ministry of prayer, work and community living, we listen and respond to the needs of the Church and of the world.

Here "work" is seen as only one part of the total picture of our monastic lives. It is, however, an integral part of our life together and it is necessary in order for us to support ourselves. The problem in many of our monasteries arises out of the disproportionate place we have given to work. Our daily schedules often demonstrate the overemphasis work has assumed in our lives. Daniel Ward OSB reflects on some of the issues around work as ministry in an article in The American Monastic Newsletter for Oct. 1993:

The monastics of a monastery can become so preoccupied responding to the needs of the Church, of society, of the institutions of the monastery, or of the individual monastics, that life simply becomes work... When work becomes the most important part of a monastic day, or even the most important part of monastic life, the monastery ceases being a place of shared monastic living and, instead, becomes simply a place of common residence. Work is no longer related to the larger framework of monastic life.

Another issue that becomes significant when we look at the place of work in the monastic life is the way we continue to accept certain ministries as givens. The particular ministries we have carried out in the church have become so important to us and so consuming of our energies that it seems strange and foreign to us actually to claim that "the monastic life is our primary work."

We came to this country to be missionaries on the frontiers of a new land. We have continued to be very involved with this form of work in the church. The only work history many of us have had during our lives in community reflects this first call. Recently Judith Sutera OSB explored this concern in The American Monastic Newsletter (Feb., 1995):

In this time of tension regarding the role of ministry and its consumption of our energies, it is time to think again about why we did what we did in this country. The United States to which many of our founders came was a third-world mission country. The taking of institutions and parishes was necessitated by the environment. Some early documents within monastic circles even refer clearly to the missionary thrust as a temporary state. As in Europe, where Benedictine missionaries had eventually settled into a more stable lifestyle, those founders spoke of a time in which even women would be able to lead a more contemplative life.

As we begin to claim seriously "the monastic life as our primary work," we may need to give more concern to the suitability of some jobs in our ministries. Ward says in the article referred to earlier: "The jobs must be compatible with the ability to live daily the common life, including prayer, silence, private reflection and personal interactions." All the concerns addressed thus far have centered around the concept of work in terms of the jobs or roles we have in the monastery and/or in a particular ministry. Now we will be looking at work in a different sense.

The "Inner Work" in the Monastic Life

The most important concern arising with the claim that the monastic life is our primary work focuses on the question of just what that "work" will consist of. In order to explore this question we need to begin by noting just what the work is to which every Christian is called. As monastics we share the calling of all Christians which is to seek God and follow Christ: to be transformed into Christ. We were created by God in his image and likeness and our deepest attractions are to God. Our original unity has been shattered so that the self is out of harmony with God and creation. For all Christians the challenge is to be receptive to the restorative power of grace so that the heart can be recreated and the original unity recovered. This is not something that we can do of ourselves; we can only allow it to be done in us. What each of us must engage in, however, is the labor of returning to our hearts. We need to become conscious of our own shadow, those unconscious energies which call for inner work so we can come to integration and inner harmony. It is the heart that is central to the transformation of the human person. There is a growing acceptance, even in America, that the transformation of the person is the key to the transformation of the universe.

What has been described thus far is true of every Christian. What is distinctive about the monastic is the way in which this transformation of the person is to take place. The end is the same, but the means to the end is unique. The means are the traditional, time-honored monastic practices: lectio and liturgy, silence and solitude, community living, study and work. These elements are designed to help the monastic move toward the goal of inner transformation. Thus, the first part of the "primary" work of the monastic consists in being faithful to these monastic practices. Benedictines promise obedience, stability and conversatio morum which is commonly now translated as "fidelity to the monastic life." Some monastic scholars are saying that, as a matter of fact, there is only one vow, which is conversatio morum and all the others are simply aspects of it. Thus, the monastic life becomes a life project all by itself.

The elements of lectio and liturgy, silence and solitude, community living, study and work are the environment or the structure by which the monastic is supported in carrying out the inner work. It is this "inner work" which is at the heart of the monastic life--the "labor of obedience" which Benedict speaks of in the Prologue. The part played by the structure of monastic practices is well put by Funk in the talk mentioned at the beginning of this paper. She states: "The structure works, but only if there is the (inner) work done within the structure." The vows and the traditional monastic practices are the exterior renunciations by which we let go of things, former professions, marriage, children, family. The external renunciation needs, however, to be coupled with interior renunciation. Here the monastic seeks God's assistance in learning to recognize all the ways in which one continues to build up the false self. This inner work relies on a persistent effort to deepen the relationship with Christ through lectio and the practice of contemplative prayer. Guided reading of the monastic sources becomes essential. Opportunities are sought for an increase of silence and solitude.

The inner work also depends on the interactions that are part of the cenobitic life. This calls for a recognition of the important place relationships have in achieving holiness, health and happiness. Community living in sufficiently small groups seems essential so that relationships can be worked through and the support and encouragement of others can be personally experienced. It has been stressed thus far that one needs the structure of the traditional monastic practices to provide the supportive environment, but that the basic ingredient is still the inner work. This is indeed the work of a lifetime--the primary work which is worthy of one's total energy.


In this paper I have tried to explore some of the implications of our commitment to claiming the monastic life as our primary and common work. Clearly some of the current concepts of "work" in our monasteries today can cloud our understanding of this "primary work." It is hard for us to view our ministry as only a small part of the whole of the monastic life. So much of our identity in the church has been built on the jobs we have performed. How will we be valued as we come to recognize and communicate that our chief gift to the church and the world is our total fidelity to the monastic calling? At the Monastic Institute at Saint John's Abbey in July, 1995, Abbot Justin Dzikowicz OSB spoke of the monk who asked Mother Teresa what he could do to help the world. Her reply was, "Be a really good monk."

In examining the calling to the monastic life as a seeking of God which we have in common with all Christians we recognized that the monastic life is distinguished by the "way" in which this search for God takes place. The monastic strives to live a life of inner transformation according to the Benedictine monastic way, incorporating the traditional monastic practices of lectio and liturgy, silence and solitude, community living, study and work. These form the structure or environment in which the monastic carries out the inner work. I hope that this brief effort to detail some of the aspects of this inner work will interest and stimulate others to enter the discussion. I am looking forward to the ABA convention next summer as a time when more of us can gather to explore this important issue.

Your comments and questions about this essay are welcome.

Linda Kulzer OSB
Saint Benedict's Monastery
St. Joseph, MN 56374


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