Amoureax by Eve Arnold

7[The brothers] must not become distressed if local conditions or their poverty should force them to do the harvesting themselves. 8When they live by the labour of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks. 9Yet, all things are to be done with moderation on account of the fainthearted.” - RB 48.7-9

Taken as a whole, I believe these three lines of the Rule of St Benedict (RB) represent a complex, sensitive and beautiful picture which speaks deeply to our age. It took me some time to appreciate them, however. When first read them, I took note only of the eighth and ninth line. I confess to having an ideological inclination towards living by manual labour and my interest was piqued by the lines which rang with the resonances of my heart. I read the ninth line as the characteristic sensitivity of the RB and so was pleased at it but afraid for my ideology. Later I came back and read the whole of chapter 46 in which these lines occur, entitled 'The Daily Manual Labour' and was troubled to read line 7 for it seemed to me that it marred the whole chapter by seating it in a context not unlike our own in which other (lesser) people perform the most distasteful tasks of life, usually those most intimately concerned with our daily bread. From being troubled, as I struggled with the text I began to feel joy and then I thrilled at the wonderful symmetry of it. The text gently, yet insistently (and so graciously) ushers us into the resurrection life, the life of secure, just, landedness. It forms no ideology but encourages us in the narrow way in which we are ever in danger of leaving some behind or taking the wider road of numbing comfort. It is a way in which the dangers will never cease to be dangers and might only be averted by our immersion in a counter-story which is aware of the perils is faces.

I am not equipt to make any kind of authoritative statement about the fuller meaning of the text, I wish only to use it as a point of beginning to discuss some of the themes that arise from it for me. For this reason I have begun with my personal encounter. My purpose in writing is to consider what these lines of the RB speak to us in the context of global warming and a future of lower energy. I don't think that this global climate is what makes movement into gaining our sustenance by manual labour a Christian thing to do, I believe that this climate makes this Christian thing to do a necessary thing, one of the few possibilities of being Good News in the coming time. It is an expression of wholeness characteristic of the new life that we have in Christ. In this way, while 'monks' are spoken of throughout what is below, 'monks' might be traded for 'followers of Jesus' or 'disciples'. This is a hard thing and confusing. Rather than being troubled by it, I begin with Benedict and say loudly 'do not become distressed'.

'They must not become distressed'

I suspect that the distress spoken of here is born of two things. On the one hand there is distress at the nature of the work itself; harvesting is hard work, that's why we get others to do it! This is a distress at what is being asked of us in the present. On the other hand, there is the distress of becoming aware of how complex and difficult is the task ahead of us. Harvesting is hard work and yet it forms only the beginning of a fuller work for which we are ill prepared. This is the distress at what might be asked of us in the future. Like us, Benedict and the monks of Cassino were facing a transitional time in which tasks foreign to them may have been becoming more necessary. The following quote illustrates something of the times:

“The rule of St Benedict was written at a moment of change ... The fragmentation of Europe, the disappearance of political and economic unity and control, the rift between the eastern empire and the western kingdoms were widening. In the chaos and turmoil of the age that followed the monasteries of westen Europe, from being places of withdrawal from a world that was seething with political and social activity, gradually became centres of light and life ... While kingdoms changed hands and the great estates were broken up, the monastery, self-supporting and self-sufficient, could often remain. It became a nucleus that could escape destruction when towns were destroyed ...” - David Knowles, Christian Monasticism, p37

Here is a picture of what monasteries were able to become within a time of tumult. That monasteries were able somehow to be 'centres of light and life' is a testimony to the obedience of the brothers but was apparently not an easy thing. The picture given by

“They must not become distressed if local conditions or their poverty should force them to do the harvesting themselves.”

is not one of ease which suddenly encounters a nasty reality from which it will soon retreat again. It is one more like our own, in which the disciplines required to approach a different time are yet ill-formed in us, inclining us towards becoming distressed. Distress keeps us from our present and future work. Distress signifies an imagination which has not yet been fully formed by a God which 'brings us out', through the desert, into the land which has been promised. In Christ are the desert and the land brought together in one person. In Christ death is made merely a step in a life which bears no suppression. Death is no longer to be feared. We might be tempted to say with the Israelites:

“If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

only to be find ourselves caught up in God's glory:

“In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining against the LORD ... At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.” Exodus 16:6-7;21

If we keep from imagining our life only in slavery, that is, if we keep from becoming distressed and so grasping for comfort, then we shall discover that there is sustenance given for our freedom, that our life will not be stopped as we look to the One who is crucified-and-risen.

Benedict's council, seated in a circumstance in which monks are dependent, like us, on unjust economic patters and systems, is one which would open us to a patient hope. There is work to be done in the present which will form the possibility of an imaginative work in the future. Benedict and his monks were in a similar struggle to us, that of extricating themselves from complicity in dehumanising ways; indeed, as with us, it seemed impossible. Obedience to Benedict's word that 'they must not become distressed' allowed them to be opened to becoming 'centres of light and life.' There is in this statement at once an empathy for our natural fear of 'harvesting ourselves', of the desert, of death, indeed of life which seems like death, and a gentle yet insistent call that we allow ourselves to be formed by the One who is crucified-and-risen and who provides for our life in the desert, leading us into life, lest we settle for our present slavery.

'When they live by the labour of their hands'

“When they live by the labour of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks.”

Here is no ambiguous statement: a community of monks draws closer to the very heart of the Christian vocation by gaining their sustenance by the work of their hands. This statement flows out of what it is to be a community of persons, it is not a response conditioned by any one social, political or economic context, however relevant it was and is. In this way, Benedict appeals to the self-sustained life of 'our fathers and the apostles' as a model of Christian life. This fact gives all the more reason for celebration; the very life that it seems more and more necessary that we pursue in response to our present circumstance is a life which is in fact a more Christian life and so a more human one in which God might better be loved. It is, as Peter Maurin would say, 'the kind of society where it would be easier for people to be good.' Rowan Williams expresses this well:

“The self that is brought into the light in study and prayer is a self that lives in a material world where crises and limitations call for response. Yet the identity of the monk is not exclusively or even primarily that of a producer, a pair of hands. The mind and heart have to be both self-aware and turned away from self towards a God who is to be praised. So labour exists in order for there to be a growing conscious self, expanding into the awareness of joy in God's presence, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love (Prol.). The balance of the day's rhythm is directed towards that state of being aware of advancing towards God in everything.” - Rowan Williams, 'Benedict and the future of Europe'

Life must be ordered and directed towards the love of God. The best context for this is a life in which responsibility is taken for the material upkeep of that life. So Williams says, with uncompromising force echoing Benedict's own statement:

“Benedict has no expectation that the monastery will be dependent on anything other than the work of its members...” - Rowan Williams, 'Benedict and the future of Europe'

That is, there is no way in which we might play off work against prayer. A delicate whole is formed by the work we do for our bread and the work we do in the oratory (in hope of the bread of Tomorrow); neither can exist healthily apart from the other. The labour is not one that is subservient to prayer in some facile way, however. It is not a labour which is done merely to break up the day or keep fit or satisfy creative impulses, though it will have these benefits. Labour is minimally directed towards the actual material maintenance of a community directed towards hospitable independence. The very activity of gaining our living by our own labour benefits our prayer; it is a kind of work that might become prayer because it can be called 'good'.

'Yet, all things are to be done with moderation'

No sooner than we are thrust into an exciting yet terrible dusk by the force of the statement about living by the labour of our hands there comes a spoon of honey.

“Yet, all things are to be done with moderation on account of the fainthearted.”

No one is to be drowned in the tide of ideology. No one will be sacrificed!

This penetrating vision of a monasticism which gains its bread by manual labour with prayerfullness is flanked by equally penetrating analyses of a seemingly immovable and compromising economic reality and the limits within, and so of, any community of people.

This is no mere sugar coated pill, however. Here is a physic whose centre draws us into a hope which has the peculiar bitterness of the material shape of love. It is yet sweeter at its core than any honeyed foretaste. This has not been our accustomed diet. We are grown comfortable on the fleshpots of Egypt. Even so, those whom the fleshpots have afforded little strength and those who are wearied by slavery must not be left for dead nor abandoned at the side of a desert road when Pharaoh pursues. No, all must go together. Slowly. Gently and yet surely, for our hope is sure.

Our hope is for the day when all shall live beneath their vine and fig tree. We proceed toward that hope by being moved together into a material justice from a compromised place while there is yet grace for us. The very movement is our grace.

“Grace is costly because it calls us to follow and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.” - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Practical Considerations: a cruciform (and crucial) ark

“A sign has been given. The powerless have here and now received a plot of earth, for they have the Church and its fellowship, its goods, its brothers and sisters, in the midst of persecutors even to the length of the cross. The renewal of the earth begins at Golgotha, where the meek One died, and from thence it will spread. When the kingdom finally comes, the meek shall possess the earth.” - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p100

The task ahead of us is a daunting one, however sensitively it is approached, and it is not one which we can afford to approach with anything less than a sensitive seriousness. How are we to find ourselves living from the patch of earth which belongs to the meek; the patch made ark by the One who would have us give to those who ask of us? In the next ten years the preparations we make for the future vitality of our more frugal but potentially more joyful lives and communities will be crucial.

Our present action is composite. It consists of actions we must perform to sustain ourselves in the present as well as actions we must take to propagate a cruciform life for ourselves and others in the future. That is, without a desperation born of distress but with a discipline born of patient hope, we must act now in such a way as to sustain our communities in the present, without sacrifice, as well as design in a way which is cognisant of the coming time. As with Noah, the relevance of many of the actions we must take now will not be manifest until the conditions anticipated by them are manifest also. The ark is cruciform not because it is somehow forever suffering. It is cruciform because its builders and inhabitants do not wither at living the resurrection life in the present. Its builders and inhabitants do not shirk the responsibility of opening up to the meek, creating a place for them and themselves becoming meek. The earth is inherited a patch at a time.

'It's easier to build an ark on dry ground'.

Above I mentioned 'the next ten years'. This is not some kind of apocalyptic calculation nor a strict guide. Some with whom I am inclined to agree believe that it is in the time following the next ten years that we will begin to see the most dramatic changes, particularly the effects of declining fossil fuel energy. Again, it must be said 'do not become distressed.'

Fossil fuel energy is a gift. It is a gift which we have squandered yet a gift nonetheless. We have gained the leisure and resources for the accumulation and distribution of knowledge and information in a way which is unprecedented. We have the ability now to use fossil fuel energy as a gift, to choose not to squander it. We must ask, what is it fitting to do in this time where cheap energy is still available? To remain in our metaphor, what use might we make of the fact that the surface of the earth is not yet drowned in water? It is easier to build an ark on dry ground. We might think how to make available the present technology, knowledge and resources, in tandem with our leisure, to create systems which are catalysed by yet do not require high energy.

An ark that will float.

The cruciform ark which we are called to build has the timeless quality of the society in which we live by the labour of our hands 'as our fathers and the apostles did' and requires some analysis of the time into which we are heading. We might be guided, then, by ongoing efforts to live by the work of our hands with a consciousness of what that will require of us in a time of lower energy. The term 'energy-descent' used by the permaculturalist David Holmgren describes the gradual decline of available energy following the age of fossil fuels. That the decline be gradual is of course the most desirable possibility. If it is not gradual it might be described as 'collapse'. It is one of these circumstances that I believe will constitute the future in which we will be called to incarnate Jesus Christ. That incarnation will be aided by our ability to design for a future time using the knowledge of past and present low-energy systems. The degree of experimentation that is allowed to us in the present must be directed towards and contained within a longer view; a design which includes a diversity that will be proven over time.

By way of illustrating design for a low-energy future we might...

... gain access to land or make space available on land available to us from which we will be able to gain a livelihood when transportation of some goods and services becomes less practical or impossible.

... develop communities and communal structures / patterns of work with an awareness of directing our work towards greater subsistence.

Again, these are but a few examples. It is important to act now, to design now, with an awareness of the possible conditions of a future time. I am aware that there is a certain discordant note struck by including anything like 'practical considerations' in reflections of this nature. As I have said, they are by no means programmatic or prescriptive, they are far too simplistic and decontextualised for that. I have risked including this section dominantly because I do not want to stop at nice sounding words. I want to make clear that there are real practical things to consider which may bring real sweat to our brows. In later posts I would like to consider further approaches to the actions we might take.


We are entering into an uncertain time and there is work to be done. The work is hard as are all works which bring us more deeply into our true selves. To paraphrase Peter Maurin, 'we must use the whole person so that we may become holy people.' We are so used to the alienation of parts of ourselves that we easily forget that there is yet a better life for us. In his Rule, Benedict provides us, I believe, with an invaluable picture. The hard work of being opened to the sustenance which God provides, the work of closing ourselves to the comfort of slavery is to be embarked upon with full knowledge of the scandal that it may cause us and our brethren. We are just as likely to shirk the task as to embrace it while leaving behind those who need a gentler path than our fear will allow us. Nevertheless, when we live by the labour of our hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then we are really monks.


A beautiful meditation ... got me thinking. Thanks.

November 13, 2007 at 10:26 PM  

@Maria - Thanks for the comments of your blog I'm very pleased (and surprised) that you found what I had to say interesting.

November 15, 2007 at 12:51 AM  

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