. . . Here at Holy Wisdom, I’ve been offered a different perspective on “labor”, on work in general. A different view on what it is and where its value lies. In the past two weeks, I have cleaned Swiss chard and washed the dirt off it. I have separated the purpley-pink and white stems from the green leafy parts and parboiled them. I have plunged them into icy water to stop the cooking process and then frozen it for use in the colder months.
I have placed frozen roma tomatoes in hot water, slipped their skins from them and cooked them in huge pots on multiple burners. After they are mush I have run them through a sieve to strain the juice and pulp from the seeds before cooking them down further for sauce to freeze and store for winter.
I have bathed and spun lettuce, trimmed beets and kohlrabi, and gathered beans, peas, peppers, and zucchini for the evening’s meal. The work is done in community, all of us women chatting and giving directions, companionably straining, sieving, washing, peeling side by side. We have sat and stood by sinks, stoves, and prep tables, trading stories and laughing over shared experiences. . . .
Pruning apple trees is not easy. One must hold the ladder, one must handle the “lopper” or the clippers carefully and choose the branches to be trimmed wisely. The apple trees are pruned to give the tree more room to breathe, for air to circulate amidst its branches more freely, for sunshine to get at its fruits more readily, and for insects to be blown through the tree and not be so prone to settle in it.
The pear trees are pruned for lightness so that their branches don’t weigh it down so and for any diseased bits to be isolated before they get to the heart of the tree. . . . Sometimes Paul, the groundskeeper, climbs up into the tree itself to check the bug traps or to get at a particularly high branch. . . . This, this care we give the trees who will give us their fruit in return, is labor also. We accidentally drop small branches on each others’ heads, bump our heads against low-hanging trunks, and trade directions, “Come here, over here! The ladder! Move it this way! This branch! That one over there! Oops, wrong one!” as we laugh and tell our favorite memories of apples, pears, trees.
The sun infiltrates the green shaded curtains we have entered and we cannot see each others faces sometimes but we follow the sound of voices as we make sure to “cut the trees hair properly” before moving on to the next one. I stop to hold a pear. One of three, it hangs on a low-lying branch. I feel its warmth, the miracle of its smallness and its huge potential, and am happy.
It is time for prayers often before we are done with the job. It is alternately a challenge and a relief to stop mid-task but it is part of the learning here at the monastery. There is a time for work and a time to be thankful work is over. It would be easier to open a can of something, sure. It would be simpler to buy what is needed or wanted, in season or no. Or to get someone else to do these task for me. But there is camaraderie in the work we do here, a time of togetherness, a sense of purpose in the sharing of a task, a chore well done or well started at least.
The tasks are necessary, the reason clear, and the work is appreciated. This kind of labor is one I can do, one I can be fully present for. I am not sending paperwork to another office or filling out endless forms. I am not staring at a computer screen or devoting 12 hours a day as Lloyd Dobbler would say, to make a product I will not sell or selling something I have not processed, or producing something I will not process. There is love in this Labor. Is that what we are truly missing today?
* * *
For more reflections go to the complete set of excerpts at: A Confirmed City Girl looks for God in a Monastery.
When I was a first-year student at the University of Mary, one of the sisters came up to me in the cafeteria (I lived in the south campus dorms & took meals with the sisters) and asked me, “Do you know what the Benedictine motto is?” Being a good Protestant, I didn’t. She said, “It’s ora et labora – pray and work. But it can also mean work IS prayer.” With that, she went on her way. I have meditated on that wisdom ever since.
Isn’t it interesting how a seemingly random comment can stay with you and have so much impact? I take comfort and encouragement from the fact that work can be prayer when I’m mindful of what I’m doing. Weeding and working in the garden is one place where I most easily see work as prayer. Sitting with someone in spiritual guidance is another place I experience work as prayer.