THE BODY AND LABOR
Labor was the law of the monastery. In his Rule,
Benedict emphasized both manual and mental labor....
To the Benedictine, work and prayer were the two hinges
on which the gate of Heaven would swing open....
Without manual labor, monasticism could not have flourished.
-Louis B. Ward, Forward to Benedict,
The Angelus (2001; vol. 24, #8). [http://www.sspx.ca/Angelus/2001_August/Benedict.htm]
Labor has been a constant concern of mankind, and people's attitudes toward and approaches to it have varied considerably over time. The prevalence of slavery had an adverse effect on any potentially favorable views of labor prior to and during the early Christian era. Often, slaves were obtained as the spoils of war or simply seized by those in power. Being a slave was a recognized position in society that was frequently mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. This position was so well known that being a slave became a model-in discussions about becoming a true Christian-for a person completely devoted to God. For example, in Romans 6:22, St. Paul observes: "But, now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life" (the relationship has also been translated as "bound to the service of God"). From the practical side, slavery in the secular sense was primarily forced labor; thus, for those not enslaved physical labor fit into an undesirable category.
Further, the destructive effects of repeated invasions and rebellions brought into serious question the value of producing structures (e.g., buildings) and goods that might soon be taken or destroyed by the enemy. Hence, the fruits of labor could be seen as only short-term possessions, so that the labor itself, especially if arduous, might then be deemed a wasted effort at such times. The control that Roman leaders held over the people under their jurisdiction likewise made the laborious efforts of the subject people seem questionable, because the people could neither assert full ownership nor determine the ultimate uses of the products of their labor. In sum, there was a general sense that labor, while necessary, was not desirable.
For Christians, St. Paul made it clear in his letters, particularly in those to the Thessalonians, that idleness was not acceptable, that one should work. The main reason for engaging in productive work, as Paul expressed it, was to assure that the Christian would not be a burden to others. This concern about burdening another was not solely to avoid having one Christian-who might not be inclined to work-taking advantage of another Christian who might then have to support him. It was especially a matter of not having any Christian appear to others-such as those who might be converted to Christianity-as asking for or expecting support and funds, thus bringing into question the sincerity of the offer of good news (1 Corinthians 9:1-18). Paul pointed to the fact that he and his companions were models of the correct approach to labor (2 Thessalonians 3:8-10).
The idea that a religious person would ask for support in exchange for providing teachings, or simply expect support because of being too busy with spiritual matters to take care of earning a living, was already a well-entrenched view among some groups. This approach especially developed in the East. For example, the religious leader Buddha (born about 500 years before Jesus), in an act of religious piety would "take up his begging bowl," and that became the approved practice of his followers. An early Christian text, the Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles; chapters 11-13), does support the concept of having Christians giving aid to "the prophets" (persons who speak in the Spirit and adhere to the ways of the Lord) including offering "the first fruits" of one's labor (such as food from a harvest). But the prophets are not beggars, they are simply deserving of this assistance (as described also in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians). That these prophets do not and should not seek support is made clear by the remark that "whoever says in the Spirit, give me money, or something else, you shall not listen to him." It is noted also that one should "receive everyone who comes in the name of the Lord…but he shall not remain with you more than two or three days, if need be. But if he wants to stay with you, and is an artisan, let him work and eat. But if he has no trade, according to your understanding, see to it that, as a Christian, he shall not live with you idle. But if he wills not to do, he is a Christemporos [one who makes a gain out of the name of Christ]. Watch that you keep away from such."
In addition to being self-supporting, the Christian ideal involved helping others, and that could include providing funds or goods or services. In the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the Samaritan helper gave funds to an innkeeper to provide for the continuing needs of an injured person. This type of assistance is an ideal which can be met only if the helper is able to provide funds, such as those gained by his own labor. St. Luke, in his Acts of the Apostles, points to individuals who contributed their wealth to the incipient Church, making it possible to spread the gospel. Such wealth might have been attained by a variety of means, some not necessarily condoned for their future activities as Christians. Initially, the followers of Jesus simply sold their accumulated wealth (Acts 1:44-45): "All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need." But, these resources would only last a short time. To continue providing for those in need, the followers would have to work. St. Paul was the primary source of teaching in this area, and his words were relayed in Acts. He said in his farewell address to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:33-35):
I have not coveted anyone's silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'
Thus, it is evident that Christians are not only to support themselves but also to provide when possible for those in need through use of any previously accumulated wealth and especially through "hard work." The Didache, in its list of actions and attitudes that lead to the "way of death" (chapter 5), includes "not laboring for the afflicted."
The work of man is also understood as an element of his human dignity; it is not the specific type of work but the ethos of the worker that is important. John Paul II, in his encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work, 1981), observed that:
The ancient world introduced its own typical differentiation of people into classes according to the type of work done. Work which demanded from the worker the exercise of physical strength, the work of muscles and hands, was considered unworthy of free men and was therefore given to slaves. By broadening certain aspects that already belonged to the Old Testament, Christianity brought about a fundamental change of ideas in this field, taking the whole content of the gospel message as its point of departure, especially the fact that the one who, while being God, became like us in all things devoted most of the years of his life on earth to manual work at the carpenter's bench. This circumstance constitutes in itself the most eloquent "gospel of work," showing that the basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done, but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person. The sources of the dignity of work are to be sought primarily in the subjective dimension, not in the objective one.
Such a concept practically does away with the very basis of the ancient differentiation of people into classes according to the kind of work done. This does not mean that from the objective point of view human work cannot and must not be rated and qualified in any way. It only means that the primary basis of the value of work is man himself, who is its subject. This leads immediately to a very important conclusion of an ethical nature: However true it may be that man is destined for work and called to it, in the first place work is "for man" and not man "for work." Through this conclusion one rightly comes to recognize the pre-eminence of the subjective meaning of work over the objective one. Given this way of understanding things and presupposing that different sorts of work that people do can have greater or lesser objective value, let us try nevertheless to show that each sort is judged above all by the measure of the dignity of the subject of work, that is to say, the person, the individual who carries it out. On the other hand, independent of the work that every man does, and presupposing that this work constitutes a purpose-at times a very demanding one-of his activity, this purpose does not possess a definitive meaning in itself. In fact, in the final analysis it is always man who is the purpose of the work, whatever work it is that is done by man-even if the common scale of values rates it as the merest "service," as the most monotonous, even the most alienating work.
The purpose of work spoken of here is ultimately to fulfill God's will. To that extent, there is always a positive meaning to its purpose. John Paul requested a fuller understanding: "Let the Christian who listens to the word of the living God, uniting work with prayer, know the place that his work has not only in earthly progress, but also in the development of the kingdom of God, to which we are all called through the power of the Holy Spirit and through the word of the Gospel." He also points out, however, that the specific outcome of any task is not the ultimate matter of concern; rather it is the individual person who is the essential element. Thus, a person's attitude towards work is critical.
St. Benedict (ca. 480-583) is famous for stimulating the development of monastic living. Monasteries had existed since ancient times, and Benedict had been invited to live in an existing one after having spent some time living in a relatively unpopulated area, thanks to meeting up with a monk named Romanus. The ideas that Benedict had developed during his retreat from Roman life and his adopted Christian lifestyle included being poor and living by his own work. His approach sometimes clashed with those in the monastery, so he was inspired to set up not just one, but a group of monasteries himself. As part of his rules for monastic living [http://www.kansasmonks.org/RuleOfStBenedict.html#ch48], which guided the daily activities, he established principles of labor to fit with Christian teachings. It is to be noted that he was the son of a Roman noble, and had left Rome with a servant of his own when he started out on his path that led to this monastic ideal that was for him a new way of life.
The success of his monastic approach is displayed by the proliferation of Benedictine monasteries during the millennium following his proclamation of those rules: 37,000 of these institutions arose. As described in the quote by Lewis Ward at the opening of this article, labor was a central component of monastic life. The outcome-for both the monasteries and for Europe as a whole-attained from Benedict's ideas about labor reveals his success in identifying important issues and putting them into practice.
St. Benedict's principal ideas about labor are presented in chapter 48 of his Rules. He provides good insight into labor for all people, not just monks. The general instructions of St. Benedict are presented here; specific times for labor, which are laid out in the Rules, have been left out of the description which is quite short:
Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be employed in manual labor at certain times, at others, in devout reading….If the needs of the place, or poverty should require that they do the work of gathering the harvest themselves, let them not be downcast, for then are they monks in truth, if they live by the work of their hands, as did also our forefathers and the Apostles. However, on account of the faint-hearted let all things be done with moderation….
On Sunday also let all devote themselves to reading, except those who are appointed to the various functions. But if anyone should be so careless and slothful that he will not or cannot meditate or read, let some work be given him to do, that he may not be idle.
Let such work or charge be given to the weak and the sickly brethren, that they are neither idle, nor so wearied with the strain of work that they are driven away. Their weakness must be taken into account by the Abbot.
One can say that Benedict formalized the general instructions of St. Paul and made them practical and specific. He gives emphasis to certain points that had been established earlier by the Apostle. Perhaps the significant contribution comes from the introductory declaration, which indicates that labor is in itself inherently good, in that it eliminates idleness, the cause of much trouble. It is a reflection of the concern expressed in Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians (3:11-13): "We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right."
St. Benedict helped to restore and give a context for this teaching that may have been given inadequate attention through the turmoil of the persecutions (the most severe of which were at the beginning of the 4th century and finally ended with the conversion of Constantine a few years later) and the invasions aimed against the failing empire. In 476, less than a century before Benedict set up his monasteries, the last Roman Emperor (Augustus Romulus) was defeated by northern invaders.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia [http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02467b.htm], which relies on the writing of St. Gregory the Great (540-604; a monk at St. Andrews who eventually became Pope):
With Benedict the work of his monks was only a means to goodness of life. The great disciplinary force for human nature is work; idleness is its ruin. The purpose of his Rule was to bring men "back to God by the labor of obedience, from whom they had departed by the idleness of disobedience." Work was the first condition of all growth in goodness. It was in order that his own life might be "wearied with labors for God's sake" that St. Benedict left Enfide for the cave at Subiaco [prior to entering monastic life; it was from his experience in Subiaco that he established the first monasteries]. It is necessary, comments St. Gregory, that God's elect should at the beginning, when life and temptations are strong are strong in them, "be wearied with labor and pains." In the regeneration of human nature in the order of discipline, even prayer comes after work, for grace meets with no cooperation in the soul and heart of an idler. When the Goth [a northerner who joined the monastery] "gave over the world" and went to Subiaco, St. Benedict gave him a bill-hook and set him to clear away briars for the making of a garden. "Ecce! labora!" go and work. Work is not, as the civilization of the time taught, the condition peculiar to slaves; it is the universal lot of man, necessary for his well-being as a man, and essential for him as a Christian."
St. Gregory, in contemplating St. Benedict's work, clearly emphasizes the goodness of labor. He appears to have added the matter of wearying those who were exuberant due to their youth, basically to limit their temptations to get into trouble. Benedict did not present this particular idea, rather focusing on moderation in all his teachings. But, the potential problem of strong young men being drawn away from their focus on prayer and right living was something Gregory may have encountered when he became Abbott of St. Andrew's. In his Dialogues (book II, which is about the life of St. Benedict; http://www.umilta.net/bennet.html), Gregory observes:
It is plain that in youth the temptation of the flesh is hot: but after fifty years the heat of the body waxes cold, and the souls of faithful people become holy vessels. Wherefore necessary it is that God's elect servants, while they are yet in the heat of temptation, should live in obedience, serve, and be wearied with labor and pains. But when, by reason of age, the heat of temptation is past, they become keepers of holy vessels; because they then are made the doctors of men's souls.
Benedict mentioned that the monks should "not be downcast" if they need to gather the harvest. Why would they be downcast? This was mentioned because the rules were formulated at a time when such work was considered to belong to slave laborers or hired hands, but not to those pursuing study and prayer for the saving of their own as well as other men's souls. It was precisely this incorrect attitude about physical labor that Benedict aimed to correct. Instead, he pointed out that men truly become monks when they live from the work of their hands as did the Apostles.
Though the instruction about labor by Benedict was brief (one out of seventy-three of his Rules), the daily duration of labor that was suggested was not so brief; it came to about 6 hours (minimum of about 5 hours), so it was a substantial part of the daily routine. Six hours may today seem tame (and certainly not exhausting to young strong men) given our standard of 8 hours per day at work, with some people exceeding that. However, much of this time was taken up by physical labor, often utilizing considerable strength and continual activity, and this period of six hours per day (for six days per week) did not include studies, which took up several additional hours. For many people today, these hours of study might be counted among the weekly hours of one's work, since the studies and work were two means to the same end.
Further, the importance to the monastery of the labor, being the source of its financial maintenance, made it was a central aspect of the monastic life for that reason as well. The monasteries were often established with the help of rich landowners who would donate the land (that they possessed or purchased for that purpose) and contribute to the building expenses. However, once established, the monastery members would work to be self sufficient, which often meant growing the food that had to be harvested and carrying out maintenance on the building, but also frequently involved producing something that could be sold to others to help pay for any other requirements that could not be fulfilled from the land. Monasteries could also gain support by housing those intrigued by monastic living who would pay for lodging and meals during a short visit.
Although the focus of this article is the body engaged in labor, the contribution of monastic labor to society and the influence it had on the population of Europe as a whole is of sufficient significance that it should be mentioned here. In his book How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (2005 Regnery Publishing, Washington, D.C.), Thomas Woods notes that experts on the Middle Ages consistently point to the important role played by the monks, many of them Benedictines or the reform monastic group of Cistercians (and, the later reform group called Trappists). Quoting one expert: "We owe the agricultural restoration of a great part of Europe to the monks," and another that: "Wherever they came, they converted the wilderness into a cultivated country; they pursued the breeding of cattle and agriculture, labored with their own hands, drained morasses, and cleared away forests. By them, Germany was rendered a fruitful country."
Laboring with their own hands was a critical factor, so the central point was not just the productivity of the monasteries, but the manner in which it was carried out. This approach was the opposite of turning over such projects to slaves or hired laborers who had no stake in the outcome other than their own survival and basic maintenance. Here, the monks would define an objective that was deemed beneficial in accordance with their understanding of Church's teaching, and undertake it despite the hardship it imposed. Reclaiming land for agriculture and animal husbandry fit with the many New Testament stories that had a basis in such things as fields of wheat, fruit trees (olive and fig), vineyards, and shepherding sheep. It also followed the Old Testament declaration (Genesis 1:27) that man should "subdue" the earth. The clearing of forests and swamps may today seem an environmentally counterproductive activity, but in those days (centuries ago) many parts of Europe were enclosed in the darkness of dense forests that blocked travel, offered little or no human plant food, and sheltered aggressive animals. Similarly, the morasses which we might today protect as "wetlands" were zones of pestilence that threatened the human towns and cities. Each monastery might have been directly involved in clearing a few hundred acres, yet it was often a vital transformation. The monks also planted trees and maintained ponds and waterways, and there remained plenty of areas in the world untouched, so theirs was not simply a mauling of nature as we too often worry about today when development threatens the few remaining natural resources.
So influential were the growing number of monasteries that they have been cited as the key source for the revitalization of Europe when it had fallen into disarray from invasions, plagues, and the counterproductive attitudes towards work and study. Woods points out: "Wherever they went, the monks introduced crops, industries, or production methods with which the people had not been previously familiar. Here they would introduce the rearing of cattle and horses, there the brewing of beer or the raising of bees or fruit. In Sweden, the corn [grain] trade owed its existence to the monks; in Parma, it was cheese making; in Ireland, salmon fisheries-and, in a great many places, the finest vineyards." The Cistercians, who attempted to restore what they saw as a faltering Benedictine system five hundred years after St. Benedict laid down his rules, began a new set of monasteries, 742 of them during the first two centuries. They also emphasized labor, but, as a result of the timing of their establishment, they became best known for introducing technological advances, including mining, metallurgy, and water power.
Benedict had cautioned in his rules about excessive labor and, particularly, about burdening those who, because of physical limitations, would find the work debilitating. But, for those who were healthy, the monks often embraced work that was difficult and unattractive (such as draining and then filling in and making useful the former swamp lands) because, as Woods suggests "such tasks were channels of grace and opportunities for mortification of the flesh." This type of mortification was not intended to weaken or damage the body, but to turn its actions to something constructive and body building, rather than something destructive, such as pursuing pleasures that ultimately benefited no one, that left the body weak, and brought the person into conflict with God. Hard work has an inherent value, it is a bonum arduum [something providing a benefit which is quite difficult], as described by St. Thomas and elaborated by John Paul II in Laborem Exercens:
And yet in spite of all this toil-perhaps, in a sense, because of it-work is a good thing for man. Even though it bears the mark of a bonum arduum in the terminology of St. Thomas, this does not take away the fact that, as such, it is a good thing for man. It is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man's dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it. If one wishes to define more clearly the ethical meaning of work, it is this truth that one must particularly keep in mind. Work is a good thing for man-a good thing for his humanity-because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed in a sense becomes "more a human being."
This transforming work is fulfilling, in contrast to idleness. Yet, the concern over idleness expressed by St. Paul and St. Benedict is not one which denounces any rest, but rather one which recognizes the tendency of people's minds to wander into unfavorable areas when not occupied with such things as work and study. It is the specific use of the body-during many hours of the day aimed towards a productive end and involving the mind at the same time-that yields both dignity and protection from harm. Manual labor is mentioned in Benedict's Rule, not just any kind of work. Manual labor exercises the body as well as having its results turned into a source of supporting income from transforming the things of nature. Manual labor occupies the body in a manner which supports spiritual progress. Such "work of the hands" is attributed to those who came before ("forefathers"), including the Apostles.
Sunday is a day of rest from physical labor, the Christian adaptation of the Sabbath, the day of rest under Jewish religious law. The Christian version is not as restrictive as that defined in the Jewish law, and the gospels present numerous stories in which Jesus challenged Sabbath rules, with the final proclamation that the Sabbath is for man, rather than man being dominated by the Sabbath laws (e.g., Mark 2:27). Rest is not the same as simple idleness, which is opposed even on Sunday. The rest is from labor and other forms of work. On Sunday, the Benedictines were to spend much of the time that would be spent the other days at labor to do reading, meditation, and prayer. Idleness was still the enemy, so that Benedict noted that "if anyone should be so careless and slothful that he will not or cannot meditate or read, let some work be given him to do, that he may not be idle."
Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical on Capital and Labor (Rerum Novarum, 1891), made the following comment distinguishing rest from idleness for employed laborers:
The rest from labor [for Sundays and certain holy days] is not to be understood as mere giving way to idleness; much less must it be an occasion for spending money and for vicious indulgence, as many would have it be; but it should be rest from labor, hallowed by religion. Rest (combined with religious observances) disposes man to forget for a while the business of his everyday life, to turn his thoughts to things heavenly, and to the worship which he so strictly owes to the eternal Godhead. It is this, above all, which is the reason and motive of Sunday rest; a rest sanctioned by God's great law of the Ancient Covenant-'Remember though keep holy the Sabbath day,' and taught to the world by His own mysterious 'rest' after the creation of man….
In addition, Leo XIII observed: "Man's powers, like his general nature, are limited, and beyond these limits he cannot go. His strength is developed and increased by use and exercise, but only on condition of due intermission and proper rest"
For those who are unable to perform physical labor or have limitations in their capabilities due to sickness, weakness, physical handicap, or age, idleness is still avoided according to Benedict's Rule, but work is to be pursued consistent with the person's capabilities. Benedict left it to the Abbott to determine what would constitute reasonable work for such individuals.
Today, many monasteries remain models of pursuing labor as a directive from God and as a benefit to the body, mind, and spirit. Therefore, we can turn to that source for ongoing inspiration in addition to examining the historical record of the monastic contributions to society. Further, Catholic and Orthodox theology of labor shines a bright light on this subject of concern to the modern world.
While daily reinforcement for comprehending the inherent value of labor is present at the monastery, for those who are not living as monks or nuns the potential easily arises for one to become despondent or rebellious. There can be no doubt that despite its inherent benefits some types of manual labor as well as other more sedentary work have the potential to generate unhappy states of mind. For example, a person might focus on such things as the hardship involved, the repetitive nature of many of the tasks, unexpected difficulties or failures, and the potential enjoyments of other activities were the labor over and done with or taken up by someone else. Recognizing this negativity that could arise, Metropolitan Gregory (Gregory Petrovich Posnikov of St. Petersburg, 1784-1860; Russian Orthodox) set out some suggested mental activities during and related to labor in his small book How to Live a Holy Life (1904 in Russian; 2005 Holy Trinity Monastery, in English).
Gregory first establishes that one should regard one's work, whatever it may be, as something to be done "because the Lord God demands it from you, and because that work is God's work-do it and say in your soul to God: 'O Lord, You assigned me this work: I am doing it in obedience to You and to please You.' Or: 'O Lord, bless my labor. It was not without Your will that I found myself in the position in which I live, and the work that I do or should do is the work demanded by my position. You assigned it to me, so bless me and help me.'"
He says that your attitude to your efforts should be that you will "do all your work from the soul, that is to say, gladly, with great pleasure, and-especially-without grumbling." He asks: "How can one do any kind of work for the Lord God unwillingly, grudgingly, and even more, with grumbling?" He also insists, referring to the cautions of St. Paul, that you "do every task required of your profession diligently and correctly, do not in any case permit unwarranted slowness and carelessness. Do everything as well as you possibly can, with a clear conscience." If one succeeds in doing so, however, he warns that you should "not take pride in this, and in particular do not ascribe the success in your work to your own powers. Rather always remember well that the Lord gave you that power."
What is one to do, though, with lack of success? Gregory assures that ill feelings only make matters worse:
If the work that you must do is difficult and demands particular effort, or is unpleasant and demeaning and demands particular patience, or is hindered, slowed, or upset by ill-intentioned people or by unfortunate circumstances, and leads you to despondency, or is little respected and even despised, do not be fainthearted, do not be lazy, and do not give in to any hostile feelings; do not give in to anger, impatience, vexation, grumbling, and so on. Will your work go better and will it be finished faster if you are, for example, lazy, grumbling, vexed, or angry, or use bad language? No, it will always go worse and more slowly, or may not even get done at all. My friend, it is bad to behave this way. Do not behave this way….
Instead, whether the work is progressing smoothly or with great trouble, he recommends certain thoughts about it, and gives specific ideas regarding a variety of sample professions, so that one can link the activities at hand with the teachings in the bible. Rather than repeat these here, which would be quite lengthy, one particular instruction for dealing with significant difficulties encountered with work is relayed below. This instruction may reflect upon the teachings in the Book of Job, though he doesn't make the connection directly: "Why do I suffer in my work?" Think about it this way:
The work which seems to me to be so difficult and unpleasant is undoubtedly very salvific for my soul. God does nothing without the most saving intentions for us. He very much wants to save all people. Therefore, of course, He desires the same for me. Without His action and foresight, I would have been lost long ago. Having assigned me the work at hand, He undoubtedly wishes to deliver me from grievous sins or from serious temptations, errors, of great consequence, or other dangers. I shall do my work wholeheartedly.
There is, of course, one requirement of us in pursuing work, and that is rejecting work which is "incompatible with the law of God."
Today, as has occurred throughout the past, there is considerable confusion about labor. Its purpose may be reduced in our minds to something solely for the paycheck, or something that appears only to benefit the owner of a business, or something that is tolerated only until a better job comes along. With such an attitude, the work may be seen as unpleasant or unworthy and one can generate anger and the oft-mentioned response of grumbling; quality of work can then decline, thus harming those who might otherwise be benefited by the fruits of the labor, as well as having a negative impact on one's own soul.
In the modern age more than before, with the multiplication of labor-saving technologies and the development of numerous jobs that have limited physical activity, people may come to shun physical labor and other physical activities. As a result, it is easier for the mind to wander into areas that are unhealthy for the spirit, and also for the body to deteriorate into a condition that is unhealthy for life itself. Thus, we observe today the serious medical toll from sedentary life style and mental deterioration from encroaching addictions to all kinds of activities that require little physical work to accomplish but which scatter the focus of the mind from important and eternal concerns to attempts (often unsuccessful) at immediate gratification. This is precisely what St. Paul warned against, the call taken up by St. Benedict and by St. Gregory, and restated by Metropolitan Gregory and many others in an effort to save people from this conundrum.
It is important to recognize that not all valuable work involves substantial physical labor. A good example from the monastic period is the librarian. The Benedictine monasteries served a critical role in European civilization, copying, retaining, and cataloguing the intellectual works at a time when confusion and destruction dominated the cities. The keepers of the records, aside from sometimes handling large heavy volumes, had a sedentary job of great value. Today, with the much greater emphasis on information handling and the increased reliance on mechanized labor, a substantial number of important jobs involve little manual labor. All this work is of importance; John Paul II elaborated in Laborem Exercens:
Through work man must earn his daily bread and contribute to the continual advance of science and technology and, above all, to elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society within which he lives in community with those who belong to the same family. And work means any activity by man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances; it means any human activity that can and must be recognized as work, in the midst of all the many activities of which man is capable and to which he is predisposed by his very natures, by virtue of humanity itself.
The person involved in the professions with little manual labor still must take care to observe the guidelines laid out in such straightforward manner by Metropolitan Gregory. Further, some attention needs to be given to the physical requirements of bodily health and the way in which physical activities can also benefit the mind and spirit. Thus, some tasks of manual work, whether cooking, gardening, wood-working, or other "work of the hands," should accompany the mental activities of non-physical jobs. These physical activities help to compensate for potential effects on the body of spending many hours in sedentary study, prayer, and so on. For those constrained by a physical disability, there may be no choice other than to be excused from physical labor, but then, at the least, the tasks can be undertaken with the positive attitude described above.
Note: the bible translations provided in this article are from the New International Version (rather than the New Jerusalem Bible). The translations from the NIV are particularly well-suited to the subject at hand.