‘Part of the secret of monastic living is moving the emphasis from the objective productivity of what is done to the subjective dispositions in which it is done.’
—Michael Casey, OCSO
Every morning I wake up, I nearly hit my head on a ceiling of all that I might want to accomplish. They accumulate at different heights. Hanging just above me as I sleep is the rent check I still need to deliver. At sitting-up height are two of the articles I could have written by now, which are in the shadows of all the articles I know I can and so probably should compose at some point. Looming on top are the books I want to publish one day. And filling the spaces between are the emails, the chores, the returned phone calls—and my daily devotional practices, to be generous.
One of the greatest lies that I spend these years of my life unlearning is that I am what I produce. The flip side of that belief is this: I am all that I fail to accomplish.
As a result, the temptation of my days is to manage my sense of self and sense of value by what I can check off my lists and look back through the day and feel I’ve been productive. It’s a common measure for our life. How often I hear in answer to, How was your day? “Not very productive,” or, “Good, it was a productive afternoon.”
Our attention is often on the externals.
A Trappist monk for many decades, Michael Casey, OCSO, writes of the transition into monastic life that it requires a crucial shift. Not from active, embodied life to a contemplative, otherworldly life. Far from it. Trappist life is marked by manual labor, and the farming, maintenance and woodcutting done by each able brother sustain their community, letting them eat and stay warm in the winter. Instead, despite the practical need for production, it’s a shift of emphasis from productivity to posture, from what is done to how it’s done—from externals to the interior.
In other words, how much of the field I plow today must be of secondary importance. What’s more important is how I might perform my daily chore in love, nurturing virtues of humility and patience, and practicing moment-to-moment attention to the transformative love of Gød. A monastic community that develops a house full of efficient, diligent laborers motivated by pride, filled with resentment and lacking self-awareness will have failed to sustain itself. The ultimate purpose of monastic labor is to cultivate souls. Learning to do this in the course of our daily activity, Casey suggests, must be patiently learned.
This requires that my attention move inward, to where I am, to where Gød is working with the various states of my mind and movements of my heart, throughout all my activity and stillness.
Likewise, for us, it’s perhaps less important how much we read of the Bible today, how long we pray and how effectively we serve. We might shift our attention instead to how much anything we do or refrain from doing brings us closer to Gød in love, to how we might move toward Gød in ways that inwardly increase our love regardless of their outward reality. This is the ultimate purpose of every activity available to us: religious, recreational, occupational.
St Paul writes, “Whatever you eat or drink, or whatever you do everything for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 11). Whatever you do, Gød’s desire is that it would be a means by which to draw you deeper into Gød’s love for you and for the world. Whatever the external aspect of our actions—however great or little, fruitful or frustrated, faithful or frail—Gød’s desire is for the inside, where Gød will meet you in love.