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24 January 2008

What matters is not the sacrifice, but the music

The role of work is central to the Benedictine way of life

By Catherine Wybourne

Benedict places a high spiritual value on work, especially the kind of manual work that leaves the mind free to meditate. Western society, by and large, does not value such work or exalts it into a kind of DIY salvation (often labelled “being Green”). Nuns do not choose their own work, it is given, along with the clothing and everything else. I found the transition from the worlds of academe and finance to life in the kitchen and scullery quite hard at first. I certainly resonated with the early Cistercians who wrote of how they would sometimes fall asleep over their reading, so tired were they by their labours. Work is not prayer, but it can be transformed by prayer.

Assignment to the printing room brought with it two great blessings: I began to work alongside a woman of rare nobility and huge moral stature, D. Hildelith Cumming, who made me think about the white space on the page, the colour of black, the texture and smell of paper and ink, the moral import of all we do. I also found in my Junior Mistress, D. Gertrude Brown, a wise and generous friend, with whom I could argue to my heart’s content about all the questions that bubbled up inside. Both were as one in focusing on the contemplative quest, in “preferring nothing whatever to Christ”.

Then my world fell apart. The next few years were lonely and difficult, made all the more so because I was forced into a position where I could not openly tell all I knew and had to endure a number of false accusations. This shook my faith in the Church and her institutions, but a single sentence of the Rule, to which I had clung during a bad patch as a novice came to act as a lifeline, “Never despair of God’s mercy”. It is very easy during times of stress and difficulty to end up only half-believing, challenging God to act and yet at the same time being unprepared for God to do so.

Just before Christmas 2003 my superiors indicated I would have to leave Stanbrook, at least for a while. Never for a moment did I doubt that I was called to live a monastic life. For me, there is simply no other way of being a Christian. All the disciplines of the monastery, silence, prayer, asceticism, chastity and so on, have become part and parcel of my life – because they are the only way in which I can be the person I am meant to be. What others often consider limitations on human freedom are actually a means to achieving that freedom. Just as one cannot learn to play the piano unless one devotes time to it, and must therefore choose not to spend that time on something else, so one cannot become a harp of the Holy Spirit, and allow God to play upon one, unless one is prepared to make certain sacrifices. What matters is not the sacrifice but the music.

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