Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Ora et Labora

In the Benedictine Rule, physical work is a part of the daily discipline the Religious follow, for St. Benedict, who was touted as the founder of western monasticism, knew that a person couldn’t spend every hour of a day studying and praying. He felt that monks, nuns, brothers, and sisters should perform tasks like baking bread, cleaning up the kitchen, cooking, or working the ground to produce food that would sustain the Order and the needy who came to the doors of the monastery. This work wasn’t isolated from worship and was communal in context. Also, St. Benedict expected the Religious to be good stewards. He believed that a person could find God in work, and if that individual used his hands to carry out a physical task, he’d be involved in the act of praising God. Esther de Waal, renowned author of books about the Benedictine way of life, writes:
 “So that in all things God may be glorified is the common end of all work in the monastery. If the only point of reference is self, then work can easily become all engrossing, sometimes fulfilling, sometimes destructive, but either way is a barrier from God…”
And she tells us that those who followed the Rule approached work in the same way that they approached their possessions for “what we have and what we do belong to the life on loan from God…”
At St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee, Tennessee, where we worship when we sojourn on The Mountain, the Sisters of St. Mary observe the Benedictine Rule in the same manner as St. Benedict’s early followers – praying at prescribed times during the day and studying scripture. And in the realm of work, they cook, preserve food, clean the kitchen, offer hospitality to those from the outside world who worship with them, (as well as to dogs and cats) and raise vegetables and fruit for their table and for the tables of the needy. They have always maintained a garden, and at one time, their work included raising cattle.
Just last week, The Sisters were awarded a grant by the Jessie Ball DuPont Foundation to support a project called the Organic Prayer Project, a joint effort between the Center for Religion and the Environment at the University of the South and the Sisters of St. Mary, Sewanee. Under the direction of Michael Thompson, a Benedictine oblate, the grant will allow the Sisters to expand their vegetable and meditation gardens by providing funds for a well, drip irrigation, and for seeds and plants.
“The grant will allow us to upgrade our kitchen so we will be able to can garden produce on a greater scale and to make a meditation trail/wildlife sanctuary on our property off St. Mary’s Lane,” said Sr. Julian, sister-in-charge of St. Mary’s. In 2013, the Sisters plan to maintain a pasture and a barn, and to provide feed for sheep, alpaca, and, perhaps, goats.
Healthy late summer crop 
“A goal of the Organic Prayer Project is to generate love and respect for God’s creation and to look at ideas such as sustainability and good stewardship of the earth,” Sr. Julian added. “The project will provide hands-on experience for students involved with the Center for Religion and Environment and hopefully for the Episcopal Service Corps. It will also provide opportunities for individuals and groups, such as seminary students, to prayerfully encounter God’s creation. We plan to use the site for formal retreats.” Another goal of the project is to generate income from sale of canned goods, wool/yarn, and cheese.
“We hope to widen our involvement with, and service to, our community of Sewanee and the wider world, and at the same time provide a solid financial structure for the convent,” Sister Julian said.
For those of us who aren’t savvy about organic gardening, the phrase means to improve and maximize the health of the garden soil and to produce healthy plants without using synthetic commercial fertilizers, fungicides, or pesticides.
Congratulations and kudos to the Sisters for obtaining this grant and for making all of us in the post-modern world aware of St. Benedict’s Rule regarding the stewardship of the earth.

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