I have just returned from a week’s retreat at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT. The Abbey was founded in 1947 in gratitude for the American liberation of France during the Second World War. From its foundation, the life of the abbey and its community has been rooted in the land. Today the community maintains dairy and beef cattle, chickens, sheep, vegetable and flower gardens, and an orchard. They make cheese, butter, and yogurt; spin and weave wool; sculpt; paint; make pottery; and so much more. They are living the traditional Benedictine life that so many other communities have abandoned: one in intimate partnership with the land, where physical labor and prayer become twin pillars holding up the life of faith and discipleship.
The nuns at Regina Laudis don’t offer retreat programming the way we do here at Holy Cross Monastery. Rather, they invite their guests to join them in the rhythm of prayer and work that structures their days. During my week with them I harvested raspberries, cleared brush, loaded sheep into trucks, cleaned the church, weeded flower beds, mowed lawns, and weed whacked overgrown hillsides. I have rarely felt so alive. It was a hot week, and I came home with a suitcase full of sweat drenched, smelly clothing. But my sweat, the heat of my body, and my beating heart all told me that I was a living, breathing, embodied creature of God, not separate from the earth and its people, but one with them.
I am used to thinking about the unitive power of a community’s prayer. One of the functions of the Divine Office is that it knits the community together into one praying body. We breathe together, and then we sing together. But I came away from my retreat time more aware of the unitive power of work, and particularly of manual labor. Using my body to tend and steward the land left me feeling more whole–with a greater unity of body, mind, and spirit. But it also led me to feel united with the rest of the community of workers and prayers (both nuns and guests). We were all engaged in a common enterprise, and not only a mental and spiritual one, but an embodied one.
The Abbess Emerita, Mother David, writes of the unifying power of prayer and work in her autobiography on the Abbey’s website.
I knew that even if I spent my whole life in social work I could only do a very little. There had to be another way for me to help. It was that search for another dimension in which to give myself that finally drove me into the monastery. Then, of course, the question is, ‘Did that meet your desire?’ Yes, because in complement to that vast world of need that stretches from end to end is that vast world of interior struggle for redeemed innocence, which by morphic resonance communicates faith, hope and charity. It was that interior struggle I took on in entering the monastery. It is my hope that as we seek to live the covenantal life into which we have been baptized, consciously confronting the demons that assail us and opting for the good of one another, the whole world will be changed for the better. I believe that was the vision St. Benedict entrusted to us when he saw the whole world in a single ray of light.
There is an almost inexplicable connection between groundedness in the body and the earth and what Mother David so beautifully calls “the vast world of interior struggle for redeemed innocence.” As we seek to tend the ground as good stewards of creation, we make the conscious decision to act like Adam and Eve before they ate the fruit: humankind in harmony with the earth, one another, and God. This vision of redeemed innocence, a vision the nuns of Regina Laudis live with such faithfulness (though, of course, never perfectly) serves as an antidote to the alienation from self, other, the earth, and God that so plagues our world today.
While I was at the abbey I bought a print of Sts. Benedict and Scholastica (the title photo of this post). The original is by Tomie daPaola. I hope it serves as a reminder to me of the holy twins of ora and labora, that both are necessary for my own and my community’s wholeness. Prayer and work are, ultimately, one thing and they lay the groundwork for contemplation and unity in Christ.
If you are interested in joining our community’s rhythm of prayer and work, check out our garden and library volunteer retreats. If the dates of those retreats don’t work for you, contact our guesthouse manager, Lori (firstname.lastname@example.org), and tell her you’re interested in a retreat that includes work time.
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