Ora et Labora: Finding Peace at a Benedictine Monastery

Westminster Abbey in Mission, British Columbia.
Westminster Abbey in Mission, British Columbia.

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to do a retreat at a Benedictine monastery on a hill with a stunning view of the Fraser River Valley in southern British Columbia. There are fifty monks currently in residence; some of them are older and some of them are younger, but they all live the way Benedictines have been living for centuries, following the age-old dictum of their order: ora et labora (“pray and work”). Five times a day, their bell tolls and they all silently make their way to the chapel where they chant the Psalms, joining their voices to the eternal praises of the angels in Heaven.

When they are not praying in community, they are fulfilling their duties in running their monastery. Some work the farm and care for their beef cattle, while others run the major and minor seminaries that are attached to the abbey. Some work in the kitchen, others in maintenance, and others in the sacristy. Some of the monks are expert scholars and one is even a renowned artist, but all follow the same schedule and share equally in the community’s labors.

A view of the Fraser River Valley from the Abbey.
A view of the Fraser River Valley looking east from the abbey.

The life of a monk is one that is lived on the threshold of Heaven and Earth. When he is praying, the monk directs his attention entirely to God and the things of above; when he is working, he remains in communion with God, but he turns his attention to the Earth and seeks to sanctify and cultivate it by the work of his hands, ordering it in accordance with God’s Will. The Benedictine monk has no worldly ambitions; rather, he lives a simple and content life on a hill-top monastery, cultivating and sanctifying the small corner of the world to which God has called him.

An Invaluable Lesson

When I was at the abbey, I experienced the monks’ life, and I loved it. I loved the soft mellow cadence of their chant and the steady rhythm of their daily schedule. I loved the simplicity of their lifestyle and the spiritual freedom that it engenders. I relished my time with them, realizing that before long I would be back in New York City, far away from their haven of peace and quiet. The abbey was my Rivendell, a final resting place before going on to face new and unknown challenges.

The monastery chapel during vespers.
The abbey chapel during vespers.

I now find myself in the northeast Bronx, far away from the tranquility of southern British Columbia. Instead of chirping birds and tolling bells, my daily background noise is the never-ending drone of traffic on I-95 and the roaring of jets landing at LaGuardia. However, despite my new surroundings, which may not seem conducive to serenity, the peace that I found at the abbey still remains with me thanks to an idea that came to me while I was there: no matter where you find yourself, you can always live on the threshold between Heaven and Earth. You can always live in God’s presence, because doing so is part of being Christian.

I may not be living in a Benedictine hill-top monastery (although my parish is named after St. Benedict!), but God has given me my own corner of the world in which he is calling me to help sanctify with my prayer and work. I may not be chanting the Psalms daily in community, but I will be raising my heart and mind to God every time I attend mass or privately pray the Liturgy of the Hours. I may not be tilling the soil or engaging in other forms of monastic manual labor, but I nevertheless will be  working daily in my new parish assignment to bring our neighborhood closer to God. Whether I am teaching religious education, visiting shut-ins, or studying Scripture, I will be doing my small part to sanctify this small corner of  New York City where God has called me to live this upcoming year.

A Lesson for Us All

The lesson I learned with the monks is something we can all benefitimage from: peace comes when we accept our Christian calling to live on the threshold of Heaven and Earth. Peace comes when, instead of being consumed by worldly ambitions, we live with eyes set on Heaven and seek to sanctify our respective corners of the world with our daily work and prayer. 

Your corner of the world is the neighborhood where you live, the job you have, and the family you are in. You sanctify your corner of the world by praying for the people God has put with you and working to bring them closer to God through the charity and responsibility with which you carry out your duties.

Very few of us are called to be monks, but we are all called to peace, a peace that comes through lives that are full of God-centered work and silent prayer: ora et labora. 

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2 thoughts on “Ora et Labora: Finding Peace at a Benedictine Monastery”

  1. Lovely reflection. I’ve seen many catholic mothers refer to home and home life as their “domestic monastery”. You’ve hit on a very similar idea here, and one that works across every vocation.

    Liked by 1 person

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