Holy Work, by Dom Rembert Sorg

Book Review

holyworksmallTitle:  Holy Work: Toward a Benedictine Theology of Manual Labor

Author:  Dom Rembert Sorg

Publisher:  Santa Ana, CA: Source Books, 2003

Reviewer:  Josh Sweeden, Ph.D. student in Practical Theology

Originally published in 1951, Dom Rembert Sorg’s theological engagement of the Benedictine understanding of manual labor remains a classic text today. The latest edition, published in 2003, contains a preface written by Brian Terrell, O.S.B., and member of the Strangers and Guests Catholic Worker Farm in Maloy, Iowa. This new edition, with a preface by Terrell, displays the profound influence Sorg’s text has had not only for Benedictine monasteries but also for contemporary movements like the Catholic Worker which draws heavily from the Benedictine tradition. Indeed, after examining the correlations between the Catholic Worker Movement and Sorg’s text, Brian Terrell exclaims, “I am anxious to get it [Sorg’s text] into the hands of Benedictine and Catholic Worker friends and look forward to the discussions it will spark” (xvi). Concurrent with Terrell, it should also be said that many today, particularly various expressions of intentional communities, will greatly benefit from Sorg’s text and discover a new (or possibly renewed) discussion partner in St. Benedict, the Benedictine Rule, and Sorg’s analysis.

According to Sorg, manual labor follows a monk’s “profession to follow the way of perfection in Christian poverty and charity” (4). The terms poverty and charity shape Sorg’s analysis of manual labor and the monastic tradition throughout the text. While Sorg argues for the centrality of manual labor in the contemplative life, which is, “only the life of faith, sincerely and honestly lived,” he also recognizes that manual labor is not embraced within all monastic tradition(s) and not even in the entirety of the Benedictine tradition. Sorg’s task, therefore, is to raise again the centrality of manual labor for the contemplative Christian life. His text addresses more than monastic communities—though he argues neither poverty nor charity are possible without some form of community—but also the “laity,” who Sorg hopes to show the applicability of his theology of manual labor toward the development of an “ideal social order” (75). It is important to note that Sorg’s “ideal social order” is neither an attempt at, nor an assumption of Christendom.   Sorg’s ideal is a form of “Christian Communism” found in “economically independent communities which renounce the system that is run by the spirit of the world” (81). Not suprisingly, Sorg’s two primary elements of “Christian Communism” are poverty and charity.

Other elements do help compose Sorg’s vision of the Christian community, but poverty and charity are distinctive in light of capitalism and modern constructions of work. Sorg states that Liberalism, which readily expresses itself economically in capitalism, “logically and inevitably makes a king of avarice because it excludes God and gives free play to human nature’s inherited concupiscence” (xviii). As follows, “labor, which is supposed to be a glorious expression of God’s own image and likeness and of love, has become a marketable commodity, valued in dollars and cents, and bought and sold like hogs and potatoes” (xix). Monks, writes Sorg, were pledged to a life of poverty and charity, and because of this “character of their profession…monks had to work” (12). So manual Labor is not only connected ontologically with humanity and our image and likeness of God, argues Sorg, but is instrumental for the embodiment of two fundamental characteristics of “Christ’s work”: poverty and charity.

Jesus’ poverty “repudiated any ownership” of things and thus, a pledge to voluntary poverty would mean that “labor is not to be done for money or any private ownership.” Sorg goes on to say that this “ideal can be realized only in the Christian community” (25). Community members must labor together to be self-supported. This was a central theme of the ancient monastic theology of manual labor prescribed by St. Antony based on his understandings of Paul (5).   Because poverty, expressed primarily in non-ownership, is a Benedictine pledge, manual labor is a necessity. In the history of Benedictine practice, manual labor has not always been prescribed as it had by St. Benedict. The “clericalising” of the monks, the overburdening of monasteries with “too much liturgy,” the “secularization” of monasteries, and “the Intellectual movement” all encouraged the detriment of manual labor in Benedictine monasteries. Clericalization and liturgy placed significant time demands on monks, replacing the central role of daily labor, while intellectualism “substituted” manual labor for study and education. But it was under secularization that “wealth abounded so that there was no economic necessity to work for a living” (55). The centrality of manual labor in Benedictine monasticism is directly tied to the voluntary poverty of monks seeking to live into the characteristics of Christ’s work.

Christ’s “whole spirit proclaims charity” (25).   As a central characteristic of the work of Christ it is a pledge of monks to live charitable lives.   Christian manual labor “finds its ideal and perfection when it is wrought entirely for Christ in the person of the hungry and naked, and not at all for self” (24). Like poverty, charity and almsgiving “necessarily requires community; in the individual members it excludes the motive of self-support. Thus, ideally, the community supports itself while the individual member works entirely for others and never for himself” (12). Manual labor allows for charitable living as the entirety of monastic life is lived for the sake of others. Monastic self-supporting communities ensure that through their manual labor their needs are met, freeing the community from dependence on others from and the burden of seeking support. Also, for the monks, all life was a form of almsgiving. Everything done was for the sake of another—never to build private wealth—which meant that hospitality became a natural outflow of the monastery (101).

Despite the instrumental function of manual labor in sustaining poverty and charity within the community, all work “belongs to the pristine condition of human nature and there is an ontological desire in man [sic] to do it” (17). Sorg understands manual labor to be a “fundamental trait of Christ’s revolution” and therefore dignified in the new creation. He states that the “whole dignifying of manual labor is distinctively Christian” by which he means that the humble are exalted, the proud are disposed, and the distinction between slave and free is erased (79). Manual labor is not, at least within the “ideal social order” to be the work of the marginalized and oppressed—there is no degradation in manual labor or stratification of labor at all.