Attack Your Day Like a Monk

Originally published on the TowerHill Blog.

Every year I step away from my work for a week to delve deeper into the study of my faith. This year, I’m studying the last two thousand years of church history. Just yesterday I was reading about the monastic life that sprung out of the sixth century with St. Benedict, the father of Western monasticism.

St. Benedict’s Rule for monks living communally centered on the concept of a life of work and prayer (called “ora et labora”). In order to achieve this, Benedict may have been one of the first formal “time blockers” ever.

The monastic 24 hour day of prayer, contemplation, study and manual labor consisted of:

  • Liturgical prayer in community – 4 hours
  • Private prayer and scriptural reading – 4 hours
  • Physical Labor – 6 hours
  • Meals and sleep – ten hours

A quick observation of this strategy tells us that monks are well rested and they make time for serious study and work. Plus, the result of their work has given us excellent beer!

Not only did they pass along great beer to centuries of thirsty Europeans, this schedule was the basis of transferring western thought across the continent and throughout the world. Most importantly, their focused work allowed for the preservation and reproduction of the vulgate bible and many other great works of literature. Before the university systems, monasteries were the place to become literate, learn a trade (farming, metal work etc) and learn languages (Latin and Greek). The monasteries increased in number, and sprung up in the countryside. The walls provided not only a place of learning, but also of relative safety. Aided by the monk’s influence, nomadic tribes settled down and transitioned to living in communities near the monasteries.

Now imagine you are a Germanic tribesman. Option one: A life on the road, pillaging the next town for a living, long trips away from the family, the health risks of doing battle frequently. Option two: The settled life of having a farm, a place nearby for the kids to learn, an ironworker down the road when the mule needs new shoes and a fortification to help defend against a passing band of visigoths. Option two is a no-brainer.

The monks provided the groundwork for a massive cultural revolution. And it all started with their focus on prioritizing their days to crank out serious work, study and prayer. They created a peaceful environment that was inviting to even the most hardened tribesman.

An observation about our own work:

I often encounter agents, business owners and other professionals who attack their work with all of the fierceness of a Germanic nomad warrior. We are told to follow our passions, and we take this to mean that virtue is to actively respond to all needs of clients, every text, email and call at any hour, and the tasks bleed into – and consume – every hour of every day. It seems that we can’t escape the lifestyle.

And then we run into that person who seems to get so much done and to be incredibly happy, fit, well-rested, and have time for reading and family life. They are immediately attractive. At first we think defensively and make excuses for ourselves: “They must be lazy, have a trust fund, be lucky or perhaps especially gifted.”

Turns out, they just live a more purposeful, slightly monastic life in the whirlwind of daily life. This year, will your choices of daily focused priorities lay the groundwork for doing great work and changing the lives of those who come by the inviting walls of your good life?  

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