In his justly celebrated new book, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance, Senator Ben Sasse recommends manual labor as a way for children to inculcate self-reliance and overcome habits of passivity. Sasse broaches issues here that are developed in greater detail in Matthew Crawford’s popular book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. Both tap into a wisdom with roots in the ancient, Benedictine monastic tradition. Combining ora et labora, prayer and work, the Benedictines cultivate silence and reverent speech alongside meaningful, productive work, two practices that for many of us are fading from our world.
A dramatic example of the commitment to such a life is evident in the relatively new Benedictine community in Norcia, Italy, in the mountains about 70 miles northeast of Rome. In 2016 a series of earthquakes wreaked havoc in central Italy. Among the towns hit hard was Norcia, an area known for stunning views of the Apennine Mountains and for its culinary delights: truffles, cheese, and wine. The town’s fame has much to do with its being the birthplace of Saint Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism. The Basilica di San Benedetto and the adjoining monastery, which Benedictine monks had inhabited continuously for 16 years, was seriously damaged in the first series of quakes, in late summer. The monks evacuated and moved to lodgings outside the town. Their timing was fortunate, as a second quake, in late October, leveled the basilica, leaving only the façade standing, and reduced the monastery and much of the town to rubble.
The monks takes vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and also of stability. They have elected to remain in the vicinity and are rebuilding on the outskirts of town. What is striking about their plan is that, while it certainly involves fundraising, it will not depend on any government money. Instead, they focus on an entrepreneurial vision that attends closely to the role of craft-skills in the life they commit to as Benedictine monks.
The prior, Father Benedict Nivakoff, explains that the Italian government has required banks to offer funding to towns that suffered earthquake damage. But, as is clear from the recent bailout, the banking system, with the help of questionable policies of both the Italian government and the European Union, is at the root of what Father Benedict calls the “Italian economic disaster.” Rather than encourage further individual and national debt, the monks have elected to forgo government assistance.
The spirit of self-reliance traces its origins to Saint Benedict of Norcia, whose Regula, or Rule, a series of precepts for monks living in community, is the most influential document in Western monasticism. Benedict was born in Nursia — the Latin name for Norcia — and the site of his birth, in the fifth century, has been a destination for pilgrims as far back as the eighth century. Monks arrived and settled in the tenth century and remained until 1810, when the Napoleonic Code compelled them to flee. The current community, established in Rome, moved to Norcia in 2000. In an unusual populist twist, the town’s citizens had sent a petition to Rome to request that the monks return to Norcia after nearly two centuries.
The monks, many of whom are Americans, are not at all daunted by having to build from the ground up. “Starting from scratch,” Father Benedict observes, enables the monks to lead lives “closer to the life of Saint Benedict himself.” As John Henry Newman wrote in his famous essay, “The Mission of Saint Benedict,” Benedict “found the world, physical and social, in ruins, and his mission was to restore it.” Under the leadership of Charlemagne, the Benedictine model of monastic life grew prevalent; during a period of political upheaval, the monasteries came to occupy a central stabilizing role throughout much of Europe. They shaped everything from land use and trade to the cultural and religious lives of citizens.
With their arrival in Norcia in 2000, the monks helped to invigorate the local economy. True to their vow of stability, they now hope to aid in the recovery and rebuilding efforts. So committed are they to Norcia that they named their widely acclaimed beer, Birra Nursia, not after Benedict or another saint but after the town. Fortunately, the brewery was not destroyed in the quakes, and the monks have begun brewing again even as they prepare to break ground on a new brewery this month.
Rather than encourage further individual and national debt, the monks have elected to forgo government assistance in their plan to rebuild Norcia.
Unlike some monastic breweries, where production has outstripped the capacity of the monks to perform hands-on the basic functions of all the brewing, the Birra Nursia brewery will remain small in scale. The goal, says brewmaster Brother Augustine, is to keep the operation within the monastery and under the direct control of the monks. Beyond being a source of revenue to support the monastery, beer provides an access point for many who have no experience of monasticism. It humanizes the monks. They even speak of “brew evangelization.” The motto of the brewery, taken from the Psalms, is Ut laetificat cor, “That the heart might be gladdened.”
The entrepreneurial spirit of the monks is evident not just in the beer but also in their best-selling CD of monastic chant, for which they have received a good deal of acclaim. Even more impressive, in the building process itself they are doing a good bit of the physical construction themselves, under the guidance of experienced construction workers.
Monastic tradition elevates lowly things, particularly manual labor. The great philosophical tradition of thinking about the good life, inaugurated in Plato and Aristotle, denigrated manual labor as befitting slaves. Stressing humility and the wholesomeness of working with one’s hands, Saint Benedict saw manual labor as part of the monastic calling. Brother Augustine speaks of the virtues of “intense manual labor,” activities that are “peaceful, quiet, and contemplative.” The monks integrate their labor into their life of prayer, for which they keep an arduous schedule, beginning at 3:30 in the morning and ending around 8 in the evening.
In a world where increasingly we dwell in virtual realms and both work and personal relationships are growing detached from the body and the material world , “perhaps the time is ripe,” as Matt Crawford suggests, “for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world.” In his famous essay from which his influential book takes its title, Crawford observes that “a decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them.”
Manual labor offers rich lessons in humility, in the limits to our ability to control the external world, and in the ways that the world resists our desires. It reminds us that truth is a matter of conforming ourselves to what is real rather than designing a world to suit our wishes. “Craftsmanship must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away,” Crawford writes, sounding a Benedictine note.
Of course, for the Benedictines, all this talk about limits and shortcomings rests on a deeper insight: namely, that both the physical universe and our very selves are gifts from a God who generously invites us into communion with him. Paradoxically, the highest act of self-reliance is the free and conscious act of worship of the divine.
— Thomas S. Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University and director of the Baylor in Washington program.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been emended since its initial posting.