Work and the Monks of Mount Athos

All of us intrinsically know there are more and less productive uses of our time. Even a man inflicted with atrocious sloth knows this fact. Putting this instinct to use is, of course, more difficult than simply acknowledging it. Productivity extends into work, of which various types of productive value exist. To be clear, I do not think anyone would say that profitability is the primary measure of a job’s worth. Life experience is a form of payment that is, arguably, just as important. No one can convince me that the hedge fund manager on Wall Street has lived half the life of the lobster man in Beals. There are many value judgments one can make about work, but out of all of them, only one really interests me.

Imagine a moment of silence after a long day of work. At that moment you can clear your mind, and all that’s left to focus on is God. This is a rather nebulous description. Unfortunately, it is the best way I can describe it. There is, however, a good example to depict the most rigorous pursuit of this kind of work.

The monks of the island of Mount Athos spend all day praying and working, often simultaneously. Every day they celebrate thousands of divine liturgies. It is the center of Orthodox spirituality, and while these men fight in spiritual war they still labor. These humble, tonsured ascetics have found their ultimate purpose in work—in devotion to the Lord. 

A typical day for a monk begins early. As soon as they wake up, they begin orthros, a simple preparatory service for the divine liturgy (about the length of a typical Protestant service). When they finally leave for lunch, the spirit of edification is still present. As they eat, the wisdom of the Church Fathers is read to them, and conversation is minimal. Eventually, it is time for the awaited holy liturgy, which is celebrated with the utmost solemnity. 

This is just a taste of a day on the Holy Mountain. Much more is done. In between their devotion, work is constant. To maintain separation from the world, the peninsula must be self-sufficient; there is food to be harvested and prepared, there are buildings on the grounds to be kept. In all this, the monks never depart from prayer. The commitment to prayer and spiritual focus, even while in toil, is awe-inspiring.

There is only one particular type of work where this devotion is cultivated most efficiently, however—simple jobs. Not unskilled jobs, but jobs that have a degree of mindlessness to them. You must find silence in which to work. 

Mount Athos is often called the Mountain of Silence. The monks do not listen to music. They practice a profound quietness. Occasionally a prayer will sneak out of their mouths. Unintentionally, they will pass from the mind to the lips, yet quietness reigns on the mountain. There is immense peace there, a rarity in our world! We have a hard time finding work where escape is also possible. Consequently, it is hard to attempt what the monks do so rigorously. However, this does not mean we cannot find similar respite.

We can create time for the simple tasks that cultivate our souls. It may be in the form of a job. It may be in the form of a hobby. Even our mandatory chores: cleaning, cooking, and the drudgery of life—all of it can be turned into an opportunity for a profound connection with God. It is in the little things where we can separate from the world and experience our Creator.

Categories: Faith

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments