On December 10th, 1941, Thomas Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemani as a novice. A few days later, after graduating college last December, I entered the same monastery as a worker.
What sparked this change of explosive direction in my future? Why did I forsake my years of education?
Well, I must begin with when I first felt the tension. I was working at a factory that prints magazines. Amidst the dimly lit facility, besides the noisy machines, face to face with people who didn’t look content, I reflected deeply as I did my work, coming to the conclusion that I wouldn’t find contentment in this. Fyodor Dostoevsky was an engineer as well as a writer, so both can be done simultaneously. Yet, to reconcile the artistic aspect of my personality, concerned with ideas and the spiritual, and the exhausting, brute, almost dehumanizing, work of a factory seemed an impossibility.
A few days after starting this new job, I was talking with my priest. Somehow, we began to talk about the silent retreats of Gethsemani, of which he is an ardent admirer. He mentioned that those old monks may have jobs available, and that perhaps I might enjoy working there.
I considered the idea for a couple weeks. I applied for a job at a water treatment plant; that would be quiet and tolerable, I thought. I eventually called the monastery and asked if they had any jobs open. A few days later, a monk told me that they didn’t have any full-time jobs available at the moment, but that I could take part-time work if I desired.
The next day, I went in for a quasi-interview and was hired on the spot. The day after that, the water treatment plant, for a providential reason I assume, declined me. And so it was. I would work with the monks or not at all.
I gave up a lot of money by entering this line of work. I gave up benefits. I gave up many apparent things, but I also gained many others things, of which one day I will realize.
What is it like to work with monks? The atmosphere is generally one of community. There is no boss looking down your shoulder. Many monks are almost in disguise, appearing not to be monks, but average men. The work is meditative in nature — preparing fudge and fruitcake. Packaging these. Shipping them. Cleaning out old buildings built in the 70s. Driving around the massive monastery on a golf cart. It is very human work. Taking up random conversations with monks. Accepting the call of duty: when outside, bearing the rain, cold winds, and snow, to fulfill my work.
“Ora et Labora” means prayer and work. There is a lot of work. But there is also a lot of time for prayer. Work can be prayer.