During the induction ceremony for new graduate students, I sat with fascination and interest as various leaders of Georgetown University shared the school’s history and values. As I listened, I recognized the university’s constructive intersection of history and modernity. The ceremony encouraged me to delve into other traditions related to the Catholic Church’s history, as I hoped to shed a historical and religious light on modern health care issues. Specifically, my current pursuit of becoming a clinical nurse leader led me to wonder if the Catholic tradition had guidance to offer in regard to helping me become healthy and stay healthy.

I remembered Robert Benson, a medieval history professor at UCLA, speaking about the Order of St. Benedict and its focus on work. Benson was a canon law expert who preferred to have us doctoral students in history read Gratian’s “Decretum” in Latin and debate the finer points of canon law using medieval commentators; even so, I believe that he had a soft spot for the monastic movement, which comprises celibate religious individuals devoted full time to Bible reflection, prayer and Christian communal living. Benson contrasted the purely textual work of canon law with monastic values of the Benedictine monks who emphasized the need to incorporate physical labor in spiritual endeavors.

So, I turned to the pages of the Rule of Saint Benedict. Chapter 48 deals with daily manual labor. Verse one of this chapter states: “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brothers should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading.” I know that the Benedictines engage in manual labor as a spiritual quest, but I felt that there was something that we moderns could learn, because there are similarities between student life and monastic life.

We students read and read for hours and hours, trying to understand a text. It is often a solitary activity that does not involve much physical activity. Monks read the Bible, and it is often a solitary activity that involves many hours of reading and thinking. Ideally, the quest of a student is to achieve a type of enlightenment or a better understanding of the reality, so it is a lofty enterprise as well.  

Benedictines believe that manual labor is a necessary component of reaching enlightenment and higher-ordered learning. Is there something for us students, staff and professors at Georgetown University to learn from this?  

When Benedictines spoke of manual labor, it was physical work and not sports or “working out” as a type of entertainment. Manual labor was not supposed to be fun, and maybe the harshness of physical labor was an important component. So, I decided to try out this concept in my life. What kind of manual labor can I engage in that would not be fun? What manual labor activity do I have access to?

Then, it dawned on me. My moving. I was going to hire a moving company to make the move. But what if I engaged in this manual labor myself? Would I experience something of the manual labor value that the Benedictines have emphasized throughout the ages? So, I sought no professional help with my move. I packed myself, lifted the heavy items down the steps from one apartment and moved them to my new apartment. It took me over 15 hours of grueling manual labor over several days to make the move. I had to use parts of my body that I had not used for a while, as was apparent from the muscle pain coming from those areas.  

Although I was feeling soreness in different parts of my body, I felt a sense of accomplishment from my manual labor and felt better about myself. I also felt healthier. Finding and engaging in manual labor may contribute to physical and mental health — and clarity can result. The application of the Rule of Saint Benedict may also bring enrichment to your life.

Heerak Kim is pursuing a Master of Science in nursing. Dissecting Health Care appears online every other Tuesday.

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