In the well-known prayer “O Lord and Master of my life…”, St Ephraim the Syrian prays to God, among other things, not to allow him to be overcome by the spirit of idleness.“Do not give me a spirit sloth.”
This chapter will look at the subject of idleness and work, because if we are to get rid of idleness, we must acquire love for, and interest in, work for both body and soul.
The Problem of Idleness
Idleness of the body and soul is regarded as the beginning of every spiritual disorder. The idle person is a source of problems in the community and feels he is a failure. In Christ’s parable of the workers in the vineyard, we see Him employing people so that they do not remain idle. When the owner of the vineyard saw unemployed labourers, he said, “Why stand ye here all the day idle?” (Matt. 20:6). The Apostle Paul, referring to what happens to widows “when they have begun to grow wanton against Christ”, describes their conduct. “And withal they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not” (1 Tim. 5:11-13). More or less the same happens with every idle person. He wanders from place to place and is a source of social and family problems. The Apostle Peter suggests that we occupy ourselves acquiring virtues, which are, of course, the fruits of the All-Holy Spirit: “For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren [“idle” in Greek] nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:8).
The Value of Work
The Holy Scripture praises work, both physical and spiritual. After creating man, God put him to work. “And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to tend it and to keep it” (Gen. 2:15). God Himself works, in that He directs the world that He created through His uncreated providence.
Just as God created the world from non-being, from matter that did not exist, so He directs it without created laws and means. That is why Christ said, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work (John 5:17). The words, “and I”, show the common energy of the Persons of the All-Holy Trinity, because the energy of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is shared.
The Apostle Paul had a particular profession, tent-making, and he worked to earn his living. As he says, “We… labour, working with our own hands” (1 Cor. 4:12). He also recommends work to the Christians of Thessaloniki, who had misunderstood the eschatological teaching of Christ and lived “disorderly”, in other words, they did no work and meddled in other people’s affairs (2 Thess. 3:11). Indeed St Paul commands, “If any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thess 3:10), using himself as an example for them to imitate. “For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you” (2 Thess. 3:7-8).
Thus physical work is essential. Even monks who practice hesychia and prayer have manual work as a counterbalance, so as not to give the devil an excuse for deluding them. Despondency and indifference paralyse both body and soul, and are disastrous for the spiritual life.
The Gerontikon gives an example to show the value of physical work. Abba John Kolovos once said to his elder brother, “I want to be free from care like the angels, not doing any work but ceaselessly worshipping God.” Having said this, he went into the desert. He stayed there for a week then came back. He knocked on his brother’s door and his brother asked, “‘Who are you?’ He replied, ‘I am your brother, John.’ His brother answered, ‘John has become an angel and is no longer among men.'” Abba John persisted, but his brother did not open the door to him until the morning. Then he said to him, in order to correct him, “You are a human being, so you need to work in order to be fed.”
Physical work is not, of course, an end in itself. We Christians do not live in order to work, but work in order to stay alive and to overcome time, especially in circumstances when we cannot do spiritual work. Work is of secondary importance; it is one aspect of our life. This needs to be said because many people’s aim in life is to work continuously in order to increase their output and satisfy their passionate love of money.
The reality is different. Work has a specific aim and must be carried out under specific spiritual conditions. Instead of dividing our life into good and bad, into mere physical work and spiritual work, we need to transform physical work into spiritual work. In this way our whole life is hallowed and we also sanctify the “earthen vessel” of our body, “…that every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:4).
Physical work, the job we do to earn our living, is necessary in order to support ourselves. The Apostle Paul orders, “that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread” (2 Thess. 3:12). By working we meet not just our own individual needs but also the needs of those whom we have undertaken to support. In addition, we ought to work for the sake of giving alms. St Paul advises the Christians of Ephesus, “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth” (Eph. 4:28). To be sure, we need to be particularly careful not to foster love of money on the pretext of almsgiving. Some people cultivate avarice for the alleged purpose of giving alms.
St Isaac the Syrian, referring to hesychasts, writes, “When you turn to work with your hands while practicing hesychia, do not use this commandment of the Fathers as a cloak for your avarice. Because of your despondency, do a little work that will not disturb your nous.” Hesychasts ought to work, but only on small tasks that will not trouble the nous. Obviously when we work we ought not to indulge our love of money for the sake of giving alms.
Physical work ought to meet all the conditions that the spiritual life demands. It ought to be done quietly, with hesychia; the nous must not to be disturbed or distracted from God. The Apostle Paul says, “that with quietness they work…” While working we should pray. In this way all our work is sanctified and offered to God. St Basil the Great, referring to St Paul’s words, “Pray without ceasing,” and “labouring night and day…”, writes that they show that it is possible to pray to God while working, because it is always time for prayer. Therefore in between doing various tasks and while we are working, we ought to pray.