The Benedictine Latin motto, ora et labora, means pray and work.
In contrast to the later religious orders which were often called active for their focus on ministry beyond the Order’s walls, monasticism placed daily psalmic prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours, as the cornerstone of the monk’s life. Interspersed between these short times of communal prayer were periods of labor. These monks were not inactive, and many Benedictine monasteries became centers of education and scholarship, but they chose to focus their practice on a rhythm of life delineated by the walls of the community and time itself.
I’m Benedictine in my heart of hearts. The balance of Benedict’s Rule, trying to integrate these two ways of life into one resonates.
The more I reflect on it, the more I realize that prayer and work are one in the same pursuit, each providing the necessary balance to the other.
Without prayer, work becomes an idol. It ceases to have a deeper purpose than financial gain, affirmation, or simply a way to pass the time. Prayer connects work to a larger tapestry and at times, opens the laborer to glimpse the larger vision of the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Prayer can refresh labor that is simply wearisome, but it is not only refreshment. Prayer is also the door to motivation for work. Recently, I’ve found that my work has suffered because I was not listening in prayer–I was only using it for good feelings, a shallow peace, and to shore up my own sense of self as a prayerful person and a good Christian.
When prayer becomes too complacent, labor acts as the balance. Work gives feet to prayer, makes it live and breathe rather than remain a good idea, a romantic pursuit, a performance mask for approval, or safe harbor of peaceful feelings. Benedictines believe that if prayer is dry, empty or lifeless, then it’s not the prayer practice that is the trouble, but the labor surrounding it.
Eugene Peterson describes the prayer that is done “on our knees” as the precursor to prayer. Prayer for him actually begins when we stand up and start working. It is not that prayer-on-our-knees is unimportant, but that it must be woven into the fabric of our lives of labor–whatever the work is before us in this moment.
The desert fathers, those early pre-Benedictines of the 4th and 5th centuries, tell a story to describe the relationship between prayer and work. Abba Anthony was dealing with acedia, a listless apathy and boredom that was affecting his life. He asked for help and the Lord gave him a vision of a monk working (these monks wove baskets for a living) and then taking time to pray, then going back to working, then praying. Abba Anthony realized that the healing for his acedia was live into a rhythm of prayer and work.
This all sounds beautiful in writing. But the lived practice of ora et labora is both the easiest thing of all and the hardest. It is easy because it is simply saying to whatever is before you right now: “You are my work,” and then do it alternating with prayer, until the sun goes down. It is hardest because the work may require more of us than we believe we have to give.
For me, the work before me is my dissertation and living in the solitude of this labor when so many around me have families. When I refuse to do the work before me, I go out looking for whatever I can to get me out of the solitude and into a sense of belonging. In the end, I do not pray or work when I’m resisting the work before me.
Others may have work that calls them into daily, constant relationship–such as raising children. The idealized image of the monk in silence and solitude praying seems worlds apart from family life with little ones. But the monk in solitude has no better chance of praying than a mother with toddlers. The challenges are simply different.
Prayer itself is an intimate response to the Spirit. Solitude or community, work or rest, silence or noise, these are simply contexts in which we find ourselves, through which the Spirit uniquely speaks to us, and from which we respond. What matters is whether we bring whatever our labor is into prayer, and bring prayer into our labor. When the labor or the prayer is hard, exhausting, painful, or lonely, when we wonder if there was a better or easier path we could have taken, this is when it is critical to embrace the rhythm.
With Abba Anthony, today (and tomorrow and on), I will weave my dissertation basket, pray, and then weave some more. Writing this blog post has been my prayer this morning.
And as the Spirit weaves in me, I will look for the Advent of Christ born in this work.
But even if I do not yet see, I will continue to weave. And pray. And weave.
In my prayer today, I pray for you, dear readers, as you weave your work. Would you pray for me?