John Rogers Herbert, “Laborare est Orare”, 1862, depicts the monks of St. Bernard’s Abbey Leicester gathering the harvest of 1861. (Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/herbert-laborare-est-orare-t01455)
Lent With St. Benedict: Ora et Labora, Prayer and Work
When I pull weeds in the garden, I confess my failings and pull the weeds from the garden of my soul.”
During these six weeks of Lent we have been exploring the six aspects of the Benedictine life. The three vows of obedience, stability and conversion of life help to ground the monks’ spirituality while reading, work and prayer help them make real the three vows.
All six are intertwined in a unified and balanced life. Obedience helps establish stability and both lead to the conversion of life. Reading, work and prayer become one as the monk’s prayer life nourishes his work and reading, and his reading and work support his life of prayer. The six also cross-fertilize each other. Reading the great books helps the monk put down the deep roots of stability. Ordinary hard work helps him learn obedience and prayer leads to a deep conversion of life.
Work is the second of the three aspects of the monastic life. By “work” St. Benedict means manual labor of some sort. Manual labor is important because it exercises the body in creative and fruitful labor. When the monk is harvesting hay, pruning the apple trees, weeding the garden or digging ditches he engages with the physical world and this engagement is important because the physical world is real and reality matters.
If all the monk does is pray and study then his heart and mind are exercised, but it can too easily lead to fanciful head games, purely intellectual debates, mystical fantasies or spiritual sentimentality. Hard work includes an bent back, blisters and callouses, sweating brows and aching muscles.
Work grounds the monk in the hard realities of the physical world, but it also brings dignity because it is creative and productive. St. Benedict would not understand our modern mania for exercise for its own sake. Running on a treadmill or lifting weights in the gym would seem absurd to him. Chopping a pile of firewood, double digging the vegetable patch, rounding up the cattle or tending the bees in the orchard not only provides physical exercise, but through it man works with God for the production of good things from God’s earth.
A famous Benedictine motto is “Ora et Labora” which means “Work and Prayer.” Some have mistranslated this as “Work is Prayer” and while this is inaccurate, it is not wrong. In the Benedictine life work is blended with prayer and prayer is work. Indeed the word “liturgy” means “the work of the people.” When work becomes part of a sanctified life it assumes its rightful and noble dignity. Instead of it being drudgery, work becomes part of man’s high calling and service.
Finally, there is always a penitential element to work. When we work hard we realize that the journey to heaven is a long pilgrimage, not a walk in the park. Sanctity and sweat are not separated. Just as any good project requires long hours of work, so making our way to heaven requires blood, sweat and tears.
There can also be a rich symbolism in the routine of daily work. An old monk once told me, “When I pull weeds in the garden, I confess my failings and pull the weeds from the garden of my soul. When I wash dishes I ask God to wash me thoroughly for I am a vessel of the Holy Spirit. When I gather the sheep in from the fields I pray that the Good Shepherd may gather me home at last.”