“My work is my prayer.”
This oft-heard phrase roughly translates the Latin expression ora est labora (literally, “pray equals work”). A more dynamic translation might be “my spiritual life is dying,” since they mean the same thing. If someone tells us that their work is their prayer, we should start worrying about their life of prayer.
“Hold on,” you say, “isn’t that a bit much? I mean, we can make our work into a prayer, can’t we?”
Absolutely we can. Not only that, we should. Offering our daily work to God as a sacrifice is a beautiful way for busy people to remain in the presence of God.
But there’s a big difference between someone who says “my work is a prayer” (note the indefinite article, which gives us the distinct sense that this work is but one prayer among many) and someone else who says “my work is my prayer” (note the italics, which gives us the distinct sense that it isn’t). In the former case, prayer pervades everything, even our work; in the latter case, work replaces everything, even our prayer. The former is a sign of spiritual life, the latter of spiritual death. That’s why monks strive for the former, workaholics for the latter.
“But wait a minute,” you object again, “how can you say that when Benedictine monks have ‘ora est labora’ for their motto?”
Au contraire. They don’t. The Benedictine motto is ora et labora. That “s” may be easy to miss, but it’s pretty pivotal. The real Benedictine motto means “pray and work” or “prayer and work.” For monks in the tradition of Saint Benedict, the two stand side-by-side, complementary but distinct. In other words, ora et labora amounts to a full-on denial of ora est labora. We can (and should) accompany our work with prayer, but we can’t conflate the two.
“Fine,” you exasperate, “but why are you bludgeoning me with medieval mottos and technicalities of translation?”
Because a UVA study recently showed that almost 50% of college students would rather shock themselves with electricity than be silent and without distraction for 15 minutes. That strikes me as a bit unbalanced. Silence and freedom from distractions are necessary for keeping prayer separate from the other aspects of our lives. If we can’t handle simple tranquility, we can’t really pray.
Today, we celebrate the feast of St. Benedict, who was renowned for handing on to his monks a balanced way of life – particularly with respect to contemplative prayer and active work, ora et labora. He recognized the danger of letting one dominate, and the benefit of having both side-by-side. In a world where work (or at least activity) threatens to consume prayer, it behooves us to turn to him for help. So today I offer a challenge: spend 15 minutes in silent prayer, and don’t electrocute yourself.
Image: Henri Martin, Cultivation of the Vines