The Order of Saint Benedict

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Monastic Topics: Work


Work Is Prayer: Not!
by Terrence Kardong

From Assumption Abbey Newsletter (Richardton, ND 58652). Volume 23, Number 4 (October 1995).

In a recent article in The National Catholic Reporter, Tim Unsworth reported on a talk given in Chicago on the topic of work. According to the speaker, Al Gini of Loyola University, we Americans are literally working ourselves to death. More on that later, but the thing that first caught my interest was something else Unsworth said, namely, that this problem goes back at least as far as St. Benedict, who once said "Work is prayer."

Now, let me say at once that I agree with both Gini and Unsworth that overwork is a terrible problem right now in our society. And I can understand how someone could get the idea that St. Benedict said such a thing. But the fact is that he certainly did not say anything of the sort. Repeat: BENEDICT DID NOT SAY THAT WORK IS PRAYER!

As with all famous people who are no longer around to defend themselves, Benedict is made to say a lot of things he never said. One time someone called me on the phone to ask where St. Benedict wrote about "the two stout monks." Perhaps you have seen the humorous poster that shows them ousting a guest from the monastery? According to the poster, if the guest proves obnoxious, let them "explain the matter to him" and toss him out. And, of course, the poster has no compunction in attributing this wild stuff to Benedict himself.

So I was forced to inform my questioner that St. Benedict never taught any such thing, but to my surprise, he refused to believe me. Perhaps he suspected that a Benedictine would be embarrassed to admit that Benedict would indulge in this kind of idea. At any rate, nothing that I said would dissuade him from believing that this was indeed a passage from Benedict's Rule. Never mind that I had spent the last fifteen years researching virtually every word in that document. I must be wrong.

As I pointed out to my caller, the idea of ejecting a troublesome guest probably stems from The Rule of the Master, that strange book that was such an influence on St. Benedict. To be sure, the Master is very suspicious of guests-afraid they might freeload without working and steal the silverware. To prevent this, he assigns two guestmasters to be on duty at all times. Even at night, one is to remain awake to keep an eye on the guests. But even the paranoid Master never mentions "two stout monks" tossing a guest out the door of the monastery. That is the product of someone else's fertile imagination. Granted, it is very true to the spirit of the Master, but it is quite untrue to Benedict.

Benedict on Work

To return to "Work is Prayer," it is also not hard to imagine where that came from. After all, the motto of the Benedictines is "Prayer and Work," isn't it? Now Ora et Labora is very close to Ora est Labora. Unless you know some Latin and are very careful with words, a qualification which eliminates most people, it is easy enough to arrive at Labora est Ora and blame it on St. Benedict.

Unfortunately, it is necessary to point out that, like the two stout bouncers, Ora et Labora is found nowhere in the Rule of St. Benedict. Moreover, it appears nowhere in Benedictine history before the 19th century. As M.D. Meeuws points out in a fascinating article ("Ora et Labor: devise b??ictine?" Collectanea Cisterciensia, 54 [1992] 193-214), the motto actually originates in a popular book on Benedictine life written by the German abbot, Maurus Wolter. So, it is hardly accurate to even call it the motto of the Benedictines.

It cannot be denied, of course, that the Benedictines themselves have cheerfully plastered this motto on everything from their napkins to the carving above the front gate. So our friends (or enemies) can hardly be blamed for assuming that the slogan expresses something important about our monks and our monasteries. If the monks themselves have clasped this euphonious moniker to their bosoms, it must have a basis in reality. What is it?

St. Benedict does indeed make some comments about work in his Chapter 48. The text begins with another pithy saying: "Idleness is the devil's workshop." In this chapter he sets up a rather precise daily schedule that includes time every day for manual labor. Some commentators have claimed that this is in fact the first time in history that a precise work schedule was set up, and they add that this is the real beginning of the history of the modernization of work. Without regular hours, not much gets accomplished.

Now there is no question that the followers of Benedict in the Middle Ages were good workers. Probably because they did observe a regular schedule, they accomplished considerable feats in the realm of agriculture, architecture and so forth. But the fundamental change was in attitude: The upper classes of that time looked on physical work as utterly degrading, but the Benedictines believed that hard work is ennobling. So they broke out of a sterile mindset that had corroded the ancient civilizations.

But Benedict certainly did not think he was enunciating a new philosophy of work. His comments in Chapter 48 have to be taken in context to put them in the right perspective. For one thing, he has greatly toned down the corresponding Chapter 50 of the Rule of the Master. What is the Master's attitude toward work? He sees it as a way to fill up time; if people are not kept busy, they may get into trouble. In fact, he is sure they will get into big trouble, namely, sin. He is in fact the prototypical workaholic, the patron saint of those who think "life is work."

Compared to the work-ideology of the Master, Benedict offers but a few comments on the subject. There is the one about idleness; and he also claims that the Apostles worked hard and so should monks: "Then they are real monks when they live by the labor of their hands." Finally, if some monks have trouble filling up their Sundays with reading, they should be given light work to do. In those days before the invention of Pro Football, Sunday was to be spent in reading and meditation. But if a person could not manage it, then work was necessary. The point here is that Benedict has a very ordinary, realistic philosophy of work.

Ora, Labora et Lectio

It is also necessary to criticize the two-part motto Ora et Labora on the basis of Chapter 48. What we find there is really a three-part structure: Ora, Labora et Lectio. Benedict divides up the monastic day into three essential activities: prayer, labor and biblical study. A close study of his timetable indicates that about three hours were spent in church at the Divine Office; five hours were devoted to manual labor; and two or three hours were given over to biblical study. According to the seasons of the year, both natural and liturgical, this schedule was fine-tuned, but it is fixed in its three-part form.

From the modern standpoint, the surprising thing about this horarium is how little work it calls for. What modem person works only five hours a day? According to Al Gini, it is more like ten or twelve hours a day for us, so we are clearly unlike Benedict's monks. Admittedly, most of us would find three hours in church burdensome, even harder than work! And the very idea of Bible-study is out of the question for us; a fate worse than death. But without getting into the very difficult matter of what he means by lectio divina (holy reading), the assertion here is that work is a very modest part of Benedict's thinking.

But rather than stay with the founder and the ancient monks, we should turn our attention to modem American monks. How do they live out the Rule of Benedict? Do they actually live according to this other-worldly horarium? Not in any literal sense, they don't. In fact, most American monks (and nuns) join their fellow Americans in working ten or twelve hours a day. We still spend about two hours a day in church; probably most of us have either not heard of lectio divina or else do not know what to make of it; but we are terrific workers!

In regard to lectio, we should point out right away that this is not ordinary Bible-study. In fact, a goodly number of monks in this country are good scriptural scholars and surely spend a major part of their time preparing lectures and sermons and books. But that is their work, and lectio is definitely not work. As soon as we have said that, we have to turn right around and insist that lectio is indeed hard work, very hard work. That is no doubt why Benedict has to appoint certain monks to patrol the monastery during the period for lectio to keep people from frittering away time in gossip and so forth. Whatever it was, it wasn't easy.

As to the American mentality, it has always been pragmatic and activistic. From the time the Benedictines hit these shores, they were expected to teach in schools, nurse in hospitals and serve as parish priests. That is the only way the Church in this country would tolerate us. Of course, these are very valuable works that everyone recognizes as good and necessary, but the question is whether they are good work for Benedictines.

The New Climate of Work

Historically, one need not quibble. Hundreds and thousands of Benedictines have worked as teachers, nurses and pastors and still managed to be good Benedictines. The problem today seems to stem from the fact that the whole climate of work in this country has changed. Because it takes time and energy to pursue a monastic existence, this becomes very difficult if one's work uses up all that energy. In the "good old days" that was usually not the case. Unfortunately, now it is.

When we make the claim that modem work makes it hard to be a monk, we are skating on thin ice. Already the hair is standing up on the back of the necks of certain readers (isn't it?), especially if they happen to be administrators whose duty-is to fill slots in their institutions. Superiors who must put bread on the table recognize full well that some of their members are forced to work at jobs that make monastic life hard, but what is the alternative, given the financial realities? But our dilemma does not refute the truth of this assertion: professional work today is hard to combine with monastic life.

Why is this? On the surface, it seems to be a matter of standards. We have arrived at a place where training and performance are highly valued, but incompetence or even amateurism is no longer tolerable. When I first came to the Abbey School (1950), we knew that some of our teachers had little training; we also knew they were only a few pages ahead of us in the textbook, struggling to keep up. We also could sense that they were full-time monks for whom the classroom was only a part of their concern.

The situation now is quite different. Long years of graduate work seem to be demanded of everyone. Once we are on the job, we are expected to give it our all. There is no limit to the daily preparation we are expected to do, no limit to the number of papers we must correct, Masses we must celebrate, meetings we must attend. Evenings and weekends are fair game. The institutions we work for no longer are satisfied with part of our time and interest: they now want our soul. No longer is it acceptable to simply fit our work into a larger monastic framework. Now work is the framework. Monastic life must be squeezed in wherever it will fit. Or rather, it must be conducted with what is left over of our energy. But there is very little left over.

If this sounds like an irresponsible, extreme statement made only in the interest of kicking up a fuss, be assured that it is a sentiment shared by many Benedictines. A paper by Katherine Kraft, OSB, at a recent convention of the American Benedictine Academy dealt with precisely this issue. Next year's ABA convention will be entirely on work and it is sure to be a hot topic. Just to make sure everyone understands where I stand, I want to add that I consider work the most pressing issue for American Benedictines, I contend it is killing us.

Prayer as Wasting Time with God

And so we return to our central contention: work is not prayer. We have been interpreting prayer here in a broad sense as leisure, but it is also necessary to consider it here in a narrow sense. From this point of view, prayer may be defined as time devoted exclusively to God. Considered that way, prayer is not something one can do along with work.

This attitude is very prominent in the Jewish Bible. The very purpose of the Sabbath is to free the people from work so that they might give themselves entirely to God for one day a week. It is well-known how strictly the Bible separates work and Sabbath, and the Pharisees were even stricter. Today, Orthodox Jews still avoid Sabbath work like the plague. To the modern mind, this may look like fanaticism, but to someone caught in the rat-race of overwork, it might look like liberation. At least for one day, the inexorable demands of work are denied.

Yet the other side of the issue still remains, for Sabbath time must be devoted to God, not just play. Traditionally, this has meant time in synagogue or church, not at the beach. Fifty years ago in rural America people came to church at 10 a.m. and left about four hours later. Not all of this was spent in worship. Plenty of time was spent in visiting; all of it was communal. But again this was before the invention of TV football, which has changed everything, probably for the worst.

If we take prayer in the narrowest sense, it means facing God alone in privacy. "When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret" (Mt 6.6). Obviously, this kind of prayer is incompatible with work. Everything and everybody else is excluded from this prayer. In fact, it is a completely personal and private exercise. Probably no one knows what we are up to except God. "Your Father who sees in secret will repay you," Yes, but you don't do this kind of praying in order to get repaid. If you do, the whole thing collapses, for prayer for a reward is really a work. Pure prayer is not a work at all but an act of faith. In this sense, the Protestants are right: work undermines faith.

Nor is this kind of prayer done primarily for one's own mental health. Unlike most modem techniques of meditation, you don't pray in order to achieve peace of mind or to gain new calm or to acquire inner coherence. As desirable as those goals may be, they are not prayer. Prayer turns outward to Another, not inward on the self. As in human love and friendship, prayer is relationship; if it is done for an ulterior motive, the other person becomes secondary and the whole enterprise is vitiated. Unlike work, prayer has no purpose at all except to glorify God. It is like leisure since it is meaningful, but not purposeful.

The Labor of Conversion

Yet in another sense, prayer is work, hard work! Like work, private prayer takes premium time and energy. To repeat the modem term, it takes quality time. If we try to short-change our prayer by giving it only the dregs of our time and energy, we will find that we ourselves are the losers. Why does prayer take so much energy? Partly because it requires concentration, and that does not come easy for us. We find it much easier to allow ourselves to be engaged by the random physical stimuli that surround us; but prayer must focus on the transcendent God who is beyond all the sense objects that make up our environment.

But there is another reason why prayer is hard work. It is difficult because it gradually reveals to us our true selves; and the truth hurts! In fact, it is quite possible to define prayer as the discovery of the true self amid the debris of the false self or selves. The assumption here is that it is an ordinary occupation of human beings to fabricate a false ego-self that we present to others and to ourselves instead of the real self. Probably this is an aspect of Original Sin, since it makes no sense to live this way. But we do it, and to find our way out of this hall of mirrors is a mighty labor. It cannot be done by sheer willpower or the expenditure of time and energy; the grace of God is necessary.

Whatever else it might be, it does seem unavoidable that lectio divina must involve this search for the true self. If lectio means biblical prayer, with the study that lies behind it, then this kind of lectio would require an openness on our part to let the word of God address our inmost selves. Of course, everything we read has the potential to change our lives, but with lectio we deliberately put aside our usual insulation and defense to let God speak to our heart.

The mere fact that Benedict sets aside two or three hours a day for this activity should tell us that it is serious business. The way we have just defined it, lectio is also passive, since we open ourselves up to the Lord; perhaps it exists in that middle-zone between activity and passivity that we call leisure. But it may disturb hard-working, no-non,sense Anglo-Saxons to think that Benedict allows the monks to spend so much time in leisure. We may find it more reasonable to think that the leisure of lectio is also very hard work.

We have mentioned that the early monks sometimes tried to get out of lectio or at least found it burdensome (RB 48.18,23). No doubt this was because it is not easy for some people to sit still for so long, nor is mental labor congenial to certain temperaments. But it is not just a question of whether or not a monk is "bookish." Even if someone has an affinity for study and for meditation, deep prayer may be terribly laborious. For what is harder than to find ourself faced with oneself? Not the convenient, fabricated self but the true self.

There are other ways to find out about oneself. To go through group therapy can be a way to hear from others what we cannot see about ourselves. But no one goes through that kind of therapy for the fun of it. It is backbreaking work, harder than ah-nost anything else a person can undergo. The claim here is that monastic life is meant to be something like that. Not that community life should become group therapy! God forfend! Nevertheless, the monastic life is a search for the true self and there is no easy access to that kind of truth.

At this point, we have turned the so-called Benedictine motto on its head: prayer is work. Personally, I would find that a much more accurate and realistic statement. Like its opposite, it is open to misinterpretation. Almost everything you say about such subjects has that possibility. But at least it conveys more truth than "work is prayer."


OSB Index | Monastic Topics | Continue: Part Two


Rev. 12 January 2009 / © Copyright 1996-2009 by Assumption Abbey, ND 58652 / www.osb.org/gen/topics/work/kard1.html