A motto of St. Benedict’s was “Ora et labora.” The Latin phrase with a somewhat catchy rhythm translates as the command, “Pray and work.” (I’m glad I’ve got a handle on this notion since I go to a Benedictine college campus.) This simple little sentence carries with it a number of possible facets to the spiritual and physical life.
Prayer as Communication with God and How God Speaks to Us
The rule followed by Benedictines to this day is not “pray or work.” It’s “pray and work.” The human person needs both for wholeness of spiritual and physical health. Prayer is a humbling practice, for in it the one praying admits thankfulness or a need for intervention to a Being more powerful than himself, the Almighty in the highest.
Prayer is a means of communication, an outpouring from creature to Creator and vice versa. It permits the human soul to open up and confess the desires or troubles which weigh down one’s heart to a benevolent God who wants nothing but the best for us. If one takes his faith seriously, then at one time or another he will surely question it.
One might question why God does not answer his prayer as urgently as it was uttered or why there might never seem to be a response. Typically, in the 21st century, God does not speak his answer audibly into our ears, unless perhaps that answer is voiced through another person, such as a friend or family member.
There are two truths which Catholic Christians specifically have in “hearing” God. One is the Holy Bible. This is the written word of God. Thus, we can learn a lot about God and how we are to live by reading and meditating upon the verses of the New and Old Testaments.
The other truth given to the earliest of Christian sects is that Jesus Christ, God made man, is the word of God incarnate. The Gospel of John opens with: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And in the sacrament of the Eucharist, human beings receive Christ, the word of God, into their very souls.
Via dual authorship, the relationship in which God inspired human authors in writing the Scriptures, the authorship of the written word of God is both wholly human and wholly divine. Similarly, Christ, the word of God made flesh, is both fully man and fully God.
The Sorrows of Labor, Its necessity, and Prayer Through Work
There is a beautiful quote attributed to St. Ignatius. It goes, “Pray as if everything depends on God; work as if everything depends on you.” Asking of God what we should do in prayer is a good habit to get into. It can be regarding absolutely any aspect of your life.
You may ask him if you should go on a retreat, if this is the partner he intends you to marry, or if you should apply to such and such a job. Even small things can be brought before him in prayer. God knows us infinitely better than we do ourselves.
But work is an equally significant part of life. Often it is viewed as a pain. And it certainly can be. Anyone with a job can tell you that. But look at the monks, here at the Benedictine college for instance. They pray throughout the day. But they also go to classes and work with faculty across the campus. They understand the need for work. Ask an unemployed person at the age of 45 if they think they need work. If they understand that they need to work to support themselves, then chances are they will answer that they certainly need a job.
Early in the Book of Genesis, the reader finds God informing Noah of a mighty flood that is to come at some point in the future. Does God give Noah and his family an arc? Does a massive vessel fall from the heavens? No. Noah and his family must work and labor to build the means of their physical salvation from being drowned.
The concept of work has its roots in the very earliest of Biblical passages. The act of creation of everything in the cosmos is, undoubtedly, work. God saw that all his work was good. He labored in creation six days, according to Genesis. And on the seventh day, he rested. So in God’s eyes, there is a benevolence attached to work.
Genesis 2:15 reads, “Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” In this verse, we see God giving man a purpose, namely: work! Work is a divine notion, one which God deems humanity worthy of sharing in. The pain and hardship of work are associated with labor only after the Fall of Adam and Eve in Original Sin. And as Original Sin is inherited in all the human race, so is death and pain.
The Benedictine motto Ora et labora has also come to be understood as a direction of offering up the hardships of labor so that the offering is a prayer. Work can thus become a prayer in and of itself. Prayer and work are constantly linked, pulling on one another. Together these acts mold us into better people. They strengthen body and soul and draw us closer to God.