Ora et Labora

“Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thess 5:17)

Two of the last three entries in this blog have reflected on ministry and vocation.  This entry concludes the series (I think).

As I have been thinking about what it means to do God’s work in today’s world, I have held in the back of my mind the fact that the Bible begins the story of humankind with the account of God’s two-fold blessing upon human beings in the form of a charge both to populate the earth and to manage it (Gen 1:28).  In the context of the Garden of Eden, the Bible adds the idea that God tasked the first pair with “tilling” and “keeping” the Garden (Gen 2:15). In other words, from the outset, God meant for human beings to do useful work in maintaining the world.  The work of gardening only became “toil” (Hebr. root `tsb) after the first pair ate of the forbidden tree (Gen 3:17). Populating the world entails, of course, developing the structures and institutions of society, and inventing tools and techniques for doing the work efficiently.  Since the Bible does not record God ever mandating the details of how human beings should conduct the business of everyday life in community or revealing the secrets of agriculture, metallurgy, or tool-making, the blessing/mandate to populate and manage the world implies a blessing on human invention.  God gave and gives human beings the ability and the freedom to shape human culture, to build shelters, to fabricate clothing, to domesticate cattle, to construct highways, and to discover and utilize the principles of mathematics and medicine.  In short, God’s first blessing/mandate for humanity constitutes an umbrella over any and all  human tasks that serve the purposes of ordering and structuring life in the world.

This understanding of the common vocation of humankind contrasts sharply, of course, with contemporary distinctions between sacred and secular work.  Even many contemporary believers regularly view their lives in the workaday world as distinct from their lives as disciples of Christ.  Only work done specifically in and for the church, so goes the sentiment, qualifies as fulfillment of a Christian vocation. The Genesis blessing/mandate, on the other hand, includes any work done to order and maintain human life as part of God’s good creation while, at the same time, caring for and preserving that creation.  No legitimate work that contributes to the common good falls outside this domain.  God’s first blessing/mandate dignifies the labor of the sanitation worker and the surgeon alike.

Of course, many view their “jobs” merely as the means for earning enough money to sustain their “real” lives.  The system encourages the sense that both labor and laborer are commodities.  Life itself is commoditized.  We work “to earn a living.”  For whatever reason, furthermore, at least in the US, we work for such long hours for this “living” that it becomes difficult for us to find the time to live “the living” we have “earned” (see abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=93364&page=1).  This incessant activity, this identification of a person’s worth with a person’s output, defies another biblical mandate concerning work, of course.  The act of creation incorporated, and the Decalog mandates, Sabbath rest.  Yes, “six days you shall labor,” but the Sabbath is set apart to God; it is the celebration of freedom from toil.

The title of this entry (Latin for “Pray and Work” comes from the Rule of St. Benedict that governs monks in the Benedictine Order.  It is a popular abbreviation of the full phrase Ora, Labora, et Lectio (“Pray, Work, and Study [the Bible]”).  It expresses the Benedictine conviction concerning the importance of balancing action and reflection (and the biblical foundations for both).  Over the years, along with Kierkegaard’s notion that one should seek to live every moment of one’s life aware sub specie aeternitatis (“under the aspect of eternity”) and Buber’s idea that God is ever-present for encounter as “Thou” have helped me to make sense of Paul’s repeated injunction to be constantly in prayer (1 Thess 5:17; cf. Rom 12:12; Eph 6:18; Col 4:2).  How can one pray without stopping?  When is there time for work or sleep?  I have tried to learn that every moment of my life is lived in God’s presence, that God is privy to every thought and emotion, and that everything I do should be done in fulfillment of God’s first blessing/mandate.  I do not always succeed, but when I do, my life is a prayer and my work, hopefully, the work of God.

Let me suggest three simple, and I think biblical, ideas about work that can bring balance and meaning back to work for many.  First, every human being can and should find that vocation in which individual talents and the needs of others meet so that they can work instead of toiling, so that they can have a vocation instead of a job.  Second, workers, even “clergy” (Deut 24:14-15; Lev 19:13; 1 Cor 9:4-18; 1 Tim 5:18), deserve to be paid a living wage, but a healthy attitude toward work does not measure its value by its remuneration.  Rather, the value of work lies in its relationship to God’s call to care for the world and those in it.  Third, work is not the totality of life.  The Benedictine rule is not Ora est Labora (“Work is prayer”) but Ora et Labora (“and”).  One can also rest sub specie aeternitatis.  Oh, and I hope that readers will not forget Lectio either.