The Path to Joy: Work and Pray
St. Benedict of Nursia is a famous 6th-century saint whose influence upon the world is undeniable and unfathomable. He wrote the book, or literally, The Rules, on Christian Monasticism in the Western world. The Rule of St. Benedict (The Rule) is 73 small chapters (many of them only a paragraph or two long) about how a Christian monk should live. While there is the religious order that bears the overt name, the Order of St. Benedict (OSB), there are many religious orders across the globe whose rule of life takes The Rule as their inspiration, foundation, and standard.
While I have spoken primarily of monks and nuns, the influence of St. Benedict is unfathomable because countless untold Christian laypeople throughout the centuries also lived according to this rule or were at least in some way influenced by it. Some mottos and characteristics of the Benedictine spirituality to help get at least a general sense of it include Pax which means “peace,” and Ora et Labora “Pray and Work” (in English, it is popular to switch the order and say “Work and Pray”). Also, one of their charisms or particular foci is hospitality — to strive to treat every visitor that knocks upon their door in need as Christ and help them feel at home. Christians, by adopting these kinds of simple attitudes and approaches to life day by day, have seen in this little Rule a trustworthy path to holiness — joy, healing, and perfection in love.
The path to happiness is not immediately apparent in reading The Rule especially for us living in present times. Some culturally acceptable actions of Benedict’s time would certainly need some review for applicability today. After all, it was intended for Christian monks living in Ancient Europe. However, with a little imagination, it is not difficult to see how such a life of simple discipline and purpose can lead to profound joy and contentment. The motto of “Work and Pray” is the distillation of Christian life. Every hour of the day is work and prayer. In an effort to avoid idleness, monks had a set schedule of prayer and work. Prayer consisted of the communal prayer of the Church and hours of spiritual reading and work included simple chores like tending the garden/fields, laundry, cooking, crafting, and cleaning. To whittle down life to the bare essentials such that all one has to worry about is doing what God has given them to do, which is work and pray, is paradoxically liberating. It leads to a spiritual state comparable to what certain Buddhists call Zen.* The Christian version of this state is contemplation — the prayer of presence.
As many spiritual masters of the Christian tradition have attested, some of the highest forms of prayer come about in the lowliest and most mundane of tasks. St. Therese of Lisieux, the author of the “Little Way” helped to teach the Church that it is possible to fill every little chore and task with a profound love — a love for God and for whom you do these little tasks. St. Therese often looked for opportunities to fold laundry and do dishes for her sisters. She did not grumble or lament having to do them. They were opportunities for her into which to pour every bit of love she possessed. I am the dishwasher of my household. Sometimes I forget why, or feel like I am too tired to do them or think, “I am just going to be doing them again the next day, what’s the point?” And in those times I will just say, “Eh, I’ll do it tomorrow.” But when I remember St. Therese and that I am doing it not just for myself but for my wife and children, I feel guilty. It was a little opportunity to love a little better and love more deeply, but I lost it to time and my simple refusal to love. Once I am doing the dishes, it is interesting when I look back on the time and examine myself. I’m usually not really thinking about anything or, if I am, it is about questions I may have encountered throughout the day. It is unwittingly a time of prayer. I never regret doing the dishes.
Now that might seem inconsequential. You might say, “You didn’t do the dishes just that one time, it does not mean that you don’t love your spouse and children.” And generally, that is true, but love is composed of tangible moments of willingness. If I let it become a habit, love can slowly fade. It starts with one night of not doing dishes, then it goes on to one morning of not changing my daughter’s diaper. I might think that because I did it one time and it did not hurt anything, it’s ok to do it again and again. This does not strengthen love, it weakens it. Love is to will over and over again the good of the beloved in even the tiniest of things. “Work and pray” embodies love — love for God AND love for neighbor.
The rules are quite adaptable for all walks of life because everyone can benefit from the virtues of humility, self-discipline, simplification of life, and doing what everyone is “made to do.” This is perhaps where and why the rule of St. Benedict is not universally accepted. It takes as a principle our creatureliness — the position that we have been created — which implies a Creator. It is a faith-based way of life. The Rule takes seriously the theological anthropological claim that the human being, in essence, is created by and for God and that Christ has come into the world to redefine human destiny and what that means for our life in this world. If heaven is the new home and destiny of mankind, this world and this life is a pilgrimage. As is said by Christians for centuries, we are in the world but not of it (cf. John 17:14–16, and I John 2:15–17).
To live such a life is a true form of evangelization, or literally “gospel”-izing. Gospel means, “good news”, or “news of victory.” Those who live this way in truth have proven to live very happy and whole lives. That happiness and contentment is a kind of litmus test for the truth of its principles. And the litmus test is something that I think is written into the human genome. It is a profound building block of human nature, it is at the foundation of our will in the quest for happiness and truth and it can be summed up thus: A life lived based on a lie will not be happy. Those who are truly happy, who live with hope and joyfulness are a testament to the truth upon which they base their life. The Christian way of life, from the outside, looks tedious and boring, but my happiness is undeniable.
*They are not equivalent because the telos of Buddhism and Christianity are critically different. A Buddhist seeks a union with the cosmos and everything in it, whereas a Christian seeks union with the Principle of the cosmos and everything in it, namely God. I simply mean that the psychological effects are quite similar, in that there is a silencing of the mind and the passions (read as emotions), accompanied by clarity and calm.