“To Work is to Pray” – Spirituality for Busy People

It’s not just a happy accident that we have one word which means both humble work and worship:  service.  The same double-meaning is found in the languages of the Bible too.  Believing as we do in a Creator-God – one who is to be found in the whole of life, and not just in its religious bits – Christians down the ages have seen honest toil, as much as religious activity, to be an offering to God.

The Benedictines had a phrase for it: Laborare est Orare – “to work is to pray”.  And the pattern of their daily living included plentiful helpings of both.  For some, the lay brothers, the days were filled mostly with physical labour, while for others, the Religious, the balance was more the other way.  But both were seen as not only contributing to the life of the community, but also offering service to God.

Today, many Christians find their days to be filled to overflowing with practical work, whether it be long hours of paid work and commuting or of domestic tasks and childcare.   It can be hard to find enough time to pray and to worship, and I meet many Christian people who feel not only frustrated but also guilty about this.  While obviously it would be unhealthy for work to squeeze prayer out entirely, perhaps part of the answer is to learn sometimes to see, and to use, work as prayer.

Remember George Herbert’s poem:  “Teach me, my God and King, in all things thee to see;  and what I do in anything to do it as for thee”?  Its fourth verse reads:  “A servant with this clause makes drudgery divine;   who sweeps a room, as for thy laws, makes that and the action fine”.  Two examples come to mind from my own experience.  First, I once took a job for a few months in a local factory.  Much of what I did was repetitive and monotonous, requiring no mental effort whatever.  I learnt to regard the mental space as a gift.   Seeding my mind for twenty minutes or so early each day with some scripture or other reading (Julian of Norwich I remember especially) I was able to ‘day-dream’ spiritually, to my great refreshment.  Or when the work was physically repetitive (I remember bending thousands of rods in a pipe-bender) I would repeat a prayerful phrase dozens of times over, in time to the motion; and in so doing found an experience of God’s love.

My second example is more recent, and a little different.  A friend rang in distress one evening, asking me to pray for her in a sad and difficult situation which she was about encounter.  I felt very concerned for her and the others involved, and eager to hold them before God in prayer – but I was running late for a meeting, and needed to prepare its agenda in a hurry.  The best I could do was to offer a short verbal prayer, and then (putting on a CD of Russian Orthodox chant) I consecrated my agenda-writing to God as a prayer in itself.  Like an intention at a mass, it was an intention at the word-processor.  The CD was an optional extra, but the agenda was a prayer, and it felt no less so than any earnest spoken petitions would have been.

Perhaps these examples are mundane – and I certainly don’t suggest that they substitute for more definite times of devotion.  But as part of a life offered to God I regard them as much as prayers as any more formal words might have been.  And to those whose days are full of ‘secular’ tasks, I urge:  “Don’t feel so guilty:  you’re called to offer God what you have at your disposal, not what you haven’t.”

 


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