Pray and work?
The Benedictines have bequeathed to the world a twofold motto for daily life: ora et labora, pray and work. While some might presume that the ascetic life is about fleeing to a place of contemplation—and, to an extent, it is—they would be mistaken to believe that this flight from “the world” is also a flight from work. The Church fathers, East and West, have a long tradition that affirms the value of human labor. And their reflections on the subject contain depths of insight still relevant for those of us who live in “the world” today, such as how to find meaning in whatever work one may do.
Take, for example, the following from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers:
An old man said: “A man must work so that his work does not perish. However much he does, it is no use if it is impermanent. It is work that is little and lasting which shall stand.”
If we take this on the surface, we can see a commonsense exhortation to build a legacy with one’s work. Find something that really makes a difference, no matter how small, and dedicate your labor to that.
Well, that’s one way to read it. Personally, I’d quibble, however, that such an exhortation has the potential to alienate more than it might encourage. On the one hand, plenty of people may not see even a little lasting good in their job. The average factory worker, for example, is replaceable. And while many factories make fine products, it likely would not encourage many to exhort them to find meaning in the product of their work—trinkets, furniture, automobiles, and so on do not have the same lasting good as working for the Peace Corps, right?
On the other hand, some people may not be physically or mentally able to work in the same way as others. Many persons with disabilities are not even able to be a “cog in the machine”—do their disabilities disqualify them from the “little and lasting” work the old man recommends?
Thankfully, I am confident that ancient Christians like the old man above would have an entirely different understanding. For example, St. Basil the Great, one of the Church fathers of the fourth century, offered a different perspective on how to evaluate the work—or anything else—that we do. “There are, as it were, three conditions of life, and three operations of the mind,” writes St. Basil.
Our ways may be wicked, and the movements of our mind wicked; such as adulteries, thefts, idolatries, slanders, strife, passion, sedition, vain-glory, and all that the apostle Paul enumerates among the works of the flesh. Or the soul’s operation is, as it were, in a mean, and has nothing about it either damnable or laudable, as the perception of such mechanical crafts as we commonly speak of as indifferent, and, of their own character, inclining neither towards virtue nor towards vice. For what vice is there in the craft of the helmsman or the physician? Neither are these operations in themselves virtues, but they incline in one direction or the other in accordance with the will of those who use them. But the mind which is impregnated with the Godhead of the Spirit is at once capable of viewing great objects; it beholds the divine beauty, though only so far as grace imparts and its nature receives.
Now, at first glance, it might appear that St. Basil, too, ascribes meaninglessness to all sorts of work. In one sense this is accurate. Notice that he puts both the work of the helmsman and the physician on the same plane! But don’t we think of doctors as doing intrinsically good work? Shouldn’t their work automatically be more meaningful than that of the ancient equivalent of a truck driver?
However, I would argue that St. Basil’s fine ethical distinction here is the key to understanding the old man’s saying about “little and lasting” work. St. Basil knew that not all doctors use their skills to heal. Even in his day, in fact, some doctors would prescribe drugs to induce miscarriages for women who wanted abortions. The physician’s work is not intrinsically good and can sometimes be downright wicked.
No, what makes the work we do meaningful is not so much the product it produces in the world, however good that may be. Rather it is virtue that makes the difference. Again, this is not to glorify the Peace Corps over the factory, for example. Rather it is about the virtue one cultivates through one’s work, whatever that work may be. Even (perhaps especially) the most monotonous job provides opportunities for producing fruits of the Spirit along with the fruits of one’s labor.
What is required, first of all, is a different attitude toward one’s work, a more monastic outlook, I would argue. Every trial is an opportunity for patient endurance. Every inconvenience is an opportunity for self-denial. Long, repetitive work is invitation to constant, contemplative prayer or recitation of a few psalms or other Scriptures one knows. At the very least, I can say that this is how I have found meaning in my work. Why can’t the same be true for doing household chores, greeting guests at the local supermarket, or, for that matter, caring for the sick?
We may think of this as a little thing, but while all else in life may prove “impermanent,” the condition of our souls lasts even beyond the grave. The virtues, indeed, are “treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20). While the rat race of weekly work may seem to be an endless pursuit of “impermanent” earthly treasures, a small change in our perspective and spiritual practices can transform it into the pursuit of “divine beauty,” “so far as grace imparts and … nature receives.”