Life in Community

Ora et Labora

Balancing Prayer and Work in Ordinary Life

April 20, 2021 by

Back in February, @Pontifex tweeted this inspirational gem: “The person who prays is like someone in love with the beloved in his or her heart wherever they go. So we can pray at any moment, and during what happens every day: on the street, in the office, on public transportation, through words and in the silence of our hearts.”

Ora et labora: pray and work. Benedict of Nursia used the phrase in his monastic rule for a reason, and it rings true in other intentional communities as well. It’s not an exhortation to prayer or work, it highlights both, which permeate each other in a complete, intentional life, where people are church.

Hay Harvest"Hay Harvest." Oil on wood painting by Pieter Bruegel, 1565.

The Bruderhof’s Foundations of our Faith and Calling states: “. . . times of quiet alone before God are important for every brother and sister. Each one has to find the right rhythm between silence and fellowship, that is, between encountering God in solitude or through community with others. (107)” Since people are very different from each other, this recognition of diversity is wise. Everyone I know will acknowledge the need for both oratio (prayer) and labos (work), but I’ve heard some disagreements over the balance of these two essential ingredients of Christian life. How much time should be dedicated to work? How much to prayer and spiritual reading? And if you can pray anywhere, are extended times of reflection even necessary?

In keeping with an Anabaptist caution against the overuse of religious language and the biblical warning not to take the name of the Lord in vain, some friends of mine won’t talk about their spiritual life. If pressed, they may emphasize that it’s not very important because faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26), and the way someone lives is the best confession of faith (James 1:22–27; Matt. 5:16). I’ve never heard these friends cite Martin Luther’s surprising Treatise on Good Works, or Anabaptist theologian Menno Simon’s “The True Christian Faith” which defends James before Lutherans who clearly never read their founder’s aforementioned work, but they are living this theology.

But they may cite Eberhard Arnold’s “Love is Work,” a down-to-earth reflection in a similar vein, or this lovely quote from Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Catholic who defended everyday sanctity long before Josemaría Escrivá and John Paul II did: “It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work. . . . To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dung fork in his hand, a woman with a slop pail, give him glory too. He is so great that all things give him glory if you mean they should. So then, my brethren, live.” Great words from “The Principle or Foundation,” penned in the nineteenth century when the life of professed religious was generally viewed as holier than that of the laity, they were not meant to knock religious reflection at all, in spite of how they may sound out of context. Rather, they are a timeless representation of an integration of prayer and work that my friends live out.

Besides dedicating our work to God, there are other ways to integrate ora et labora. Some fellow Bruderhof members have told me how, while working on a repetitive task in the factory, or even complex industrial sewing, they are able to pray for ailing friends or crisis situations around the world. I genuinely admire their ability to concentrate simultaneously on both tasks.

Another example is communing with God by taking a break to enjoy his nature. A good friend of mine finds so much solace with God outdoors that she rarely feels the need to read her Bible. She’d never justify herself with Two Books theology – the Church Fathers’ idea that God revealed his will to humankind in a first book, creation, but had to recur to written scripture when folks didn’t understand the first edition – but she pores over the more ancient source, nonetheless, and returns to her job refreshed.

So in an Anabaptist intentional community, is there room for people who spend extended time in prayer and even, perhaps, meditate?

In all honesty, I’m not aware of anyone here who assumes a proper lotus position and chants the traditional om mani padme hum. But I do know that many people, including me, need isolation, quiet, and a time of true solitude to really connect with God. And as long as the goal of drinking from the Source is returning to the trenches recharged, meditation is certainly a valid way of living Christian spirituality. In fact, there is a long tradition of Christian meditation, going back to Origen’s third century “lectio divina” – and indeed to Christ, who, “rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark. . . departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35).

This tradition is continued here in its own way. For instance, Arnold speaks of the silent, reflective “creative pause” that each member of a community needs in order to recharge. And my grandfather Richard Thomson, who came to the Bruderhof as a young man back in the 1950’s, passed on his love of Christian meditation to me:

As I grasp it, the important thing is not personal piety, but rather that my will be in complete harmony with God’s will. Certainly, for this, obedience to the commands of God and Jesus is first and essential. But outer obedience needs the support of inner understanding. This inner understanding can increase when we clear away every hindrance, and each wrong thought is a hindrance. I see contemplative prayer as a method of shedding these false concepts, allowing God’s will to be more important than my thoughts.
Contemplative prayer is not a personal action in which I try to achieve something. This prayer of attention and listening is an activity already going on in the invisible Church, and I owe it to God to simply join in. I do this because God wants me, and everyone, to take part in it, wholeheartedly and with faith in all Jesus’ promises.

So whether you’re a contemplative or don’t feel at all “spiritual,” you’ll find like-minded sisters and brothers at the Bruderhof. Stop by and join in as we follow the charge ora et labora, however you, personally, balance them out.

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Coretta Thomson

Coretta Thomson is a contributing editor for Plough Publishing.

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