The glory of work

Sister Judith Sutera | May 25, 2017

In last week’s column, I started reflecting on notions of work and St. Benedict’s ideas on the topic. There were so many more ideas I wanted to explore, and work is such an important part of life, that I decided to devote another column to it.

Some of the earliest people in the Church to take up a radical religious life were touched by the command to “pray always.”

But what could that possibly mean? There is a story from the ancient desert monks about a man who came to a wise leader saying he wanted to pray always and live like the angels. He was shown to a cave and went in to pray. After two days, he saw a brother and asked him if the community was fasting. “No,” the brother replied, “we had dinner already.” The man then asked about the day before and was again told that there had been a very good meal. When the seeker asked why he had not been summoned, the monk replied, “Father said not to disturb you, that you wanted to live like an angel.” In the often humorous way such stories were told, it is clear that spiritual life has no room for those who think they can escape their physical reality and live on air and the love of God.

The challenge for every person who wants to grow spiritually, not just people in a monastery, is to live every moment of the day as a living prayer. Many people have the practice of making a “Morning Offering.” There are various forms, but the point is to pray that every word and act of that day will give praise and gratitude to God, even if I cannot always be conscious of my life as a constant prayer. Some people even put the prayer on their mirror so they will be sure to be reminded to say it each morning.

We can also take the opportunity to engage in prayer while doing work that doesn’t require deep thinking: household chores like dishes and vacuuming, exercising, yard work, etc. We can also try to be more mindful that all of our work is a share in God’s work of creation. Anything we produce, any interaction that assists another person, any service we provide, should be seen as an act of praise and gratitude, because all that we are and have comes not from our own goodness but from the goodness of our creator.

Here’s another place where St. Benedict has an interesting take that might be different from the way others in our culture would operate. He has a chapter in his rule, chapter 57, on the artisans of the monastery. He is happy to celebrate the fact that there are people in the monastery who have special gifts for one type of work or another. He doesn’t think they should hide their light under a bushel, but should be allowed to be creative. This is one of the reasons why so much art and culture has come from monasteries throughout history.

But he is concerned if they get what he calls “puffed up” by it. If one no longer does work for the glory of God, but with the spotlight on self, Benedict would say it’s time to stop doing it and get back to the truth. He ends the chapter with the famous phrase “so that in all things God may be glorified.” Not a bad phrase to have on the mirror for a morning offering, or anywhere else we can post it to keep us focused on the real reason for all our work.