George Plathottam sdb
Quarantine in Covid times can be different kind of experience for different people. In these past months when many things we planned came down crashing, my thoughts turned to Ora et labora.
I write these lines on the penultimate day of my two-week quarantine in India, and I thought of sharing with you some new insights which kept me going. For me these few months have been a journey, however faltering it might have been, of ora et labora - prayer and work.
I thank the Lord for the moments of prayer and work, the serenity and peace I experienced even in the midst of the raging pandemic and the havoc it continues to wreck. How reassuring is the Lord’s message to us for each moment: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
Ora et labora is a call to pray persistently and work relentlessly even in the midst of uncertainty. The capacity to balance the two is the secret of a fruitful journey of life, a spirituality for daily living. It is so much more needed particularly now when we face a totally changed, challenged situation.
Whatever may be the conditions that surround us, the nature of our work or the illnesses that might afflict us or even the death of our dear ones, we still can call on the Lord; we still can go on quietly praying and working.
Ora et labora seems simple but it is profound, it is not a day’s program. It is a journey we have to begin with baby steps. It is a ‘field’ we have to buy selling all else we value and carefully cultivate each day.
For many people the present phase of life is a vexing time. Life has turned topsy-turvy. Our plans and schedules have gone haywire. We do not know the future. Uncertainty, anxiety and even fear loom large before us. Many ask ‘why’? We think ours as the worst of times. Read the startling words of St Augustine written centuries ago. They seem to be written for us now:
Is there any affliction now endured by mankind that was not endured by our fathers before us? What sufferings of ours even bear comparison with what we know of their sufferings?... You may think past ages were good, but it is only because you are not living in them…Just think what those past ages were like! Is there one of us who does not shudder to hear or read of them? Far from justifying complaints about our own time, they teach us how much we have to be thankful for (Office of Reading, August 19, 2020).
Yes, we can be thankful even in the midst of affliction. For me these months have been serene and peaceful. I have been able to go on with my work through regular online meetings and discussions, e-mails and other forms of communication. It has been also a time I consider priceless to pray, read, re-examine life’s many priorities, to realize that I am not indispensable. Even without us the world will go on. We all have, to a lesser or greater extent, come to understand the illusion of our indispensability.
I thought of the rule of Benedict of Nursia who lived approximately 480 to 547, and the simple formula of life centered on God: ‘Ora et labora’ - work and prayer truly apt for times such as these.
Benedict gifted to the Church his deep insight into how best we can shape our life centering on God and at the same time cope with the humdrum daily living in this world. His spiritual vision has shaped the foundations of western monasticism and profoundly influenced the Founders of religious Orders and the universal Church and society.
Monk or not, Benedict’s maxim can truly help us navigate the turbulent times of the current pandemic. Prayer and work are not at enmity with each other, they are allies. Whatever be one’s way of life, one must learn to balance these two important, but sometimes competing or even conflicting values of life. Life is a mix of contemplation and action, worship and work. Prayer can be as tedious and difficult just as work but when work begins with prayer, work is sanctified and made meaningful. When prayer precedes and follows work, that prayer becomes pleasing to God like the incense offered up to him. We bring to God in prayer the work of our human hands, minds and intellect.
In the busy world of work and feverish activity, how often prayer has become a casualty, a dispensable item. How frequently or periodically have we substituted work with prayer, given to Caesar what belonged to God. Psalm 127:1-2 reminds us:
Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.
In vain you rise early and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves.
But how can we find the balance, how to prioritize the things that really matter? Prayer powers our work, work becomes sanctified when centered on prayer. Benedict, like most other saints who followed his precepts of monastic life, knew the deep bond between the two. Stillness of the heart strengthens the sinews of our hands. Work gets an extraordinary power when sanctified by prayer. Without prayer work can be vexing, tedious, monotonous, mendacious, even purposeless. But balanced, blended together the two produce an extraordinary synergy and harmony.
It is easy to tilt the balance as we often do. The problem is we tend to tilt it in favor of work than prayer. We labor under the illusion that we can rob time from prayer and spent it on work, and offer the work to God. It is a mistake especially in the early stages of our spiritual journey. It is a big temptation to prioritize our work above prayer. We are inclined to do it because work tends to satisfy us, its fruits are visible, measurable, others can see it, admire it. We get adulation and appreciation, our ego is bolstered and in the height of our glory, we tend to think we are indispensable, we are at the centre of everything; in the process we might as well forget God.
Work is not a substitute for prayer, nor can we compensate the worship of God with work. Ora et labora: true spirituality consists not of adding up the two but blending them to build a holy communion centered on God.
Fr George Plathottam sdb, PhD is Executive Secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences Office of Social Communication (FABC-OSC) and is based in Manila, Philippines.