To Work Is Not Quite to Pray

To Work Is Not Quite to Pray June 4, 2014

St. Benedict has often been (mis)quoted as saying, “Labora est Ora”. Or: “To work is to pray”. It is not clear precisely what was meant by this phrase when it first was propagated, but the guiding sentiment seems clear enough: Work – that activity whereby we take up and transform the creation towards some productive end -, can count as an act of worship.


The Christian tradition’s attitude towards work would seem to make such a sentiment attractive. For the Christian tradition has, by-and-large, declared work to be a good thing – in fact, a sacred thing. The Old Testament paints for us a beautiful picture of God as The Master Worker and Craftsman; and central to the Old Testament’s story is the contention that God created man as a co-worker and co-craftsman. When we work – or, at least, when we work well – we are not only fulfilling our created vocation, we are not only pleasing God; we are, in fact, entering into a peculiar sort of communion with God.


The most recent Pope to bear the name of the aforementioned St. Benedict echoed such a thought:


“In the Greek world, only intellectual work was considered worthy of a free man. Manual labor was left to the slaves. It’s totally different in biblical religion. Here, the Creator — who, in a beautiful image, made man with his own hands — himself appears to give us the example of a man working with his hands and, in doing so, working with his mind and with his heart. Man imitates the Creator because this world given to us by his hand is an inhabitable world. This appears in the biblical story from the very start. But always, in a powerful way, in the fact that Jesus was “tecton,” “artisan,” “worker” appears the nobility and greatness of this work.”


The positive status of work is no less clear in the Protestant tradition, which is unsurprising given one of the most fundamental breaks between Protestants and the Catholic Church came with the Reformers’ rejection of a dichotomy between the “religious life” and the “ordinary life” — and taking the place of this dichotomy, a valorization of what we might call the religious, ordinary life.


“The homeliest service that we do in an honest calling, though it be but to plow, or dig, if done in obedience, and conscience of God’s Commandment, is crowned with an ample reward; whereas the best works for their kind (preaching, praying, offering Evangelical sacrifices) if without respect of God’s injunction and glory, are loaded with curses. God loveth adverbs; and cares not how good, but how well.” – the Puritan bishop Joseph Hall, quoted from C. Taylor’s Sources of the Self


And with this valorization of the ordinary life came a valorization of the chief preoccupation of the “ordinary life”: work. To quote yet another Puritan:


“Every one thinks himself Gods son: then hear this voice, Go my son. You have all your vineyards to go to. Magistrates Go to the bench to execute judgement and justice. Ministers Go to the Temple, to preach, to pray, to do the works of Evangelists. People Go to your callings, that you may eat the labours of your own hands: Eye to thy seeing, ear to thy hearing, foot to thy walking, hand to thy working … every man to his profession, according to that station, wherein God bath disposed us…. The incitation gives way to the Injunction, work.” – Thomas Adams, The Works of Thomas Adams, Vol. II


Work is – or I should say, can be – a sacred activity. Or so much of the Christian tradition has thought. But should we understand (good) work as a type of worship? Should we make the leap from work-as-sacred to work-as-worship? No. Work — even though it may bring us into the communion of co-workership with God, even though it may bring us in line with our calling — even for all this, our work will not typically be a form of worship. And we run a great risk if we make the mistake of thinking that it is.


The philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff has recently offered an excellent characterization of the nature of worship (or more precisely, Christian worship). Says Wolterstorff: Worship, at its heart, is a way of “acknowledging and honoring the unsurpassable worth and excellence of God”. But it is more specific than this; after all, worship is just one particular way of honoring the unsurpassable excellence of God. There are myriad other ways we might honor God’s excellence. Wolterstorff mentions the practice of justice and mercy in our day-to-day lives as one example. By practicing justice and mercy we are answering the prophetic call to imitate God — and presumably, in so doing, honoring the excellence of God. But this is not quite to worship God. Why not?


What makes worship distinct amongst other modes of honoring God’s excellence, says Wolterstorff, is, first, the orientation of the worshipper. When one is feeding the hungry or clothing the naked, he or she is usually focused on the one who is hungry or naked, not on God. (And rightly so. To give another person our full attention is often an important way of loving that person.) In worship, however, our focus and attention is turned directly toward God. Wolterstorff uses the imagery of facing God.


The question before us, recall, was whether work was a form of worship. If we accept Wolterstorff’s understanding of the nature of worship, our answer should be simply, No. In worship our orientation is “God-wards”. We face God. But in our work – just as in our practice of justice and mercy – we face the world. Our attention and our focus are upon our task and the materials upon which we perform our task. In fact, it will very often be the case that the greater the craftsmanship, the greater the attention and focus; the interesting consequence being that the very act of drawing closer to God in the communion of co-workership is to draw further away from him in terms of our orientation.


Good work is something the Christian ought to think well of. It is created and blessed by God. It is a way of participating with God in his own work. It is a way of acknowledging and honoring the unsurpassable worth and excellence of God. But, for all of this, we still ought not to call it worship. For if we do, we run the risk of our gaze always being downward, and our foregoing making time to give God the fullness of our heart and mind – something our tradition has also insisted he deserves. Work and worship belong together. Not in the relationship of identity, but as two essential parts to the daily rhythm of a good life. A life which balances times of an intense focus on the creation with times of an intense focus on God (and with, it ought to be added, times of rest – the absence of an intensity of focus) is a greatly preferable holism to that holism which proposes the impossible task of spreading our focus in all directions at all times.

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