Friday, September 2, 2016

Ora et Labora

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The concept that  "Work is Prayer," is not hard to imagine where it came from. After all, the motto of the Benedictines is "Prayer and Work," isn't it? Now Ora et Labora is very close to Ora est Labora. Unless you know some Latin and are very careful with words, a qualification which eliminates most people, it is easy enough to arrive at Labora est Ora and blame it on St. Benedict.

St. Benedict does make some comments about work in his Chapter 48. The text begins with another pithy saying: "Idleness is the devil's workshop." In this chapter he sets up a rather precise daily schedule that includes time every day for manual labor. Some commentators have claimed that this is in fact the first time in history that a precise work schedule was set up, and they add that this is the real beginning of the history of the modernization of work. Without regular hours, not much gets accomplished.

Now there is no question that the followers of Benedict were good workers. Probably because they did observe a regular schedule, they accomplished considerable feats in the realm of agriculture, architecture and so forth. But the fundamental change was in attitude: The upper classes of that time looked on physical work as utterly degrading, but the Benedictines believed that hard work is ennobling. So they broke out of a sterile mindset that had corroded the ancient civilizations.

But Benedict certainly did not think he was enunciating a new philosophy of work. His comments in Chapter 48 have to be taken in context to put them in the right perspective. For one thing, he has greatly toned down the corresponding Chapter 50 of the Rule of the Master. What is the Master's attitude toward work? He sees it as a way to fill up time; if people are not kept busy, they may get into trouble. In fact, he is sure they will get into big trouble, namely, sin. He is in fact the prototypical workaholic, the patron saint of those who think "life is work."

Compared to the work-ideology of the Master, Benedict offers but a few comments on the subject. There is the one about idleness; and he also claims that the Apostles worked hard and so should monks: "Then they are real monks when they live by the labor of their hands." Finally, if some monks have trouble filling up their Sundays with reading, they should be given light work to do. In those days before the invention of Pro Football, Sunday was to be spent in reading and meditation. But if a person could not manage it, then work was necessary.