Prayer and Work

As Benedictine monks, we approach prayer in a distinctive, monastic way. We pray the Psalms, those ancient, iron-age poems given to the Church by the people of Israel, at regular times each day. We come together to do this "work of God" and it is the glue that holds our community life together.

IMAG0369-1.jpgThe Psalms are a rich repository of human religious experience, at times pleading, cursing, hoping, despairing, grieving, resting, rejoicing, praising, always from a position of profound trust in the saving power of God. Over the centuries, praying monks quickly learned that some of the Psalms were better suited to the morning, some for the evening, and some for midday. They noted that some of them were keyed to the mystery of the dying and rising of Jesus. So our prayer as monks is largely biblical and liturgical, ever responsive to the rhythm of the day and season.

We celebrate Eucharist each day, and with special festivity on Sunday. All of our prayer flows to and from the Sunday Eucharist, recognizing both spiritually and theologically that Christian monastic life would not make any sense without the resurrection of Jesus. Sunday is a "little" Easter!

Our individual prayer is also rooted in the Scriptures. From the earliest days of monastic life, monks have immersed themselves in the language, images, and narrative of the Bible. In the daily practice of reading a short passage of Scripture, pondering its meaning, and praying in and through the text, we continually rediscover the purpose and meaning for our lives and God's work in them. One of the great gifts of the monastic tradition is that we read Scripture continuously, that is, we don't jump around from one passage to another, from one book to another. Rather, we read and pray the Scriptures continuously, always in context.

Another powerful practice from the monastic tradition is centering prayer. Many times individuals find their prayer stymied and unfruitful because they conceive of it as human beings "talking to God." Centering prayer rebalances this equation because in this practice we simply sit in silence, in the presence of God, and let the Holy Spirit "work on us." Initially, because we are not speaking, our minds rush around, grabbing at everything. But with practice, we learn to let go of the mind's activity and to be in silence before God, who, as Saint Benedict teaches, is everywhere.

Monks work. They understand work as a normal, creative expression of being alive as a human being. They do everything from pastoring to teaching, administrating, repairing and maintaining the monastery, and growing food for the table. Saint Benedict instructs his monks that they should not complain if they have to "do the harvest," thereby ensuring that later generations of monks would respect all honest labor.

Note that the title of this section is "prayer and work." The conjunction "and" is extremely important because we are always struggling to maintain the balance between the two, between prayer and work. If we tip in either direction, we will surely be less than optimal in our search for union with God. Too much time in prayer can easily turn into a self-serving narcissism that is unaware of the needs of others. Too much work can easily lead one to rationalize being absent from community prayer, Eucharist, holy reading, and the life of the community. Prayer and work, in balance, are a sound-bite that expresses a distinctive element of Benedictine monastic spirituality.

Abbot John Klassen, OSB
June 25, 2013