Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

Benedictine Values: Prayer and Work

by Fr. Adrian Burke, OSB

Fr Guerric teaching.jpg

"Idleness is the enemy of the soul; therefore, the monks should have specified periods for work as well as for prayerful reading." 
Rule of St. Benedict: 48:1

Many people are likely aware of the popular Benedictine "motto" Prayer and Work, which is rendered in Latin as Ora et Labora.  Note that prayer is the first term in the saying, as it should be, since this would reflect the priority St. Benedict gives to prayer. Also, note that in the above quotation from the Holy Rule, taken from chapter 48 on The Daily Manual Labor, alongside "work," Benedict juxtaposes the activity called "prayerful reading," which is done in private. This seems to suggest that Benedict considers this kind of reading a sort of work. This is apt since elsewhere in the Rule, St. Benedict calls the daily chanting and reciting of the psalms in church, which we do as a community, the Work of God.  And nothing, writes Benedict, "Indeed, nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God." (RB 43.3)

The Work of God, also called the "liturgy of the hours," is prayed by the monastic community four times each day - five, if you include the daily celebration of the Eucharist - and we regard it as a labor of love. Prayerful reading, usually called by its Latin moniker, lectio divina, is a form of reflective, meditative reading of the Bible that each monk is to do on his own. The daily monastic schedule specifies times for the Work of God and also provides two half-hour slots for us to engage in lectio divina. And, like all forms of work, lectio divina, like the communal Work of God, demands discipline.  Praying with the Bible or any other form of praying demands attention and focus, and when modern technologies, present even in a monastery, offer opportunities for distraction, this can be challenging. 

St. Benedict places primary importance on the cultivation of a deeper awareness of God, such that one doesn't succumb to the temptation to fill time with idle distractions, for example, surfing internet websites or engaging in social media just because one is "bored." Such idle activity can lead to scurrilous entertainments - unwholesome idleness.

Benedict spills more ink on lectio divina and the Work of God in the chapter on daily manual labor than he does on manual labor itself, which suggests that he is perhaps more interested in monks being close to God than in getting their many, often too many, projects and tasks accomplished. Being a Benedictine monk is just another way of being different than the world, I suppose - a way of striving to be holy by putting God first, something we all strive to do each and every day in obedience to what St. Benedict expects of his monks: Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ  (RB 72.11).

Do you have a reflection on Christian faith or spirituality you would like to share? Click here to learn how to become a contributor to Echoes from the Bell Tower.

Echoes from the Bell Tower is a blog devoted to observations on Christian faith, spirituality and everyday events, by authors with a connection to the Benedictine values found at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Seminary and School of Theology. Contributors include students, permanent deacons, Benedictine oblates and Saint Meinrad monks. Their stories, thoughts and ideas highlight the mission and vision that ring out from the bell towers on this Hill in southern Indiana.