Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

Ora et Labora

by Fr. Adrian Burke, OSB


I head this writing with what has become known as the "motto" of our Order: Ora et Labora. I don't include a reference to where this can be found in the holy Rule of St. Benedict because it isn't found there.

As a motto, the phrase (which means "Prayer and Work") isn't even that old. Terrence Kardong, OSB, an American scholar of the Rule, notes in an article written for the Assumption Abbey Newsletter, that "the motto actually originates in a popular (19th century) book on Benedictine life written by the German abbot, Maurus Wolter."

Fr. Terrence's opinion about this being our "motto" is similar to my own. It might be better to consider as a motto the simple word PAX, or Pax intrantibus - which means "Peace to those entering here" - often inscribed on portals and gates of ancient monasteries in the West.

Still, Ora et Labora has stuck, and it does serve to convey an essential balance and moderation so key to St. Benedict's sensible approach to Christian life - monastic or otherwise. In his Rule, chapter 48 "On Daily Manual Labor," Benedict balances out the need to work, to financially support the monastery, with the need to pray, which, in the first place, is the heart of and purpose for the monastic way of life.

In the spring and summer months, Benedict assigns the earlier hours of the day to Labora  (manual labor). Sixth-century Europe had an agrarian economy, and during the warm months of year the planting and the harvesting were vital to the survival of the community. Then, from "first October to the beginnings of Lent," presumably after the harvest time is over, lectio divina (holy reading) is to occupy the first couple hours of the day, after the first "office," or liturgical prayer, until the "second hour" (two hours after the sun has risen).

In Lent, they are "free in the morning for lectio divina until the third hour." In these colder months, the best parts of the day are given to a form of praying with the Bible that entails slow and meditative pondering of the sacred scriptures. Earlier in the day, we are less likely to be too tired to stay attentive for lectio divina. But in the warm months between Easter to the first of October, the first hours of the day, after praying together the liturgy of "Prime," until the fourth hour of the day are for work (Labora).

Note how sensible this is. In the summer months, when by midday it's too hot to work in the fields, Benedict does the reasonable thing by allotting the cooler hours of the day to work, even displacing what he considers of primary importance, namely, prayer (Ora). But even in the summertime, after their morning labor, they are to return to the cloister to "devote themselves to reading" (lectio divina).

But no matter what aspect of our life he is considering, Benedict writes that, "all things are to be done with moderation" (RB 48.9). In Latin, Omnia mensurate fiant. Perhaps this would make a better "motto" for us Benedictines … I'd vote for it!

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.