Most of us are familiar with St. Paul’s injunction to pray “unceasingly” in his first letter to the Thessalonians.
But what does it mean to pray unceasingly? Surely we recognize that prayer is essential to keeping our souls alive in grace, much like the oxygen that feeds our lungs. St. Alphonsus Liguori, the great doctor of the church is often quoted as having said, “He who prays is saved. He who does not pray is lost.”
Some might see that as rather simplistic, but there is an eternal truth behind that simple logic. Anyone who has ever known the power and effects of prayer on a Christian life will also know the seductive havoc that an absence of prayer can wreak on a moral life. We know that from weakness and we know that from experience.
To raise our thoughts and hearts to God, to pray as it were constantly not only sounds daunting, it sounds impractical given the daily challenges and obligations of life.
With only 24 hours a day, most people already feel the stress of being tugged and pulled in all directions by the attention demanded of us in our professional and private lives.
“I don’t even have time for myself” is the refrain often heard on the frustrated lips of people struggling to make a living and upkeep a home.
And yet scripture calls us to pray without ceasing, almost as if God urges us to pray even more when the challenges of life press down on us with greater demands.
But I am not Carthusian monk you say, living the liturgy of the hours. I am not wrapped up in a constant cloud of prayer and living in a monastery equally clouded by the austere heights of quiet mountains and pine trees.
Instead, I work a twelve-hour job, seated behind a desk full of papers, enslaved to a computer, ferrying difficult passengers for hours on end, cramming for exams, cooking and cleaning for a family of five etc. And the list goes on.
Is work really the bane of our spiritual life? Does it obstruct our worship of God or does it in fact ennoble our living hours by offering us divine opportunities to reach heaven that much more easily?
Let’s face it, the ordinary preoccupation for most of our days is the work we do in our offices, in our schools, in our fields, in our barracks and in our homes. We cannot detach ourselves from this necessary part of life. And for good reason – work gives us a purpose, a means to support our loved ones and ourselves, and work allows us to contribute in a meaningful way to society. All of which are good things when done well, all of which can be offered to God as a loving sacrifice of the fruits of our love.
At its core, work is heaven’s gift to us. How well we do it can be a prayer of love to God. And prayer is above all an act of humility and gratitude.
We thank the Lord for the jobs we hold, knowing that it is a gift from Him. We thank the Lord for the salaries we make, and the benefits we enjoy. But we also thank him for the tedium we sometimes face at work, the routine that can numb our days, the office politics, the challenges of a difficult boss and the struggles we encounter in doing our work well.
It is because these routine struggles and mundane annoyances hold the key to sanctity and holiness when we embrace them with a supernatural vision.
Many people look for grand signs of God in the extraordinary, when God Himself has come to us in the most ordinary sacrament of a baby born to a poor working family. And it is in the most mundane, most routine and most ordinary demands of life that God calls us to be saints.
As lay people, our cloister is the world. Our mission fields are our offices and our working environments. Our apostolate is our witness to our faith and the reality of God in the midst of our secular activities.
We are contemplatives who point to God in the middle of the world, not away from it. And since we spend more than half our waking lives at work, we need to learn how to turn our work into prayer, to super-naturalize our activities so that they have the power to sanctify, to witness, to praise and to convert.
If we fail to do this, then our worship of God will be reduced to mumbled snatches of “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” just before we fall asleep, much to the spiritual starvation of our souls. And as we pray less and spend less time with God, in time we shall stop praying altogether.
Indeed work is prayer, and prayer can be our work. The motto of the Benedictine Order; “Ora et Labora” means to pray and to work. These two pillars of Benedictine sanctity are not irreconcilable because prayer divinizes our work and makes it holy, while work done in a spirit of prayer is an act of worship to God. These are the oil and wick that keep our spiritual life alight with the life of Christ.
St. Josemaria Escriva, the saint of the ordinary, often reminded Christians that "Work in our hands, as it was in Christ’s, must be turned into prayer to God and service to mankind for the co-redemption of the whole human race."
What does he mean that work in our hands must be turned into prayer? What sacrifices must we make to unlock the spiritual wellspring behind our efforts? It sounds awfully hard and most of us are already chafing under the natural demands of our professions and labors.
But the simple truth is what Blessed Mother Teresa once advocated, “To do small things with great love.”
She also said that we are not called to be successful in life but to be faithful, not that there is anything wrong with success. But when we turn the small nuisances, difficulties and challenges of our daily lives into opportunities for prayer, we change the world as it were by our response to the world.
Are we distracted, bored and tired at work? Let us say to the Lord, “Lord, I give you the next hour of my work as a living sacrifice of praise. I will endeavor to do it well, to do it joyfully and as perfectly as I can. And I offer it as a means of grace for my wife and children.”
Can we barely stand the sight of our boss or colleague? Let us say, “Lord, I will endeavor to smile and be positive in my encounters with them today, though it costs me my pride, and I offer this in union with your most holy passion.”
Are we tempted to skive and do less than our fair share at work? Let us say, “Lord, I shall offer an extra hour of honest work today in thanksgiving for your blessings, and I offer this mortification for the life of the Church.”
In sanctifying your work, you participate in the mystery of Christ’s redemption by sanctifying the world.
If you make your work holy, you learn to become holy. And your relationships with your colleagues and bosses, not to mention the results of your efforts, encourage an atmosphere of grace in the office that glorifies the presence of God. This is how we win the world back to Christ, by beginning where we are, in the ordinary work that we are already doing. Our professional work can indeed be God’s work.
There is no greater mortification than the crunching patience and self-denial that is needed to turn our daily boredom, tiredness, frustrations, laziness, routine and pride into moments of heroic Christian love.
How pleasing it is to the Lord for a wife to beautify herself after a hard day of looking after the kids in preparation for her husband coming home. How pleasing it is to the Lord that a husband should greet his wife with a broad smile, a warm kiss and a bouquet of flowers after a terrible day in the office, and to spend time listening to her despite his own desire for some quiet.
How pleasing it is to the Lord that we practice virtue at work, whether we run for high office or whether we drive a garbage truck, so that we may draw extraordinary fruits from our ordinary work when done well and done with Christian love.
How pleasing it is to the Lord that we begin and end our days by offering to do all things well for the Lord, whatever the circumstances of our work.
As Catholic Christians, all of us share in the common priesthood of Christ the high priest. And just as Abel offered the work of his hands and Melchizedek, the sacrifice of bread and wine, we too can offer God the best fruits of our work that come to us each day.
For the priest, the altar is the table where he celebrates the Liturgy of the Eucharist. For you and me, our altar is the table in our office, where we offer God the sacrifice of our work and talents.
Whether you are a teacher, a banker, a cleaner, a fireman or a housewife, that is where God has placed you in his great wisdom. And that is where he wishes you to find him, and to make him known to the world. The circumstances of ordinary life are not an obstacle but rather the material and path of sanctification.
Work becomes prayer when we do it to glorify God, when we make our talents, skills and labor an offering of love to the Lord, so that doing our work well with perfection, charity and patience becomes no less meritorious to God than giving our lives in martyrdom.
Indeed, the dying to self required of us to persevere in a spirit of cheerfulness despite difficulties everyday is a bloodless martyrdom that wins for us the crown of eternal life, making us saints through our ordinary duties and work.
It is a fact that God wants to reign in the midst of every human activity, especially the ordinary and mundane, but the temptation to remove God from the world and keep him only in the churches, is the same one that seduces some of us to pray only on Sundays and at mass.
Jesus who taught us the perfect prayer worked and sanctified his days as a carpenter for many years before beginning his public ministry.
St. Paul, the apostle of the gentiles supported his apostolic life by his work as a tent maker and he too asked that we pray unceasingly.
Should we then not believe that this is not only easy and possible but also crucial and necessary? Indeed we must.
We pray not just with our voices and our hearts, but also with our eyes, our hands, our feet and our minds. We pray not just in churches and the quiet of our bedrooms, but in offices, farms, hospitals, and schools and in every place where a Christian heart is ready to turn to God.
When St. Thomas Aquinas was asked what it took for a person to become a saint, he answered simply, “Will it.”
Let us then put aside the excuse of work in saying we have no time to pray, and let us repeat with St. Benedict the holy genius of a good Christian life - “Ora et Labora”.
Let us “pray and work”, for the way to heaven is set before you everyday.