Saturday, December 23, 2023

Labora est Ora, Ora est Labora

 Brought forward from May 2006.  Please see the comments for a slight correction.


The young man’s idea is that being a seeker after truth is work, a ruthless intellectual endeavor, wrestling with the great eternal issues. After the struggle, a greater calm and self-assurance is supposed to set in. Not that spiritual inquiry is abandoned of course, for one is supposed to be ever ready to resume the quest (fearless, dauntless, facing the world…oh, you know the Don Quixote/Galahad/Skywalker image, right?).

The opposite may be truer. It is worship that is work, seeking that is the hobby. We visited a seeker-friendly church while traveling last week, a true exemplar of Gospel Lite. The music was modern, heavily arranged, well done for what it is. The preacher was affable, unthreatening, mildly humorous, putting forward some ideas about the big picture of life, and how God might fit into that. Such churches often have much more solid work done behind the scenes in their various ministries and small groups, and I don’t begrudge them their different style. But I was struck with how watered-down and easy-to-swallow it all was. The last song was not actually a worship song, but the recent country hit “I Hope You Dance,” which is thought- provoking only in the Today is the first day of the rest of your life school of philosophy.

Not all seekers fit the seeker-church mold, certainly, and I’m sure that there are some few who agonize over the issues just as the myth dictates. But I suspect that the proper synonym for seeking is not "wrestling," but "dabbling." The people I have known going through crises of faith and grand searches after wisdom (including myself at times) have not really wrestled with angels, but with their own reflections. They may be as tired, confused, and miserable as people doing real wrestling, but there’s not a lot of goin’ on going on.

The mask came off “seeking” because of news we received during the service. My wife had forgotten to turn off her cell, which rang just as a song was starting. She was immediately and clearly upset, and I expected that one of our elderly friends or relatives had died – it was clearly a death, or they wouldn’t have called during likely worship time on Sunday morning. But it was more a more shocking and unjust death: an almost 20 year old we have known since he was a baby. I passed the word down along the line of my sons and daughter-in-law, “Adam Bishop is dead.”

Any event, even weekly worship, might seem suddenly superficial in the wake of such news. The death of a young man and the placid proceding of the rest of the world are so incompatible that each seems unreal in turn. But the complete inadequacy of seeker worship was painfully apparent. We requested a room for the family to pray separately in, and they obliged by adding in a pleasant woman who didn’t quite grasp what was going on and wanted to lead the prayer. I think she’s used to doing altar call followups or something. I expect she found us as jarring as we did her.

I missed and needed worship; worship that required preparing, cutting and chewing and digesting, not merely something that slides down like ice cream. Labora est Ora is a motto of the Benedictines (though Benedict didn’t actually say it) “Work is prayer.” Better to reverse that, I think. Ora est Labora, “prayer is work.”


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thank you for the clarification. I have been told, but have not seen, that Benedictines currently use the phrase in some printed materials, as distinct from the more historically sound labora et ora, to convey particular ideas to the semi-educated, such as myself. I am sure you are correct.

Anonymous said...

Distantly related to my epiphany about Eastern Orthodoxy -- its ascendance in the US is doubtful, because we don't get weekends "off."

a guy in pajamas said...

Well said. I know the feeling, but could not have described it as well.

Grim said...

As a philosopher, I have to point out that a claim of the form “a=a” doesn’t alter in meaning by being reversed. If you think “work is prayer” is different from “prayer is work,” that’s worth reflecting upon.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think the implication is All Work is prayer vs All Prayer is work, which would be a slight difference. But point certainly taken