Pray, Work, and Read

In the tradition of the Benedictine monastery, the daily activities of the monks could be these three categories. People join the monastic community primarily to devote themselves to these three.

  1. Liturgical prayer
  2. Manual labor
  3. Lectio Divina

The liturgical prayer is the foundation of their spiritual life. With this practice, they ensure to keep and inherit the traditions of the church that Peter founded as the rock.

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

Matthew 16:18

It should be collective and formal so that nothing should be modified or customized to “entertain” anyone. Nobody should be an “outstanding performer” in this practice to be praised and worshiped except for God Himself alone — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It should be anonymous by nature. There must be a perfect asymmetry that God is everything, and we are nothing.

Pray without ceasing

According to the Rule of Saint Benedict, for example, the monks traditionally conduct the eight prayers each day:

  1. Matins or Vigils (2 am)
  2. Lauds or Dawn Prayer (5 am)
  3. Prime or Early Morning Prayer (6 am)
  4. Terce or Mid-Morning Prayer (9 am)
  5. Sext or Midday Prayer (12 noon)
  6. None or Mid-Afternoon Prayer (3 pm)
  7. Vespers or Evening Prayer (6 pm)
  8. Compline or Night Prayer (7 pm)

For these prayers, they use the 150 Psalms distributed over one week with reading the scriptures. There could be several differences depending on the period of the church history and tradition. The intensity is more or less the same.

The bottom line is that the monks wholly devote themselves to these rigidly scheduled liturgical prayers. They don’t pray according to their whims and feelings. It should be on their obedience and faith in God. They pray according to His will. They pray without ceasing.

Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.

1 Thessalonians 5:17-18

Pray while working

If so, they don’t have to do anything else as long as they pray ceaselessly? In their monastic life, those scheduled prayers are the only activities they have to do? God forbid.

The second activity is their manual labors, which are as crucial as their constant prayers. As well-known, the motto for the Benedictine monastery is this:

  • Ora et labora (Pray and work)

If they pray without working, that is not their prayer at all. And if they work without prayer, that is not their work, either.

If we devote ourselves to prayer alone, we tend to be like a so-called armchair prayer, like those scholars who are only in the ivory tower without interacting with the real life of diverse people.

The monks should not live in a secluded life if and when their intention is from their self-will. They should never be selfishly selective in wishing a particular set of life to lead them into spirituality.

If we intend to be in the monastery to become “spiritual” and escape from what we think of the worldly reality, we will miss the point. We can never find true spirituality or peace of mind in such a place as it is from our self-will.

Meister Eckhart cautions us as follows:

People say: ‘O Lord, I wish that I stood as well with God and that I had as much devotion and peace with God as other people, and that I could be like them or could be as poor as they are.’ Or they say: ‘It never works for me unless I am in this or that particular place and do this or that particular thing. I must go to somewhere remote or live in a hermitage or a monastery.’ Truly, it is you who are the cause of this yourself, and nothing else. It is your own self-will, even if you don’t know it or this doesn’t seem to you to be the case. The lack of peace that you feel can only come from your own self-will, whether you are aware of this or not.

Selected Writings by Meister Eckhart

When it comes to working, we should not choose it based on our self-will, but our obedience towards God’s will. That is why the monks are encouraged to get involved in their manual labors.

Amid various worldly affairs, we tend to miss God’s will. Instead, with our limited understanding, we tend to seek atheistic randomness, cultic superstition, or reductionistic scientism.

As long as we are of this world, we don’t see His will. Nonetheless, we need to be in this world to recognize how much we miss and misunderstand His will, because of our self-will.

If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.

John 15:19

We must be in this world, not of this world. But then, we must realize that the monastery is still part of this world as far as our self-will is concerned.

Being in this world we can genuinely contemplate on the reality why Jesus called certain people blessed. Being not of this world, then, we can contemplate on how the eternal life would look like, which rests on our faithful obedience.

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

Matthew 5:3-12

Through manual labors, not only the monks, but we all experience the reality of our lives, where Jesus blessed certain people. At this very moment, our work becomes our prayer and vice versa. We work as if we pray; at the same time, pray as if we work. Both are no longer separable.

It is not only ora et labora (Pray and work), but also laborare est orare (To work is to pray), and orare est laborare (To pray is to work).

Mother Teresa also said:

Prayer does not demand that we interrupt our work, but that we continue working as if it were a prayer.

Mother Teresa (In My Own Words)

Thus, the first two activities for the monks are in principle both prayers based on their faithful obedience, which means God’s will alone. We pray without ceasing — whenever we are, whatever we do, and wherever we go.

Pray while reading

The third activity for the monastic life is Lectio Divina. It is one of the traditional forms of spiritual reading.

When we read the Bible, the mode of our reading has to be what Erich Fromm calls Being instead of Having. The goal of the latter is the possession of knowledge, which is on our self-will.

Even if our intention of reading is on our personal growth or deepening our faith, this type of spiritual reading is still the mode of Having as it is on our self-will.

If we read the Bible hard to become a good Christian or criticize others like non-Christians or different denominations, and this very intention is our self-will, then we would miss the point. If reading the Bible makes us more judgmental and antagonistic, what is the point of reading the Words of God in the first place?

Only when we completely surrender ourselves into the mystery of the scriptures and the Words of God, our reading would become Being, where reading becomes prayer, prayer becomes reading. Indeed, during the liturgical prayer, while we read the Psalms and other scriptures, such action of reading should be an integral part of our prayer.

In Lectio Divina, furthermore, the emphasis is on the solo reading. We read the Bible alone, just as Jesus instructed us to pray alone.

But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

Matthew 6:6

In the monastic traditions, for example, sometimes on the whole Sunday or every day before dawn, the monks spend their time on this divine reading alone. As the instruction of Lectio Divina implies, their act of reading should be their contemplative prayer as well.

Lectio Dvina consists of the following steps:

  1. Lectio (Read)
  2. Meditatio (Meditate)
  3. Oratio (Pray)
  4. Contemplatio (Contemplate)

It is not an act of reading alone. Integrating all four layers, we could make our act of reading Being, where both reading and prayer is the one selfless devotion.

It is not realistic to say that we all have to enter the monastic community. We can, however, learn a lot from their practices and traditions. That is to say, being in this world but not of this world, we pray without ceasing, work as if we pray, and read the scriptures for Being into contemplative prayer.

Image by Peter H

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