Pray and Work: The Rule of St. Benedict with a practical application
By April McQueen
Reconciling the Rule of St. Benedict, to pray and work, on a busy weekend, is a challenge whether or not it is the sabbath. I had tried prayer walking, praying for others while walking, and I had little success with that. But, ever hopeful, and with the new year is still relatively new with potential and possibility, I decided to add this purpose to it in search of more meaning and mindfulness in my practice of the faith. My goal was progress, not perfection, after all, so why not start with month two?
I have lots of work I could do while praying. Clutter abounded on the home front and I was far from the kind of peaceful perfection that minimalism that a spartan monk’s life promised. I saw the opportunity to become more “holy” if I could pray and work: ora et labora. My regular household chores would be best suited to do this. Such chores are practiced rituals that the mind, eyes, and hands have memorized so that they could be on automatic pilot.
This spiritual space was well suited to prayer of all kinds: prayer for others; prayer for situations; prayer for problems or blessings great and small. The two tasks I thought I could successfully do according to this rule were washing dishes and cleaning the toilet (not cleaning the whole kitchen or the entire bathroom). I just wanted to tackle two basic and necessary tasks. Putting the dishes in a dishwasher or using a toilet bowl cleaning tablet are not what I think St. Benedict had in mind. Manual labor connected with my mind as I scrubbed either type of bowl: dish or toilet. To get so lost in work first and have the prayer take over afterward was my initial goal. Now I wonder if it should have been for the prayer to precede then overcome the work.
I decided to focus on one thing, a person, with the first initial of their name: “T”. I repeated the letter “T” under my breath and thought of this person as I cleaned each object. “T” was my mantra in this meditative state. Just repeating it to myself when I did not whisper the letter as a chant cleared my head of extraneous thought. I noticed how I went further and deeper by connecting the initial “T” with that person and their needs and struggles, known and unknown. I added more cleanser to continue in my mindset of prayer. The harder I scrubbed, the more intentions for this person appeared for me to add. The more effort in cleaning, the stronger my prayer became for this person. I felt connected to them. I lifted their burdens. I felt a unifying intensity. My manual tasks led me to a compassionate response to what was going on with them, how they needed intercessory prayer, and why they even came to mind in the first place. I ended performing my cleaning tasks. Part of them became part of me. I felt a foundational peace that would remain long afterward.
There are many more dishes, a shower with a tub, and two sinks and floors to take on. There is never enough work to exhaust all of the prayer needs. My rhythm of a pray and work language continues. There is an art to giving and receiving. As the one who prayed, I felt blessed. A life without suffering or problems is not promised, yet faith and hope are abundantly available to all. I am a prayer warrior and a domestic servant for others through this prayer and work that is a gift for the giver and the recipient.
Maybe there is someone out there who, is praying for me while they do their work: like the widow who sits in the front-most pew on the right every First Friday Adoration and every weekend at Saturday Vigil Mass? Maybe it is the cashier at the grocery store who always smiles despite not having enough to pay her bills, faced with ongoing food insecurity as she struggles to buy groceries every month with a part-time, minimum wage job and not much else to count on? Maybe it is the fair mechanic when everyone else is charging twice as much when the least amount of labor is required? Maybe it is the person looking back at me in the mirror, reflecting over half a century’s successes and losses, but still in it to win it in the fight to follow Christ? No chore is too small to pray during and do. There is Christ in everyone I see and serve when I choose to pray in this way to the communion of saints and for the rest of us, the everyday sinners who need salvation and intercession over and over again.