Monasteries of the Heart

Monks in Our Midst: Columba Stewart, OSB, on Prayer and Work

St. Benedict is famous for his respect for manual labor and even its tools, which are to be regarded as just as sacred as the vessels of the altar. But he was also aware that the skills and talents that make us good workers can distort how we see ourselves. As work becomes all-consuming, we start to think of ourselves as indispensable. The service we are called to do for others – a customer, a student, a colleague, a client – can be turned back toward ourselves. What had become all about the job is now all about me. This is why the Rule of Benedict exhorts any monk on his way toward perfection to regard himself as “a poor and worthless worker in whatever he does” (RB 7.49). This is not meant to push a fragile ego into even lower self-esteem, but to remind a strong, perhaps too strong, ego that its strength comes not from itself but from its Maker. Prayer reminds us that we ourselves, including our work, are not the center of the universe. To begin to believe otherwise is the fatal sin of vainglory, “empty glory.” We put our faith and self-worth in titles or rank, claiming for ourselves privileges and expectations. It’s a house built on sand. And when retirement looms, or illness strikes, or downsizing makes our job superfluous, we realize we’ve been standing on ground that washes away beneath our feet. Prayer brings us back to solid ground, to the rock of faith in one greater than ourselves, to the commitments that give life its truest meaning. Prayer bends our attention away from ourselves back toward God, and then to those who have been entrusted to our love and practical care: family, friends, community, and especially those who lack the blessings we have been given so abundantly.

— From "Prayer and Work” by Columba Stewart, OSB in Give Us This Day, September 2014 

Writer and teacher Columba Stewart is a monk of St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, MN. He is author of Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition and Cassian the Monk. 

Consider: How have prayer and work related in your experience? And what have you learned from that experience?

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