Friday, September 21, 2007

Prayer & Work: Thoughts on Vocation

My schedule for the last week has required of me a fair amount of traveling. Since last Friday (the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross) I've made three trips to Pittsburgh (twice to serve Liturgy at St Nicholas Cathedral, once for the feast, once on Sunday and then on Tuesday give a lecture on God and Humanity at the University of Pittsburgh), two trips to Cleveland (the first of those then required I travel on to Toledo, twice, for the Called & Gifted Workshop, the second of my two Cleveland trips to begin planning a workshop on sexuality--more on that later). Tomorrow I'm driving to Canton, OH to participate in a parish health workshop. And Sunday it is back to Pittsburgh to serve Liturgy at the Cathedral and then to Cleveland for a party at the home of my friend Fr Michael. Oh, and least I forget, I've got a breakfast meeting in about an hour.

Now besides the transparent bid for your sympathy ("Oh, poor Fr Gregory! You work too hard!" is always rather nice) why do I relate all of this?

Simply put, my travels in the last week have brought home to me not simply how much I enjoy writing (of which this blog is only a small part--I've got four papers to finish by the middle of November), but how much I need to write.

Writing, studying, teaching are essential not only to my service as a priest but also to my spiritual life. In fact, with the exception of marriage to wife Mary (and she is the most important part of my life and what I am able to do for Christ and His Church), writing, studying, and teaching are the most important things in my life.

For a very long time I had trouble accepting how important writing, studying and teaching are to my spiritual life. You might be wondering, but what about prayer--private and liturgical--aren't they important for me, don't the figure prominently in my spiritual life? Why, you might ask, don't I count these as more important?

Well, for a long time I did--and it made me crazy. Let me explain.

In the monastic tradition--East and West--pray and work are intimately connected. Ora et labora is the Benedictine motto--"Prayer and Work."

After repentance and our commitment to follow Christ, it seems to me that the real challenge of the spiritual life is two-fold. First, I must come to understand the intimate, and really essential, connection between prayer and work. These are not hierarchically related to each other--it isn't that prayer is more important than work, or that work is more important than prayer. No, these are not two separate things. Rather they are two facets of the same thing--two facets of our spiritual life.

In the beginning, when we lived in the Garden, prayer and work were a seamless garment. We had both an intimate communion with God, and each other, AND a creative stewardship over the Garden. Prayer and work were for us in the beginning together and this harmony made it possible for us to fulfill our vocation.

It is only as a result of the devil's envy that prayer and work become separate and in opposition to each other. But, this isn't how it was in beginning and realizing this, believing this, is as I said, the first great challenge of the spiritual after our repentance.

So what is the second challenge?

The second challenge is this: Having understood that prayer and work are meant to be a harmony, I must find that harmony for myself.

For too many Christians, prayer (if they consider it at all) is simply an escape from their daily work which they see as drudgery. Very few of us it seems love what we do or do what we love. Ironically, though there often isn't much love in our work, we do love--or at least desire--the material benefits work brings us.

Our work is often materialistic. This being the case means work becomes for us necessarily an event of marked by competition, opposition, anxiety, fear, dread, envy and shame. It has to be like this because materialism means relating to creation in a manner that is indifferent to God. Absent transcendence our life is constricted by increasingly small circles of immanence. If my work doesn't open up to God and look forward, and indeed participate in, the New Heaven and New Earth, then what I have, I have only at your expense. A world of pure immanence, a purely material world, is a world of ever diminishing resources.

The second challenge of the spiritual life then is finding the work that opens me evermore to the eschatological dimension of my own life. I have to find the right relationship between prayer and work. My work should lead me naturally, almost spontaneously, to prayer, even as prayer should inspire and guide my work.

Private and liturgical prayer in the full sense then are both sources and expressions of work. C.S. Lewis somewhere defends the dignity of those of us who pray best with a book in one hand and the nub of a pencil in the other. I suspect that so often people struggle in their prayer lives, both private and liturgical, because they see this as in someway different from, and maybe even in opposition to, work.

My work might be any of number of things. But unless that work flows out of my heart, our of my vocation, it will always be experienced as an event of conflict, of opposition.

And, likewise, for such a worker, prayer (if it has any meaning at all for him), will be experienced (hungrily) as an escape from work, an escape from life.

This isn't as it ought to be.

Human beings are stewards of creation, and this includes being stewards of our own lives. We need to exert the effort necessary so that, by God's grace and our own creativity, we can re-establish in our own lives the harmony of prayer and work. It is this harmony, possibly above all else, that is most lacking not only in the world, but even in our rather worldly minded churches.