I had the opportunity once to visit a Trappist monastery. The Trappists are members of the Cistercian order—a very strict group cloistered contemplative monastics, who follow a well-ordered regimen of life.
They come to chapel seven times a day to pray. In between their periods of prayer, they go about their work. Some of the monks work in the kitchen, others in the fields. Some of them make clothes or bread or candy or other things that could be sold to support the monastery. This is the difference between monks and friars; whereas friars beg for their sustenance, monks support themselves by the work of their hands. They put into practice St. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians: “We urge you, brothers . . . to work with your own hands” (1 Thes 4:10-11). In my short visit, I found the Trappist way of life to be a very healthy and beautiful balance of prayer and work.
This week’s secular holiday of Labor Day was created in the late 1800’s to celebrate the economic and social contributions of workers. There is surely much to be admired in good, honest work and in those who make a living by manual labor. Yet, at the same time, we Christians must be careful that work never becomes an idol for us. Especially as Americans, it’s easy for us to get on the hamster wheel of life by just working & working & working without end. But, contrary to the signs that hung above the gates of several concentration camps, work, alone, does not set us free. Only Christ can truly set us free.
So this is the key: We must introduce Christ into our labors. We must offer our labors to Him. Whether we are laborers or executives or students or retirees, all of us have the power to offer our daily tasks to God. That’s when the prayerful, stirring words of Psalm 90 start to transform us: “Lord, give success to the work of our hands” (Psalm 90:17b).
When we offer it to God, our work takes on incredible new value. This was the secret I observed at that Trappist monastery: work united with prayer (ora et labora) leads to a wonderful balance of life.