“The Source and Summit of the Christian Life”: What the Schools Can Teach Us About the Mass
of Benedictine, Carmelite, Dominican, Franciscan, andIgnatian spirituality.
The motto of the Order of Saint Benedict is
ora et labora.
This is a rule for the whole of life. Benedictines faithfulto their
are well known for the beautiful balance of their lives: they know how to balance work and prayer, the bodily and the spiritual, the manual and the intellectual,
the exterior and the interior; they know how to balance the
individual and the social, as well. Prayer is like breathing
in, taking in God’s grace; and work is like breathing out,
using the gifts He gives us to build His kingdom in theworld.
Ora et labora.
Or like the pulse of our circulatorysystem: the blood returns to the heart to be oxygenatedand is then pumped out into the rest of the body to bringthe oxygen where it’s needed. Saint Pioof Pietrelcina once remarked: “Prayer is the oxygen of the soul.” We, too, inour souls, need to return to the heart, theSacred Heart of Jesus, to be renewed by
His grace; and when this has happened,
we are then able to be sent forth to therest of the members of His MysticalBody, to serve their needs.
Ora et labora.
We give ourselvesto God, in the Mass, in public prayer,
in private prayer; and He gives us the
strength to go out and work. And we
nd that the more earnestly we strive
to serve Him in everything we do, themore eagerly we come back to prayer,to the fountain of life, because we seehow much we need His help to do greatthings. Even the Mass follows this principle. We are
in our spirit, but we are also
with our senses and our limbs: we
stand, we sit, we kneel; we make gestures; we sing, speak,
and fall silent. Why do we
all these things? Over andabove the symbolism of particular words and actions, thereis a general reason: when we worship we are not altogether passive, we are
: we put our muscles and vocal cordsinto it, as a way of giving ourselves, body and soul, to theLord. But neither are we activists who think that worshipis all about saying and doing stuff. The very
activitywe have as human beings is our
to God’s grace,and that is actually the most important thing in our partici- pation at Mass: not what we do externally, but what we dointernally, or what we allow
to be done
to us. The externalgestures and words are to initiate, guide, and strengthenour internal reception of the graces God wants to give us.Once again, see the wisdom of the Benedictines. They donot say
Labora et ora,
work rst and then pray, but
Ora et labora:
x your mind on the Lord, and then go about your
work—even the “work” of the Church’s liturgy.In the structuring of human life there are two mainerrors to be avoided, and each involves exalting oneside of the balance to the detriment of the other. There is prayer without work: we call this quietism, the view thatone should abandon oneself to God in such a way thatone needs to do nothing else and be concerned with noone else: there is, in effect, no work to be done. And thenthere is work without prayer: we could call this, for lack of a better term, activism—as if the most important thingwe need to be doing is working “out there in the world”to solve its problems. This attitude, of course, is far morecommon in our day and age than the opposite one. When’sthe last time you met a quietist?Saint Benedict calmly reminds us:
Go to Mass,
resume your daily business, whatever it may be. Do not puteven important matters before the
“the one thing necessary.” Notice the wisdom of the monks andnuns. They limit whatever work theymust do to set periods of time each day,so that their work never interferes withtheir prayer. They build up sacred wallsaround the prayer times and make surethey are inside those walls at the appro- priate hour. Like a fortress or a citadel,this refuge cannot be destroyed. “Letnothing take precedence over the work of God,” says the
Saint Benedict al-ways refers to the liturgy as “the work of God,”
He calls it this for two
reasons: rst, because it is really more properly God’s work; we are putting ourselves in a position
to let Him work in us. As Jesus says in Saint John’s Gospel:“My Father worketh even until now, and I work.” He is the potter, we are the clay. If the clay isn’t on the wheel or inthe potter’s hands, it won’t get shaped. Saint Benedict alsomeans that it is our work for God: we show Him that He is
rst in our lives, and we give Him our mind, our voice, our
song, our silence.Our spiritual life is by far the most important thing for usto take care of, no matter where we are or what we are do-ing in our lives. If we had piercing intellects like the angels,
we would see this very clearly; as it is, we are rather foolish,and we are constantly tempted to put second things rst, and put rst things off. At the end of the day—at the end of
day, when we examine our consciences—the number onequestion has to be: Have I drawn close to the Lord today?
At the end of the day—at the end of
day,when we examine our consciences—the number one question has to be: Have I drawn close tothe Lord today? Have I prayed? Have I givenmyself a chance to pray? Have I received, if it was possible, the sacramentsthat He offers to me for