Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time - Prayer and Work

Part of the genius of Saint Benedict of Nursia's Rule for Monasteries was his emphasis on a balance of work and prayer. Saint Benedict, who founded twelve monasteries in Italy in the sixth century, brought together the wisdom of generations of monks before him, but re-shaped those these teachings in the light of his own understanding of the human psyche. This is part of the reason the way of life he established is still lived by tens of thousands of Benedictine and Cistercian monks, nuns, and sisters today. 

In his Rule, Benedict urges his monks to spend dedicated amounts of time each day working to support the monastery: “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brothers should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading” (48:1). In another place, he wrote, “When they live by the labor of their hands, as our holy fathers did, then they are truly monks” (48:8).  

Saint Benedict understood that work was necessary for life… but he did not see it as a necessary evil. Work, for Benedict, was a way of giving glory to God, just like the monks' daily rounds of prayer. As Kathleen Norris observes in a wonderful booklet called “Making Our Work Holy”:
Whenever I have witnessed work made holy, it is because ordinary people have taken ordinary tasks and made them something special. What might have been just a job to pay the bills becomes in their hands a vocation, and even ministry… At its best level the Christian and Benedictine perspective on work is thoroughly holistic. In our work we obey the great commandment, expressing our love of God, neighbor, and self.

In my own life, I am very blessed to be able to work as managing editor of Abbey Press Publications[1] and Deacon Digest Magazine and to also be involved in retreat and parish catechetical programs. These “professional” responsibilities bring together my prayer and work in a ministry that continually presents me with new challenges and opportunities and I’m extraordinarily grateful to serve God, the Church, and the world in these ways. However, I’m also aware that not everyone is as fortunate as I am to have this synchronicity in their prayer and work.

For too many people in our world today, the work that they have to do robs them of their basic human dignity without even providing them with the means of supporting themselves or their families. Migrant and farm laborers, minimum-wage workers, and countless others find themselves in work situations which can often be dangerous and degrading, while the big businesses that employ so many refuse to provide adequate pay and opportunities for healthcare or compensation when accidents and injuries occur. The frustration and fatigue of those who find themselves working in these circumstances echo the words of Job (7:1-3, 6-7):
Is not man's life on earth a drudgery? / Are not his days those of hirelings? / He is a slave who longs for the shade,  a hireling who waits for his wages. / So  I have been assigned months of misery, / and troubled nights have been allotted to me... My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, / they come to an end without hope. / Remember that my life is like the wind; /  I shall not see happiness again.
Since the time of the Industrial Revolution (at the end of the 18th century), prophetic voices have challenged us to reflect on the purpose of human labor and to defend the rights and dignity of workers. Whether we think of Pope Leo XIII's game-changing encyclical Rerum Novarum, the social-criticisms of Charles Dickens, or social reformers like Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden, and Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, we have inherited a perspective on the meaning of human labor and workers' rights that we have to be willing to put into play today.
"Job" by Ilya Yefimovich Repin
In Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel"), Pope Francis has reminded us that our culture's emphasis on wealth and ineffective financial systems comes at the expense of human life and dignity:
Just as the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say "thou shalt not" to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: Without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape...
The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect, and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings... Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. (§ 53, 58)
Like the reading from Job, the Second Reading (1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23) and the Gospel (Mark 1:29-39) for this Sunday's liturgy have a lot to tell us about the positive facets of our work: when done with and for God, our work builds up the Kingdom of God. With this in mind, it doesn't matter if we are a member of the clergy, a day-laborer, a corporate executive, or a member of the "caring professions"--all of our work has a meaning and  value greater than simply being a way to support ourselves. Each individual is given opportunities daily day to support and care for others in the work they do. This is the dignity of human labor. However, when we create or support systems that are based more on the exploitation of workers and the benefit of only a few, human beings are reduced to being cogs in a machine that exists only for its own benefit.

As it happens, the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time this year (February 8, 2015) is also being celebrated as the "Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking." This day of remembrance is kept on the commemoration of Saint Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese woman who was kidnapped and sold into slavery just over a century ago. She represents the countless men, women, and children who have been stripped of their humanity so that others can draw the maximum pleasure, profit, and power. To allow this crime to continue is to stand opposed not only to a truly Christian understanding of the value of human labor but to go against the teachings of Jesus himself. Every Christian and person of good will has a moral obligation to fight this injustice, which takes so many forms and which victimizes tens of millions of every year.

As we begin to look toward Lent, consider how your work is an opportunity for service and prayer. Pray, as well, for those who are victims of human trafficking and abuse and give a gift to support those caring organizations who work so diligently to deliver these dehumanized individuals from modern-day slavery.

A prayer for the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time +
Keep your family safe, O Lord, with unfailing care,
that, relying solely on the hope of heavenly grace,
they may be defended always by your protection.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

[1] Abbey Press Publications was founded in 1860s as a work of the Benedictine monks of St. Meinrad Archabbey in Southern Indiana. Still a work of this monastic community, Abbey Press provides pastoral care and healing resources to more than ten thousand churches and other places of worship, hospitals, hospices, counseling centers, funeral homes and bereavement groups throughout the world.

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