Praying and working

Prayer is an essential form of work, and it must not be gainsaid as wishful thinking.

By Molly T. Marshall

The Benedictine order has as its watchword: Ora et labora, meaning pray and work. One without the other is shallow and ineffective, according to the ancient practice of The Rule of St Benedict.

Hard-won wisdom taught St. Benedict that contemplation without manual labor often leads to inattention to the physical demands of providing for a community. Likewise, labor without prayerful mindfulness can turn to drudgery and resentment.

Over the past week and a half, a lively, even contentious, argument has been transpiring over a CNN Belief blog titled “Who hears #PrayersforOklahoma?”

More than 75,000 tweeted prayers (including those of many celebrities) have led some to denounce the practice as useless and perhaps dodging real responsibility. Ricky Gervais, irreverent British comedian and proud atheist, remarked with sardonic humor: “I feel like an idiot now…. I only sent money.”

Is praying for victims really as useless as he and others argue? Is it no more than an acceptable dress of piety that our religion-soaked culture welcomes to assuage guilt or feign concern? Surely it is seen as a public-relations disaster if an elected official does not add words like: “You will remain in our thoughts and prayers in the days ahead.”

I believe that sometimes all one can do is pray, and that is not inconsequential. Far removed from the location of a disaster, a compassionate person of faith can offer his or her energies in interceding for those responding close at hand. The “fervent, effectual prayer of a righteous person avails much,” as James 5:16 put it.

A beloved friend here in Kansas City is the most disciplined person of prayer I know. She has a precise rotation for her petitions: public officials, pastors, seminaries, social service leaders, denominational executives and personal friends and family. I have seen her schedule and draw strength from being included in it.

Is this simply an outmoded practice that allows her to believe in her waning years that she is still doing something of worth? Or is she aligning her activity with the purposes of God in such a way as to effect substantive transformation in the lives of others?

In a universe held together by the vivifying power of God’s own Spirit, our prayerful spiritual labor cooperates with God’s compassionate tending. Spiritual power is not in short supply, and our faithful intercession adds to the calculus in ways known only to God -- a real form of “higher math!”

We all know there is a “supply of the Spirit” that strengthens persons to continue when human capacity flags. Resilience -- a popular word in psychological and business studies these days -- is anchored in the hope poured into human hearts as a gift of the Spirit of God.

In the days following the disaster in Moore, we witnessed heroic efforts, stunning in their selflessness and perseverance. Praying for others joins our concern with theirs. They are not alone, and we have not succumbed to helplessness in the face of tragedy.

Compassion -- that human capacity to “feel with” others when calamity strikes -- evokes prayer. Action usually follows prayer, however.

More than the fleeting angst that prompts a tweet, genuine prayer moves us to the material action required. It may be money or providing supplies, or it may be picking through the neighborhood to find scattered personal belongings.

Now work becomes prayer as individuals lean into the necessary labor to express compassion. Congregations, schools, community centers and governmental services collaborate to secure solutions to the enormity of human suffering.

Those who work without overt religious sensibility, but who embody humanitarian sensitivity, add to the work of restoring dignity and hope to those grieving their recent devastation.

Prayer and work belong together. Prayer is an essential form of work, and it must not be gainsaid as wishful thinking. Yet the God encountered in faithful prayer urges us to act with urgent self-giving. Ora et labora, indeed.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.