Some old Roman first coined this phrase. It translates as ‘Work is Prayer’. We have discussed the ‘sweat of our brows’ and the need for us to earn livings. But this article is about our offering up what we do, our occupation and labours, in goodwill to God as a gift in thanks for his care over us.
The Anglican Liturgy says it:
‘All things come of Thee
And of Thine own do we give Thee’
There is for work to be prayer a necessary condition to be met: that any such offering made to God is a freewill offering; that it is offered without ulterior intentions attached to the giving and without bad grace shown towards to him. Thus work as prayer arises out of our own sense of satisfaction and fulfilment in our work. Unless this is so we have no sense of gratitude for it having been provided to us to do; and have not accepted a gift as being a challenge allowed us to master, so to do and complete it as we are best able to perform.
Thus work done as attached to the prime aim of reward is unable to be prayer. Work done solely for money say is the work of the timeserver. Work done for ambition is the work of the power-seeker; and work done for the esteem of others is the work of the egoist.
I guess we are all in part and at times the timeserver, the power seeker and the egoist, and that some days we pray better than other days in our work. I want now to talk about some guys and girls I have seen on TV, in what are figuratively called ‘fly on the wall’ programmes, programmes which lead a viewer to an insider’s view of a certain aspect of life.
The programmes had in common that they followed plain inglorious people doing plain inglorious jobs – such as railway station assistants whose job was to help and guide soccer fans to their home destinations after a big match. Other jobs were the guys who keep the underground sewers systems of cities clear and running; and guys who collect and dispose of household garbage.
All are pretty lowly jobs in the esteem of the ordinary person; dirty, or else hassle, or else laborious; or a combination of these things. The people doing them don’t get much status or kudos from the public – not in the same way as the star or the celebrity or the self made industrialist gets celebrated, admired, envied, feted and emulated.
Their jobs are done better for lack of their celebration; and celebration is perhaps a major life distraction for those who claim it or crave it from us? These guys and girls were nobodies; and happy to be nobodies. They, to a person, were engaged, well-disposed to and happy in their work, and contented with their situation at the base of society’s ranks of esteem; but nonetheless doing well a job of importance and skill and application; and in many ways difficult.
If money, as wages, were a factor in their lives then many of them would have moved on some years ago. Of course they wanted to earn and needed to earn but they got by on what they got and so were in that sense and to that extent at one with their lots.
I don’t want to paint them as being saints, and so paint the ‘go for it’ guys as sinners; I don’t want to be that black and white about things. It is a matter of emphasis, of inclination and disposition, as is seen in comparing the ‘go-getter’ whose aims and aspirations are ever troubling them as their desires stretch out and recede the greater they are being realised by them; and comparing this tortuous syndrome with the guy or girl who accepts some imposed limits and knows her/his own limitations, and so compromises (but not on life?) in trading off in return for an amount of contentment, satisfaction, a certain amount of self-determination and plain wellbeing; the enjoyment of the pleasures and snares of wealth, position, reputation, influence and so on.
In other words, the trade off and its acceptance is a reflection of the person concerned; of his/her disposition and character; as well as it being a circumstance which reinforces and develops that same character and disposition. Thus a ‘go-getter’ typically wants in the first place and grows by the circumstance of his life situation to want ever more greatly; whereas a more staid person generally settles for less, and gets added in a touch of serenity; so as to grow in that choice of situation to become more settled and more serene. This is at least the generality which I believe holds good in many instances.
Thus our life-choices define and direct us.
A girl working at the railway after the big game was ushering people to their trains when a drunken woman became agitated and was rude to her. Policy was that drunks were to be asked to sit on a bench and sober on the platform before embarking. The station girl kept unruffled and was decent to the drunken lady and sat her down after explaining the policy. Two hours later the now-sobered lady cam to the girl who had ushered her, and she apologised, and kissed the girl’s cheek demurely. The girl gave her a lovely smile and brushed off the apology by ‘that’s ok’.
Later the same girl usher was interviewed for the programme, and she spoke of how she loved the work and about the sense of usefulness and the emotional rewards of seeing people home safely. No rancour. No resentments. No sweat.
The girl was no more than thirty; and she was typical. She showed and shared typically the characteristics of the crews of sewer unblockers and the teams of garbage disposal men in the other two ‘fly on the wall’ programmes; the same sense of modest pride in themselves for doing socially-vital services, as it were unsung and without display or fuss. All showed the same gentle good humour and a fairly modest but solid self-esteem – built obviously from the inside – from their own secure estimation of their own worths based on a fairly dispassionate focussed self-assessment. To have come this far in life at thirty the girl was astonishingly precocious; and her sewer and garbage colleagues too had attained an impressive level of understanding of life.
Thus there was room, even though they may not have owned to there being so, but only because of a lack of a formal education, for them to have called their kinds of services they were providing to their community, diverse versions of ‘laborare est orare’. Coleridge wrote:
Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
Simply put, our good service to others is a fulfilment of the laws of life and of love which underpin and maintain our world. The Lord Jesus goes as far as to say that together with a due reverence given to God, on this kind of freewill offering of service to others:
‘hangs all the law and the prophets’
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