Work as Prayer.
For the Christian everything he does is an offering to God, and this must affect profoundly the Christian attitude to work. It is in relation to God that the apparent conflict between work as ministry and work as individual creative achievement is resolved. For man's creativity in the Christian view is derivative. It is a response to the creative demand of God, an act performed for the love of God and the service of one's fellows.
Those who laid the foundations of western civilization had a doctrine of work which they formulated in the phrase: Laborare est orare. Can that still be the foundation and heart of a Christian doctrine of work in modern society? An English industrialist, Mr. T. M. Heron, raises that question pointedly in an essay in Prospect for Christendom.12 "Can a financier or a machine tender," he asks, "really pray at his work to-day? Can he practise the presence of God as he plans his next deal or struggles against the monotony of his nut-tightening? Can he see in the thing he is making or causing to be made something which is being made for Christ's sake? Let us admit without reservation that unless in each case the Christian can answer these questions with a simple affirmative he must, if he is logical, give up his Christianity or his activity in relation to money or the machine."
In actual fact there can take place in many forms of work-notably in the concentration of the artist upon his task and in the process of scientific discovery, but also in craftsmanship of various kinds, in wrestling successfully with intransigent material and in the organizing task of arranging and re-ordering some part of the natural-world to serve a particu1ar purpose experience that is analogous to the act of prayer. "It is a matter of common experience," to quote Mr. Heron again, "that the labourer sometimes loses himself in his work and that when he does so his load is eased. There is a strong resemblance between this condition of the body absorbed in what we call work and its state in the silence we call prayer; and the reason for the resemblance is that in both cases man is giving himself to God in the one instance to God at work in the natural creation, in the other to God at rest in the spirit."
It will be evident from what has been said in preceding pages what far-reaching changes have to be brought about in modern industry before the assertion laborare est orare can be for many of those engaged in it anything but a mockery. In the conception of work as prayer there is also much room for self-deception. Men may find absorption in activities which a more sensitive Christian conscience would condemn; in work, as in worship, they can serve idols in place of the true and living God. Emotional experiences need always to be submitted to the test of a critical judgement. But in spite of the danger of hypocrisy and illusion, it remains true that work acquires a depth of meaning in proportion as it partakes of the nature of prayer.
From the Book:
Work In Modern Society by J.H. Oldham
C. 1950 Study Dept. World Council of Churches
C. 1961-62 John Knox Press
12 Faber and Faber, p. 116.
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