chapter  7
18 Pages

Opus Dei: prayer or labor? The spirituality of work in Saints Benedict and Escrivá

WithJAMES B . MURPHY

Sometimes simple errors can lead us to important truths. The motto of the worldwide Benedictine Confederation is ora et labora (prayer and work). This motto is often attributed to St Benedict himself but cannot be found in his Rule. Many Benedictines believe that their motto accurately captures the spirit of the Rule, which describes the monk’s day as alternating among the divine office of the Hours, manual labor and spiritually uplifting reading (Rule of Benedict (RB): chapter 48).1 What is most amusing and illuminating, however, is the common misquotation of this motto as “laborare est orare”. For one of the infinite examples, see this article in Time magazine: “ ‘Laborare est orare’ said St Benedict (work is prayer)” (Time, 1955). So deep is this modern misreading that some writers even mistranslate the Benedictine motto to fit it: “Thus, his (Benedict’s) motto – Ora et Labora (to work is to pray) – became a standard of the Rule” (Skrabec, 2003: 30). I have traced this very creative and suggestive error back to that great charismatic prophet of the Victorian work ethic, Thomas Carlyle: “The old Monks had a proverb ‘Laborare est Orare,’ to work is to pray” (Carlyle, letters). Such pervasive misunderstanding, misattribution, misreading and mistranslation reflects more than mere bad scholarship: these are the errors, not of individuals, but of an age. No matter what Benedict may have said, we moderns cannot help but hear that “work is prayer”. The modern spiritualization of work is nowhere more influential than in the doctrine of St Josemaría Escrivá and his Opus Dei. I have not found the Latin motto in the writings of Escrivá, but the idea captured in “Laborare est orare” is the basis for the spirituality of Opus Dei: “Let us work. Let us work a lot and work well, without forgetting that prayer is our best weapon. That is why I will never tire of repeating that we have to be contemplative souls in the middle of the world, who try to convert their work into prayer” (Escrivá, “The Furrow”: 15).2 St Escrivá invites every Catholic layman to identify his own work with the operatio Dei. To measure the chasm between Benedict and Escrivá, we need only consider the contrasting ways in which they understand “the work of God”. For Benedict, the opus Dei means only the divine office, the liturgy of the

Hours.3 The divine office is the only activity of the monk whose sole object is God himself. Indeed, the divine office is the work of God not only in the sense that it is an activity only for God but also in the sense that the words recited are themselves the work of God in the Scripture. But for Escrivá, Opus Dei refers to our daily labor in whatever occupation we pursue. Because of the immensely successful and pervasive influence of Escrivá’s movement, many Catholics now think of their own occupations in terms of the Work of God: by our daily labors we participate in the God’s work of creation and redemption. So the meaning of Opus Dei has evolved from the liturgy of the hours to the ordinary daily occupations of lay Catholics, raised up as an offering to God. Is there one iota of difference between laborare et orare and laborare est orare? Does it matter whether we think of the Work of God as the divine office or as our daily chores? Yes, I think that the contrast between Benedictine and Escriván spirituality will illuminate our understanding of what we mean by prayer and by work. These two saints express fundamental alternatives in any spirituality of work: either work is a necessary precondition for prayer or work is itself raised up as prayer. Benedict’s sources, both classical philosophy and the Bible, both Athens and Jerusalem, teach the subordination of work to prayer. In Genesis, work is described as a punishment for the disobedience of the Fall. In Plato and Aristotle, work belongs to the realm of necessity: work is a necessary precondition for the spiritual freedom to be found in thought and contemplation. Both of these themes are evident in St Benedict, who describes work (RB 1980: chapter 48) as both a remedy for the evil of idleness and as a necessity of life.4