"Ora et Labora" is the title of our first family retreat which will be held here at Christ the Reconciler on Dec. 13. The title comes from the Benedictine motto "Pray and Work" which has been the foundation of Western monasticism for the past 1500 years. I have found the motto is good for housewives as well.
When Thomas and I first caught the vision for a house of prayer many years ago, we imagined most of our prayer happening in a devoted prayer room with musicians and lots of time for study and contemplation. We still love that kind of prayer. Our house has a prayer room; we have a big library filled with classic theological works; we offer retreats so people can have a place for solitude and contemplation. Times of extended meditation are important for the soul. But they are not the norm.
Work is the norm for adult humans - and that is both happy and sad. Happy because the desire to build and invent springs from God's nature in us. We feel the joy of ourCreator when we look at the works of hands and say truthfully, "It is good." Work is happy because we are creatures endowed with wonderful physical senses. Smelling freshly tilled soil or freshly laundered sheets, pushing fingers into sticky dough, spreading bright paint over a canvas or a wall - these things are mysteriously good for our souls. They remind us of the goodness of our Creator. Even so, the sad truth is that we labor under a curse - the earth produces weeds, food spoils, children get sick, bills mount. Very often we feel only the toil and grind of work. We can easily become slaves of ambition, of debt, of stress. The heavy yoke of work can cast us down, which is why it is so important to lift one's eyes to heaven regularly, rhythmically.
Though I still long for times of retreat and contemplation, I have to say that some of the sweetest times of prayer I have known have come in my kitchen. One of my favorites happened about 12 years ago while I was unloading my dishwasher. I was thinking about how much I loved the part of mass where everyone holds hands and prays the Lord's prayer together, when suddenly I felt the presence of Jesus right there in the kitchen with me. I didn't see Him with my eyes, and I didn't feel the scary glory I have sometimes felt in His presence - this time Jesus was speaking very humbly in His humanity. As I stood there with wet hands holding a plate or two, Jesus asked me, "Amy, would you like to pray that prayer with me?"
"With you?" I asked (thinking I usually pray to You.)
"Yes. Pray with me. God is my Father, and He is yours. We can pray together."
So I set my plate down and held my hands up with my invisible Savior and prayed the prayer with Him. Many Sundays since then I have imagined Jesus standing in the pews along with the rest of us, lifting up this prayer to Our Father in Heaven.
There was another morning, early one Christmas Eve, when I was up before dawn mopping our kitchen floor. I was literally barefoot and pregnant at the time, listening to a teaching tape on the Song of Songs. All of a sudden the love of God swept over me with chills and tears. In a new way that morning I grasped the beauty of being a woman, being the object of my Creator's love, the mystery of bearing life in my body, like Mary. I wept and I mopped. I prayed and I worked. I rejoiced in being a creature, and in having a soul which could respond to such love, if only poorly.