The Work of God*

I feel like Dorothy, suddenly learning that she was wearing the way home on her feet all along.

On Monday this past week I posed a question: why, after all I had done over the holiday weekend (including watching The Wizard of Oz with friends), did I have such a feeling of inadequacy and emptiness? When I wrote the post, I was thinking to myself of potential answers, including some of those touched on by my readers: that it had been a holiday weekend, so I did no "real" work, only indulged myself in time with family and friends; that taking a holiday of itself can seem wasteful, particularly in this year when I am on leave to be as productive as I possibly can in my research; that even when I am at work, the feeling of "not doing enough" persists if I am doing "nothing but" reading or, when I am not on leave, preparing for class. Writing, after all, is my only "real" work. "Publish or perish," as the saying goes. If I am not writing for publication (and, no, in my head, my blog doesn't really count, even if it is public*), then I am not doing work. Work is writing something that will outlast the purposes of the day.**

And then Monday evening our parish intern asked me to write a blurb for the Sunday bulletin to advertise an adult formation class that I am leading next week on--of all things--regular prayer. This is what I gave her: "Praying the Hours can seem a daunting task, demanding much more time than our all-too-busy schedules allow. And yet, for centuries, Christians have marked their days with fixed moments during which they turned from the business of the day to God. What if, rather than thinking of prayer as an interruption to our day, we began to think of it as our proper work? Rachel Fulton leads a discussion on the demands and benefits of fixed-hour prayer, with suggestions on resources available for developing this spiritual practice today." Talk about putting your money--or your heart--where your mouth is. So, I was going to lead a discussion on fixed-hour prayer, was I? I had better start practicing, right?

Along with my collection of how-to books, I have also accumulated a fair number of prayer books, each purchased with the hope that this time I was actually going to learn how to pray the Hours. A Latin-English edition of the Little Office of the Virgin, a black-leather bound edition of Shorter Christian Prayer with a four-week psalter for the entire year, M. Basil Pennington's The Abbey Prayer Book with psalms and prayers for following the monastic office in short, a Latin breviary in two-volumes following the full liturgical year: all are there on my shelf at work or by my bedside at home, gathering dust, their beribboned bookmarks dangling from whatever place I abandoned them in dryness or despair. I even have Phyllis Tickle's much easier-to-follow Divine Hours, but only for Springtime; I never got past the first week, so I hardly had need to buy Summertime, never mind Autumn and Winter.

Excuses for my failure are easy to come by. I don't have a space set up in my home for prayer and even when I close the door to my bedroom, as often as not my son will burst in, embarrassing me in my need to be alone. I can't sing, and properly speaking the Office is supposed to be chanted, at the very least the hymns and the psalms. Much of the Office is designed to be said as call and response, so it seems further ridiculous not only to speak it, but to do so alone. Worst of all, however much I concentrate, saying the Office just doesn't feel like prayer; it's too, no, I won't say mechanical, but too distancing. These aren't my thoughts about God, they're some psalmist's or liturgist's. Only rarely do they seem to capture my mood or apply to anything I've been thinking about. Perhaps it's the lack of music, but I much prefer Taize-style chant. Saying the Office just seems to be so many words when prayer should be (note the "should") about cultivating one's interior conversation with God.

And so forth. Yes, I've really thought some of these things, even when I know from my study of monastic practice how mistaken they are. But knowing something intellectually is different from applying it in one's own life. How was I to get to the point where praying the Office seemed a refreshment, a consolation, a steadying when I couldn't even get past the first week? Taunton helped, interminable as his exegesis of the texts of the Little Office turned out to be. The first thing to realize about praying the Hours is that it is not about me or you or our precious interior feelings, but about God. It is, as Taunton so aptly put it, about praying Christ's prayer to the Father, about "putting on" Christ and becoming his mouthpiece. We pray "through Christ" because we are praying the words Christ used to pray, particularly the psalms. From this perspective, it doesn't really matter whether we feel anything at all, mystical, meditative, contemplative or otherwise, so long as we are praying with our mouths and our full attention. The point is for the Church--that is, all of us, not just the institution--to be "[praising] the justice of [God's] decrees," as the psalmist puts it, "seven times each day" (Psalm 119:164).

The second thing to realize is that praying the Hours is our only proper work. This was my Dorothy-moment, when I wrote the blurb for the bulletin. What if we made prayer our only "real" work? That is, after all, what the monks and nuns who follow the rule of St. Benedict call it: opus Dei, the work of God. Suddenly, having asked myself as "Rachel Fulton, who is leading adult formation" this question, I understood how wrong-headed all of my previous attempts at keeping the Hours had been. I had been thinking of the Office as something that interrupted my day; as something that would be difficult to keep because I would have to stop my real work or whatever else I was doing and discipline myself to maintain the schedule. I had thought of it, in other words, as yet another chore or exercise to add to my already hectic day. No wonder I had found it difficult to sustain.

But turning the question around as I did in the blurb that I wrote for our bulletin, it became clear to me it is not that the Office is yet another "exercise"--like writing my blog or going to fencing practice or waking up at 5:45 in the morning so that I can do my yoga--that I do for myself in order to improve at some skill or other and that to do which I must somehow sacrifice yet more of whatever "free" time I have away from work and taking care of my family and home. Rather, the Office is our work as Christians but also--dare I say it?--as human beings. The point of our existence is to praise God in his works; anything else we do is just filling up the time until we can return to the work of praise. Why had I not felt that I was "doing enough" over the holiday weekend? Because I was wholly focused on work as something one does in order to create something permanent in the world, something that might continue to exist after one dies, like, for example, The Wizard of Oz or one or other of the books that I was reading. I could not think of work as something one did not for oneself (one's livelihood or reputation) or even for the community of the world (art, literature, poetry), but rather solely for God.

I realize that some might find even my older definition of work still somewhat restrictive. Surely work involves things other than making art; caring for others, for example, or working in the fields to grow food. But I think the insight still applies. Anything we do to sustain our bodily life, whether aesthetically or materially, is still always only about ourselves, not God (unless, of course, it is for the purposes of liturgy, i.e. praising God). Which does not mean we should not care for our bodies or attempt to make things in imitation of God as Creator. It only means that we should not mistake the work that we do outside of prayer for our "real" work when our only real work is praising God.

It is difficult to convey how restful I found this realization when it came to me on Monday. Could it be that "doing enough" was as easy as showing up at prayer three (the Anglican practice) or five (the Muslim practice) or seven (the Benedictine practice) times a day--and that's it? No need to feel anything in particular; no need to think of what to say; no need for mystical rapture or illumination for my prayer to be "real" prayer or, for that matter, for my work to be "real" work? Just my body breathing the words and my mind attending to them fully, whether I agreed with them or experienced anything other than boredom--and then my work would be done? Here was refreshment and consolation and steadiness, indeed! Not that I didn't hope that somehow saying the prayers of the Office wouldn't encourage more spiritual reflections; just that, I now realized, it didn't need to. The point was to be there, praising God, as scheduled. And my job would be done.

Among the books I had collected for saying the Hours was a pocket edition of Tickle's Divine Hours giving only the prayers for a single week. Here was a place I could start. No shuffling about from season to season, just--like the Brigittine sisters of Sion who said only the Office of the Virgin, regardless of season--a single Office to be said week after week. Even better, Tickle gives suggested times for keeping each Hour, as, for example, the Morning Office "to be observed on the hour or half hour between 6 and 9 a.m." I soon realized, once I had started my work, how important that "hour or half hour" is. The point is to show up on time for God. So I set my iPod clock with an alarm for each of the scheduled times and when the alarm goes off--at 8 a.m., 12noon and 5 p.m.--I stop whatever I am doing and go to work. The prayers take only a few minutes to say, no more than five, even if--as I found myself doing yesterday, much to my surprise--one chants them. The wonderful thing is, once I have said the prayers, I really do feel refreshed and ready to go back to my desk, for now the "work" that I do there is simply to pass the time until the next opportunity to pray arrives.

I am only a week into this new understanding of my proper life's work, so it is hard to say what the long term effects will be. I've read about some of them, of course, in all of the books that I have about the monastic life, but I always mistakenly thought of them as the result of effort other than simply attending to God. Nor do I mean to make it out that keeping a full monastic schedule, waking even in the middle of the night to attend to God, is somehow easy. And yet, it is easy, much easier than thinking I somehow have to create meaning for my life by working hard; much easier than believing my life is worthwhile only if I write something publishable or solve all of the earth's problems. How can I possibly fail if the only thing I need to do is keep my appointments with God? Show up on time and read. Believe it or not, that's doing enough to save the whole world. But you don't have to take it from me; just try it yourself and see.****

Oh, sorry, it's time to pray. I don't want to keep God waiting. It's my job, after all.

*Which is not to say that I don't fantasize about my blog becoming something more "real" like a published book. Agents take note!***
**So, no, letters of reference don't really count either. They are ephemera, too, much as I try to write the best ones that I possibly can for my students and colleagues.
***On the other hand, I actually enjoy the blog format for publishing reflections like these. I worry that they would lose something if captured in print and cut off from the web-world in which they now live.
****For those brave enough to risk changing their whole lives in this way, explorefaith.org has an online version of Tickle's Divine Hours, which you can set to your time zone so as to join with others in carrying the work of praise throughout the day.

Comments

  1. That is quite a litany of rules, but I will try to keep on topic.

    I think perhaps too many people do not see the act of solitary reflection (or prayer) as a good and necessary act. Speaking generally as personal reflection and avoiding any religious connotations, taking time out of your day and setting it aside for ritual may not only lead to higher understanding but to a better acceptance of the trials of daily life.

    Although my faith is different, I very much enjoy reading your commentary.

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  2. Thanks, Rob. Actually, the only "rule" is "pray regularly so as to keep your appointments with God." There are many different schedules that people have followed, depending on their tradition. The interesting thing is how complicated some of the prayers become over time when it's not clear that they really need to be. It's the schedule that matters and the recognition that keeping the schedule is one's proper work.

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  3. Excellent, excellent. Brings last week's discussion full circle; perhaps even turns it on its head. The beauty of the truth you have reminded us of is that, for the Christian, the real 'work' is already done; everything else is grateful obedience. Thank you for re-orienting us to the appropriate way to demonstrate our gratitude.

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  4. Very nicely put, Jeff. That's just what I wanted to try to say.

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  5. That was really wonderful- I needed it. I've found myself lately abbreviating my already abbreviated prayer rule, citing the pressing necessity of 'real work' (though I still manage to find time to blog and diddle on the internet...). I need to get back to treating prayer for what it is, my real work.

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  6. Jonathan, you're most welcome. And thanks for the link!

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  7. geez--and I was just trying to decide if staying in bed til 130pm on SUnday to finish reading a book was being lazy or being productive.
    But then I forgot to decide.

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F.B.

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