Men and women of every belief have been praying their whole lives, writes Paul Leroux, whether they’ve known it or not.
You put in a full day’s work, whether you wear a hard hat at a construction site, carry a lunch pail to a factory, or push a pencil and paper around in an office. You don’t have time to read your Bible, only your BlackBerry. You don’t have time to get down on your knees and pray, except possibly for a raise from your boss. You don’t have time to go to church on Sunday, because maybe it’s the only day you can spend with your kids, maybe from a broken marriage.
You don’t have time for God. Or so you mistakenly think. Actually, you have all kinds of time. In fact, every single minute of every waking day.
You and me—hey, I work for a living too—we’re the unfortunate victims of a misunderstanding, a misconception. We’re the heirs of a centuries-old legacy of monasticism, both Western Christian, Eastern Buddhist, and Hindu. We’ve been brainwashed to think that, to be a holy man, you have to enter a cloister, run off to an ashram, or chant “Om” in saffron robes. Even New Age spirituality focuses on meditation, not action.
Now, devout Jews, they get it. They’re on to something. They put their whole body into praying (“davening,” they call it, rocking back and forth). But I was raised a Catholic Christian, so I’ll stick to talking about something I know only too well.
Saint Benedict, the founder of the monastic order that bears his name, included this phrase in the rule he established for his monks: “Laborare est orare.” That’s Latin. It means, “To work is to pray.” You think monks spend all their time in choir or in their cells, singing Gregorian chants or reading their breviaries? Heck no, they weed and hoe gardens, make jam and cheese, all kinds of useful occupations.
Even Jesus didn’t spend all his waking hours talking to his heavenly Father. He was on the move a lot of the time, walking barefoot or in sandals, up and down ancient Palestine. He was surrounded by crowds, as many as four or five thousand (and that’s just the men), hanging on his every word. He was literally hemmed in by sick people wanting to be cured, wanting to be touched, wanting to touch him and invade his private space.
Before Jesus set out on his public ministry at the age of 30, he was a carpenter and the son of a carpenter. He knew what it was like to work with his hands, get all grimy, sweaty, and covered with sawdust. He must have been wiry, if not muscular—a far cry from the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” we’ve had foisted on us by popular religious art.
Jesus drew on the lives of hard-working men for his parables, the little stories he told to get his message across. He told tales of shepherds searching for lost sheep or guarding them from predatory wolves. He talked about laborers in the field, men unemployed and desperate for work, a rich boy reduced to herding pigs after wasting his inheritance.
Jesus had no use for those who fancied themselves scholars and holy men. He had nothing but contempt for the sanctimonious hypocrisy of priests and scribes, Sadducees and Pharisees. He advised his followers not to imitate their lengthy prayers and ostentatious almsgiving.
Jesus’ 12 apostles were workers too. The very first disciples he called to follow him were fishermen: Peter and Andrew, James, and John. Matthew was a tax collector. Other early Christians also earned their bread by the sweat of their brow. Paul of Tarsus took pride in being a tentmaker. Tradition has it that Luke, the evangelist, was a doctor and a painter.
Miguel de Unamuno, a Spanish Christian existentialist philosopher, wrote about—and envied—what he called, “la fe del carbonero,” the faith of the coal miner. You have to believe in someone or something when the canary in the mineshaft might stop chirping any minute, when you might find yourself buried in the rubble of an explosion.
There’s another, more modern saying: “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Soldiers find themselves in the same situation as coal miners. They never know when they might step on a booby trap and be blown to smithereens, when they might be ambushed and riddled with bullets.
That’s all God wants from guys like you and me: simple, trusting faith. He’s not asking you to be a theologian. He’s not asking you to be a monk. He wants you to be a humble, honest, hard-working man, earning a living for you, your spouse, and kids.
(I know. there are plenty of atheists out of trenches. You are entitled to your beliefs, or lack of belief. But I’m not making any apologies for mine.)
Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t ever take time out from your busy day to study the Scriptures, if you want. There’s nothing to stop you from downloading a feed from a Bible site onto your iPod, BlackBerry, or laptop and reading (let’s say) a verse or a chapter a day.
And I don’t mean you shouldn’t get away by yourself for a bit to reflect and pray. It doesn’t have to be a longwinded speech. In fact, it’s better if you just listen and let God do the talking. As President Obama read at the dedication of the 9/11 memorial, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalms 46:10).
But don’t feel all guilty if you can’t do that all the time, every day. Because everything you do can be an act of faith and a prayer—your 9-to-5 job or your night shift, your chores around the house, the time you spend loving your spouse and raising your kids.
You keep working at your job, hoping it’ll be there tomorrow in a bad economy. Isn’t that an act of faith and a prayer?
You work at your marriage in a world where one in two or three couples ends up getting a divorce. Isn’t that an act of faith and a prayer?
You put your kids through school in the hopes they’ll get a job, but you’re ready to take them back in if they don’t. Isn’t that an act of faith and a prayer?
A few years ago, I used Saint Benedict’s Latin phrase as my screensaver at work. Only I goofed and got it back to front. It came out as “Orare est laborare”—prayer is work. My boss at the time took a peek at my computer screen, and she smiled, “It sure is.”
Yes, prayer is hard work. But hard work is also prayer. You’ve been working hard all your life, even if you’ve only been pounding the pavement looking for work. (And isn’t that an act of faith and a prayer?)
You’ve been praying all your life. You just didn’t know it.
—Photo Reckless Shots/Flickr