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The Benedictine Wisdom of “Ora et Labora”

Wisdom

The Benedictine Wisdom of “Ora et Labora”
Tuesday, February 23, 2021

If Jesus was a wisdom master who sought to transform the consciousness of his disciples through a way of life, the desert communities that sprung up in the fourth century may have been an attempt to carry on that traditional way of teaching. Cynthia Bourgeault, an accomplished wisdom teacher in her own right, traces the movement of Wisdom from the desert to the monasteries and into the present moment, honoring it as one of the foundations of her own wisdom schools:

One of the streams of Wisdom comes from very, very deep in the Christian tradition—the Wisdom of Benedictine Monasticism. Saint Benedict, in the fifth century, drew from an already well-established stream of transformational Wisdom that came out of the deserts of Egypt and Syria via a first generation of people who really wanted to practice what it means to put on the mind of Christ. Saint Benedict became heir to this and shaped it into a massive, stable container, which has been the foundation of Christian monasticism and monastic transformational practice in the West for 1,500 years. Its brilliant and stable legacy of “Ora et Labora”: “Prayer and Work,” offers a fundamental rhythm for the balancing and ordering of human life, and for the growing of that beautiful rose of Wisdom.

Joan Chittister, a vowed religious sister of the Order of Saint Benedict, explains how the Rule of Benedict provides an opportunity for transformation for everyone who chooses to follow its wisdom:

All in all, the Rule of Benedict is designed for ordinary people who live ordinary lives. It was not written for priests or mystics or hermits or ascetics; it was written by a layman for laymen. It was written to provide a model of spiritual development for the average person who intends to live life beyond the superficial or the uncaring. [1] . . .

Benedict was quite precise about it all. Time was to be spent in prayer, in sacred reading, in work, and in community participation. In other words, it was to be spent on listening to the Word, on study, on making life better for others, and on community building. It was public as well as private; it was private as well as public. It was balanced. No one thing consumed the monastic’s life. No one thing got exaggerated out of all proportion to the other dimensions of life. No one thing absorbed the human spirit to the exclusion of every other. Life was made up of many facets and only together did they form a whole. Physical labor and mental prayer and social life and study and community concerns were all pieces of the puzzle of life. Life flowed through time, with time as its guardian. [2]

References:
[1] Joan D. Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (HarperSanFrancisco: 1991), 4.

[2] Chittister, 74­–75.

Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, An Introductory Wisdom School: Course Transcript and Companion Guide (Wisdom Way of Knowing: 2017), 4. Learn about and register for Cynthia’s online Introductory Wisdom School.

Story from Our Community:
My transformation story has sudden, short bursts of enlightenment and long, slow, gentle awakenings. During my journey I have discovered Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault. I am eternally grateful to these spiritual giants who continue to guide and inspire me. —Jude M.

Image credit: Mark Kauffman, Howard Thurman (detail), photograph, copyright gettyimages.com, used with permission.
Image inspiration: Pictured here are the hands of the Howard Thurman, revered theologian and inspiration for civil rights in the 20th century. We see a profound gentleness in the way Thurman holds his glasses; the same timeless and human gentleness that permeates his writings and teachings. 
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