Let me begin with a confession: I dislike every piece of “praying hands” statuary ever made! However, I am captivated by Albrecht Dürer’s simple drawing, “Praying Hands,” which inspires those plaster and plastic replicas.
The story behind the artwork is fascinating. Dürer was one of 18 children of a family living near Nuremberg, Germany, in the 15th century. Both he and his brother, Albert, had aspirations to study art in the academy, but their parents could only afford to educate one of them. The choice between Albrecht and Albert was decided by a coin toss. Albrecht won the toss and a place in the academy. Albert went to the coal mines and worked to pay for Albrecht’s education.
Four years later, after Albrecht had completed his education, he returned home to tell Albert it was time for him to attend the academy and he, Albrecht, would pay the tuition. Sadly, Albert’s hands were crippled by arthritis, and most of the bones in his hands had been broken at one time or another in the difficult and dangerous work in the mines. He would never become the artist he once aspired to be. Moved by his brother’s plight, Albrecht set about to honor Albert’s sacrifice on his behalf in the best way possible: He sketched Albert’s hands gently folded in prayer. There is a beauty, at once unsettling and powerful, in those hands with their swollen knuckles and bent and gnarled fingers. Part of the beauty and power of the hands is how they silently speak to us of Albert’s loving sacrifice for Albrecht, and Albrecht’s reciprocal love for Albert.
Blessed by God
In Psalm 90:17 we pray, “Give success to the work of our hands, O Lord / give success to the work of our hands.” In a strange and beautiful way, God gave success to the work of both Albert and Albrecht’s hands. Far beyond what they could possibly have imagined at the time, the sacrifice of each has been a source of inspiration for countless others since the 15th century. Most of us probably cannot fully comprehend all the ways through which God graces us and gives success to the work of our hands. So much of the work we do, after all, is so ordinary. So often, we are just planting seeds — seeds of faith, seeds of community, seeds of hope and charity, seeds of the Kingdom. Sometimes we are deliberate and diligent in our work of sowing those seeds, and sometimes it seems to happen by chance, almost in spite of our best plans and ourselves.
Only God knows if, when and how our efforts will bear fruit. But that’s OK — that’s God’s problem, not ours. A healthy dose of detachment from results is good. We need to care and not to care. We need to take God and God’s will seriously — and ourselves not so seriously.
Our Work Is Varied, Blessed
Maintaining a healthy perspective on work is critical to successful pastoral ministry. Consider the story of the little boy who walks past a construction site where a couple of masons are hard at work. Fascinated by the rhythmic action, the boy calls out to the first mason: “So what are you doing up there anyway, mister?” “Isn’t it obvious,” the man replied, “I’m laying up bricks.” The little boy watched the second mason for a while, then put the same question to him: “What are you doing?” That mason replied, “I’m building a cathedral!” So much depends on our point of view!
When we pray, “Give success to the work of our hands, O Lord,” we are praying for so many things — even more than we can imagine. Collectively, we are certainly praying that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done. But beyond that, what is the work of our hands? We are writers and scholars, vocation and formation directors, administrators and parish priests, abbots and bishops, chaplains and spiritual directors, and, yes, even farmers, firefighters and woodworkers. The work of our hands is as diverse as we are! But there is a commonality to all of this work: It is, or at least can be, a means to union with God and the building up of the human family.
In his classic “Hymn of the Universe,” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin reminds us that our incarnate Lord is not distant from us. Rather, he awaits us in our every activity and in the work to be done. By carrying each activity through to the end for which it is destined, de Chardin reminds us, the immense power of God’s grace and goodness comes to bear upon our meager objectives and frail efforts. That, in turn, raises us to a higher experience of union with God, makes our work holy and enables us to become more fully human in the process. The English mystic Caryll Houselander goes a step further, saying that when we have done a task according to the will of God and as an expression of the love of God, “It is possible to whisper in wonder and awe, and without irreverence, on seeing the finished work: ‘The Word is made flesh.’”
The Importance of Rest
Leisure, an essential aspect of our daily work, is also an element of successful pastoral ministry. Perspective and leisure are related. Perspective helps us to realize that the task before us, however glorious or mundane, is part of God’s greater plan for the building of the Kingdom. Leisure — or holy leisure, as some prefer to call it — is the capacity to experience God present and at play in the midst of the work we’re doing. This capacity gives meaning when, otherwise, there might only be purpose.
“Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:11) has sometimes been translated: “Have leisure and know that I am God.” Leisure is not separate from work and is not what we do only when we are at the card table, on the golf course or on vacation. Leisure is, or should be, something that infuses all of our life and ministry, including those days when the work to be done seems endless. Brother David Steindl-Rast’s book, “Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer” (Paulist Press, $16.95), is filled with valuable insights, especially his thoughts on leisure. He says that we need to learn a lesson from our heart, which has been beating nonstop since we were in the womb. Our heart has a work phase and a rest phase, and it is the perfect balance of the two that enables it to function effectively for years on end.
The Need for Prayer
When I was young, I remember hearing parishioners say: “Our priest is such a good and dedicated man. He never takes a day off.” If that is our modus operandi today, it should be a cause for concern. If it were important for God to rest from the labor of creation, can it be any less important for us to rest from our labors? Have we ever considered that too much work and not enough time spent with others, including the Lord, could be a symptom of sloth? Brother Steindl-Rast also mentions that the Chinese ideogram for being overly busy is composed of two elements: heart and killing. That needs no explanation, does it? On the other hand, the ideogram for leisure is composed of the two characters for space and sunshine.
“Give success to the work of our hands, O Lord.” This invocation is a reminder that good work habits for anyone, but especially for those in ministry, include regular time for prayer. By our promises at ordination, we are bound to daily prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours. Time set aside for intimate prayer and interaction with the Lord is vital. Yet, often enough, our tendency is to cut corners on prayer time. When something has to give way in a schedule stuffed like a sausage, time for prayer is often the first victim. Dom Eugene Boylan reminds us in his timeless volume, “The Spiritual Life of the Priest” (Wipf & Stock Publishing, $15.96), that this is a typical but critical mistake. His reasoning is simple: The more we have to do, the more we stand in need of divine assistance. It is an act of faith and even counterintuitive, but on the days we are most busy we actually need to spend more time in prayer, not less.
Fighting Off Aridity
Of course, prayer is not always the garden of spiritual delights that we wish it would be. If it were, we would be more eager to turn off the television and go to our prayer space. There are seasons of prayer, and sometimes there are times of aridity or dormancy when it seems like the well has gone dry. St. Teresa of Calcutta certainly knew about aridity. Only after she died did we discover that she had been in darkness and aridity for most of 50 years. Yet, she was unflagging in daily prayer, including adoration. Hearing of her aridity, I have greater appreciation of her counsel to “take the trouble to pray.”
There are many reasons why we experience aridity in prayer. Boylan mentions that one of the most common obstacles to a vital prayer life is a lack of good spiritual reading. Trying to pray without good spiritual reading, he says, is like trying to start a fire without fuel. I’m a pushover for a good murder mystery or historical novel, but nothing feeds my spirit like a spiritual classic. When time is limited, even a few minutes spent in spiritual reading is abundantly rewarding.
Successful pastoral work is richly multifaceted. Successful pastoral work is God’s work on our behalf. Successful pastoral work is what we do on behalf of God and God’s people. And successful pastoral work includes the nonwork components of perspective, detachment, trust in providence, prayer, spiritual reading and leisure.
As the example of Albrecht and Albert Dürer reminds us, the work we are given, however mundane or magnificent, can give glory to God and be a blessing for God’s holy people. “Give success to the work of our hands, O Lord / give success to the work of our hands.”
FATHER JOHN MEOSKA, OSB, is formation director at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota.