Work, prayer flow together in lives of religious men and women

The labels “active” and “contemplative” for various religious orders can be somewhat misleading — as though the former only work and the latter only pray. Rather, in all religious orders — whether contemplative, active or a combination of the two — prayer and work are fused together in a life dedicated to God.

It is true that the type of work differs from order to order, reflecting their individual charisms and missions. Their work to build the kingdom of God ranges from prayer, preaching and spiritual direction to publishing spiritual works, caring for the poor, mass media apostolates, sidewalk counseling and campus ministry. Income-producing work for religious communities runs the gamut from making rosaries and altar bread to roasting and selling coffee. For some orders, their work is both their apostolate and a means of income: those who run schools or parishes, for instance, often receive stipends, which go directly toward supporting their community.

In addition, all orders do the “normal things” that need to be done in any house, such as cooking, cleaning and maintenance; sometimes they also make their own habits and sandals or care for their infirm or elder members.

Contemplative orders certainly spend more time in prayer than do active orders. For example, Poor Clare Sister Saint John Gilmore describes life in her cloistered order, the Poor Clare Colettine Nuns in Cleveland, as one “punctuated by prayer.” In addition to praying the Liturgy of the Hours throughout the day and even in the middle of the night, the sisters return to the chapel for Mass, private prayer time and Eucharistic adoration. This way of life, she told Our Sunday Visitor, is “geared to provide for the interior life. All of it is designed to help the person develop that interior communication and union with the Lord.”

Rooted in prayer

Despite the differences, the view of prayer and work is essentially the same in religious orders across the board. They all give primacy to prayer. Christ’s example here applies to all religious — indeed to all Christians. Moreover, the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Renewal of the Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis) states: “Apostolic activity must spring from intimate union with him” (No. 8). The fount of love for God and neighbor lies in prayer.

Reflecting on the Benedictine motto ora et labora (prayer and work), Father Johannes M.M. Smith, a Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate, said, “Prayer has to occupy the first place. Ultimately, our work will only be fruitful to the degree that it is animated by prayer, to the degree that prayer is the soul of our labors.”

“The fundamental relationship with Christ in silence, prayer and the sacramental life, especially the Mass, is what gives us the energy, the zeal and focus [needed to carry out our mission],” said Sister Anne Catherine Burleigh of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, Tenn., whose apostolate is teaching. Sister Anne Catherine is principal of St. Cecilia Academy in Nashville.

Making work a prayer

Of course, a religious does not cease praying upon leaving the chapel to do his or her work.

“Our work flows from our prayer, so it’s an extension of our prayer,” said Sister Della Marie Doyle, vocation director of the Franciscan Sisters of Penance of the Sorrowful Mother in Toronto, Ohio.

Josephite Father Donald Fest, communications director for the Baltimore-based Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, agreed.

“It’s really hard to separate this part from that part. You can’t compartmentalize these things. Your prayer is not confined to Mass, to a book, to a place, but it takes you into the marketplace, where the people are,” he told OSV. “So the life of a religious is very, very interwoven with the prayer, the work ... your whole day.”

In fact, religious strive to make their work a prayer. Work becomes prayer first through the morning offering, presenting one’s work (as well as everything else) to God as a gift. Doing this, Father Johannes pointed out, is essentially saying, “I don’t want this work to be something just for my good. I don’t want it to be an end in this world. Rather, I want all of my works to take on a supernatural character.”

But work is prayer in other ways too. Many religious pray while performing manual tasks.

“A lot of the work that we do in the house is done pretty much in silence,” Sister Della Marie said. “That gives us an opportunity to offer our work up as praise to God and for the different intentions we’re praying for, and just to be available to the Lord, to listen to him throughout our time of work.”

Sister Saint John often prays the Rosary or listens to a recording of a spiritual conference when doing tasks such as ironing.

Brother Isidore Mary Bridges, of the Monks of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel of Wyoming, well-known for their Mystic Monk Coffee, told OSV that while he works, he “adores God, and keeps company with Mary. Eventually, you can get to the stage where throughout your whole work you keep up the conversation with God, just offering the little things, the things that are hard, for the salvation of souls.”

Doing God’s will

Della Marie
Sister Della Marie

Work that requires more thought impedes praying with words, but it too can be transformed into prayer. Sister Anne Catherine and Sister Della Marie both call upon the Holy Spirit for help and inspiration when communicating with others in their work. Sister Anne Catherine also advocates praying aspirations — brief, simple prayers — and using sacred images as visual reminders. Sister Della Marie seeks the Holy Spirit’s guidance also in such details as in what order to tackle her to-do list.

Attitude toward work is also transformative. Under their vow of obedience, religious accept whatever work is assigned to them, Father Johannes said.

“We [Franciscan Friars] try to cultivate a holy indifference regarding the concrete details of the work that we do,” he said. In doing so, the work becomes “a sacrifice, an oblation for love of God.”

In the end, this brings greater happiness. “Fulfillment is not in the details of the work,” he said. “Fulfillment is found in doing the things of God and doing them with a generous heart ... with love.” 

Jeanette Flood writes from Ohio.