Ora et Labora and Right Livelihood: Some Notes Toward a Contemplative Spirituality of Work

Most of us spend a lot of time working — so what is the spirituality of work? And how does work impact, or integrate with, our spiritual practice?

The motto of Benedictine monasticism is Ora et Labora. It’s Latin for, “Prayer and Work” or “Prayer and Labor.” I love how the ora is actually found within labora, suggesting that prayer is (or can/should be) a part of work.

Compare this to the noble eightfold path of Buddhism: the Buddha’s prescription for how to balance one’s life in the interest of finding liberation from suffering. One of the key eight disciplines is “Right Livelihood” — suggesting that having a mindful, conscious, ethical relationship with one’s work is an important part of liberation.

I imagine for many people it might be easy to ignore or under-emphasize the question of how spirituality impacts work (and vice versa). Perhaps it’s too easy to create a firewall between our lives at work and our spiritual practice.

Most of us recognize how not to mix work and spirituality. For example, too many workplaces have that  annoying guy down in the accounting department who will talk your ear off about Jesus if you let him — the one who always wants to know if you’ve been saved or not. Thanks to overzealous folks like that, we’ve learned that bringing religion, or even spirituality, into the workplace is bad form (and frowned upon by H.R.). So we keep these two aspects of our lives separated.

But is that always skillful? Could there be a spirituality of work that does not succumb to the annoying-displays-of-religiosity, but instead is holistic, mindful, compassionate, and wise?

You Work More Than You Realize

For most of us, there are at least 81,000 reasons why we need a healthy relationship between spirituality and work.

Consider this statistic. If you work from age 21 to age 65, let’s say 40 hours a week, with (on average) ten holidays, and twenty personal (vacation/sick) days each year; then over the course of your lifetime you will invest more than ten thousand days — or 81,000 hours in work.

And realistically, many of us work more than that — because we don’t always have (or take) that many holidays and personal days each year; plus many people work significant amounts of overtime, or have to juggle two jobs to make ends meet. And not everyone wants to (or can afford to) retire at 65. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that some of us will log in over 100,000 hours of work in a single lifetime.

Mary Oliver famously asked,

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Whether we like it or not, many of us devote a good chunk of our lives to work. So if we take our spiritual lives seriously, it’s important that we find a meaningful spiritual understanding of the work we have chosen (or have been given) to do.

A Healthy Spirituality-of-Work Begins with a Healthy Spirituality

Maybe the reason why it’s too easy to erect a firewall between work and spirituality is because we’ve seen too many examples (like the guy in the accounting department that I mentioned above) of people who bring their spirituality (or their religion) to work in clearly unhealthy ways. Perhaps the first thing we need to do is be clear about is the difference between healthy and unhealthy spirituality.

Unhealthy spirituality has poor boundaries. It wants to control others, and it insists that there is only one “right” way to be spiritual (or religious). It can be arrogant, it typically involves naive or fundamentalistic belief systems, and it tends to be judgmental and moralistic, rather than compassionate and understanding. This is the kind of spirituality that has, quite sensibly, made most people allergic to any displays of religiosity or spirituality in the secular workplace.

A healthy spirituality, by contract, is a spirituality which seeks to understand rather than to control. It’s a spirituality that begins with a recognition that every human being is imperfect and has a shadow side, but also that every human being is capable of incredible imagination, creativity, and compassion. So it is a spirituality that seeks to affirm what is good more than it fusses over correcting what is not. It understands that in a diverse and secular workplace, spirituality often needs to be handled with discretion and respect for others. It’s a spirituality that accepts differences in belief and practice, and so it seeks to affirm what people share in common rather than just highlighting was sets us apart. Most importantly, it chooses compassion over competition, never seeking to win points at the expense of others but rather trying to find ways to help everyone to “win.”

Another important quality of a healthy spirituality is that it almost always has a contemplative dimension to it. Therefore, I believe that a truly creative spirituality of work will likewise be contemplative in nature.

I believe that in most of the world’s religions, you can find examples of both healthy and unhealthy types of spirituality, because these are human characteristics, not just expressions of religious teachings.

So the first thing I would say: if we want a healthy spirituality-of-work, we need to begin by cultivating a healthy spirituality in general terms. Without the foundation of a spirituality grounded in contemplation, compassion and care, the likelihood of fostering a truly creative approach to the spirituality of work will likely get nowhere.

What Would a Healthy Spirituality of Work Look Like?

Looking at the broader picture, I’d like to suggest seven principles worth considering as we seek to foster a truly dynamic relationship between our inner lives and our work.

  1. A healthy spirituality of work understands that work is an integral part of life as a whole. Just as you cannot separate “spirituality” from the rest of life in a holistic way, likewise, work must be understood in a similar holistic way. If we have an unhealthy relationship with work, it will affect life in general. If we are aggressive and hyper-competitive in the workplace, those qualities will impact other areas of life. If we allow ourselves to behave unethically or without compassion in the workplace, we can be sure that this will impact other relationships as well, including the relationships we hold the most dear: with family and close friends. So the first key to a healthy spirituality of work is recognizing that we must find ways to be authentic about who we truly are: at work, as well as in our times of meditation and contemplation.
  2. A creative spirituality of work fosters inner growth and personal development, but also honors ordinary tasks. Many jobs, from cleaning the house to performing one specific task on an assembly line, may seem to be tedious and mundane — hardly a means to expressing personal growth or creativity. But even the most humdrum job can be improved upon, so there’s always room for some sort of positive change. Meanwhile, the fact that labor can be repetitive drudgery is not necessarily a bad thing, for all of human life has a cyclical quality to it. Cleaning, maintaining, repairing — some tasks by nature are “quotidian.” A spirituality of work acknowledges this, and finds meaning and purpose even in the most repetitive task. All work is valuable, no matter how creative or how commonplace any given job might be.
  3. A positive spirituality of work understands that spiritual virtues and values: such as hope, compassion, forgiveness, cooperation, among others — belong in the workplace as much as they belong in the home, at our place of worship, or in our recreational life. Life is built on relationships, every human being deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. We need to relate to coworkers, supervisors and employees, mentors and trainees, competitors and contractors, vendors and customers. While the purpose of work is not just to play fun and games, by nature these relationships will be formal and sometimes adversarial. A spirituality of work will acknowledge that work-based relationships have their own inherent value, and deserve to be based on an ethical understanding that people matter more than money or things.
  4. A meaningful spirituality of work recognizes that we need a purpose for work beyond just earning an income. Spiritually meaningful work has to be of service, and has to make a difference in people’s lives in a truly positive way. All work has an element of self-interest to it: I show up at the office every day because I need the income and the satisfaction of using my skills effectively. But if we stop with self-serving reasons for work, we cut ourselves off from much that can be truly rewarding. How does my work make a difference in the lives of others? How does it contribute to the common good? How will it make the world a better place, especially for my children? Such questions can help us discern the true value of our profession.
  5. A compassionate spirituality of work recognizes that the challenges of the marketplace — fierce competition, relentless urgency, and lack of customer loyalty — must be met with spiritual values that seek to elevate, rather than debase, our professional relationships. Work takes effort, and success requires discipline and demanding performance; it’s not easy, and it can be stressful and at times discouraging. A spirituality of work faces the challenges of our professional lives with confidence and industriousness, but also recognizes that when work seems meaningless or soulless, that sometimes we have to renew or labor with values that are bigger than the demands of the marketplace. Work is only one part of life, and so the values that govern life as a whole sometimes need to inform our work, to keep it meaningful.
  6. A joyful spirituality of work understands that hard work ennobles our humanity, but alienating or soul-crushing work is a problem that needs to be addressed. St. Benedict encouraged a life of both prayer and work because he recognized that even the hardest or dullest work can be occasions for prayer, if a person is so spiritually oriented. But likewise, even the most exciting or rewarding work can be soul-deadening if it occurs in a hostile environment or if the worker’s overall life is unbalanced. Part of any effort of labor is a willingness to discern what works about the work — and what doesn’t. The days of loyalty to the big corporation are over (the big corporations are rarely loyal to their workers!). So each laborer must be willing to make changes when necessary to keep their working lives spiritually rewarding.
  7. A contemplative spirituality of work recognizes that labor and prayer, or work and contemplation, ought to support each other. In the middle ages, monastic writers would sometimes talk about the difference between the “active” life (devoted to work) and the “contemplative” life (devoted to prayer, usually involving live in a monastery or convent). Nowadays, even monks and nuns recognize that they have to work just as much as anyone else, which is why so many religious communities brew legendary beer or make irresistible bread or cheese or candy. The split between prayer and work is fictitious: the most prayerful person still needs the dignity of labor, and the hardest worker still needs time for rest, reflection and renewal. In many professions, workers who wish to excel need to bring a contemplative mindfulness to their work.

Perhaps you have other thoughts about how to effectively integrate spirituality and work. Whether practical ideas (having a meditation room in the office) or more theoretical, I think this is a conversation we all need to be having regularly. Making the effort to ensure that our work is spiritually meaningful will make a positive difference in our lives as a whole.

Photo credit: Andrew Neel on Unsplash

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.