Once in the history of the world a community of human beings began a discussion as to whether labor was a virtue. After several years, they came up with the princely phrase, laborare est orare, “to labor is to pray.” Those people were monks, and their leader, Benedict, persuaded the brothers not only to contemplate the perfections of God; they should work the land and the loom, the farm and the fisheries as though they were praying. Benedict and his band of brothers were “the first intellectuals with dirt under their fingernails,” to borrow Professor Lynn White’s perfect picture.
Superlatives fail to express how important this changed the history of the world. For men such as Brother Lawrence, it meant that, although his tedious labor was cooking and cleaning in a pre-modern kitchen, he could do something that had never been done: Brother Lawrence could sing. His joy touched his brothers; when Lawrence died, they immortalized him in a little book The Practice of the Presence of God.
It was Benedict’s study of the Bible that brought him to his revolutionary idea. God had labored to make the world; God placed Adam in Eden to work the land; Jesus Christ’s father was a teknon, a builder. Thinking about this for a long time, the Benedictines rolled up their sleeves. Their revolutionary thinking separates the ancient world from the modern. Before Benedict, labor was the sorry lot of slaves; any free man who dirtied his hands, even in the most casual way, was thought to demean himself. This is true even today, unless the person has thought as Benedict, “to labor is to pray.”
In our time, the most important figure in the history of labor may be Scott Breslin, author of Embracing our Priestly Nature at Work. We are much in need of understanding the spirituality of work. I hope you feel curious by Breslin’s use of the word “priestly” to describe a Christian’s identity in the workplace. In the Bible, a priest did the work of the Lord in the community: resolving conflict, showing compassion, praying for those in need, and telling the truth. The problem is, of course, there are not enough “full-time” priests to resolve conflicts, or show compassion, or pray for those in need, or tell the truth in the workplaces where, five or six days a week, we are employed alongside other people. Every workplace needs the presence of the Lord. Our influence as Christians is greater than our numbers; if anyone lights a candle, it gives light to everyone in the house, or the workplace. Thank you, Scott, for putting this book in our hands at such a time as this. Come on, dear readers, let’s take back our workplaces from the hurtful, profane, soul parching experience they have too often become. For the love of God, let’s take the initiative to make a difference there.