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  • Writer's picturePaul Cho

Transforming Work into Play: Lessons from Benedictine Monks: "Ora et Labora"

The term FIRE, standing for Financial Independence Retire Early, is a popular slogan among the younger generation. The concept behind these words is that achieving financial independence quickly leads to a happier life, as it enables you to spend the rest of your life not needing to work. The underlying premise here is that work is neither fun nor exciting. It provides us with financial means, but it does not inherently bring joy or happiness. It merely enables us to achieve financial independence, which can lead to a truly fulfilling life.

Consider children for a moment. Their primary responsibility is to play. Through play, they learn about the world and how to navigate it. For children, play is their work, and work is their play. This brings to mind a thought: Can our work also become play, or at the very least, can it become something that is fun, joyful, and meaningful?

A few weeks ago, I attended a retreat led by the Institute for Marketplace Transformation at Westminster Abbey in Mission, BC. This beautiful abbey is home to a community of Benedictine monks. During my time there, I often heard the Latin phrase 'ora et labora,' meaning 'pray and work.' This phrase refers to the monastic practice of integrating work and prayer as one seamless activity, a concept that originates from the Rule of Saint Benedict. We often perceive prayer, work, and play as distinct and separate activities. But how can we merge these into one seamless activity?

The book of Genesis provides key insights. In Genesis 1, God creates the world and towards the chapter's end, it states that God created (v. 27), blessed (v. 28a), and said "Be fruitful" (v. 28c). The Hebrew words for create, bless, and fruitful are "bara," "barak," and "para," respectively. Pronouncing these Hebrew words reveals a wordplay created through consonantal assonance, which helps listeners understand the true purpose of work.

It's important to note that when God says be fruitful, it implies more than simply procreativity. The Hebrew word for fruitful, para, also conveys the idea of productivity, creativity, and innovation in our work, aiming to bring life and shalom to God’s world.

So, through this Hebrew assonance, the narrator emphasizes three points about our work. First, we work because God created us in his image, and being created in God’s image means to work. We work because God works. Second, we work because God has blessed us to do so, not because we have been cursed. Lastly, we work because our labor is fruitful, bringing blessings and shalom to the world.

Why did the narrator use 'create', 'bless', and 'be fruitful' as assonances? A close reading of Genesis 1 reveals various literary devices such as repetition (e.g., 'God said', 'It is good') and Hebrew assonance. These suggest that the chapter is written as a poem or song, indicating that the entire creation's purpose is to sing praises to the Lord and glorify Him. In this context, our work within God's creation is intended to be a fruitful endeavor—a joyous activity designed to praise and glorify God. This is possible because we were created in God's image and were blessed to bring blessings to His world. In this way, our work becomes a song to the Lord, praising His glory, joining the rest of creation in singing to the Lord!

Also, in Genesis 2:15, God gives Adam the first job in the world: to work and keep the Garden. The Hebrew phrase for "to work it and keep it" is "avodah" and "shamar." These same Hebrew words are used in Numbers 3:7-8 to describe the duties of priests. This suggests that gardening, a physical act within God's creation, was intended to be a priestly duty, involving care for God's creation as He intended.

Moreover, the Hebrew word “avodah” also means worship in other parts of the Old Testament (e.g. Isaiah 19:21). Thus, according to Old Testament writers, our work was intended to be a form of worship to the Lord. Work and worship were not separate but the same thing. This sentiment is echoed by Apostle Paul in Romans 12:1, where he urges believers to offer their entire bodies, symbolizing their entire lives, as an offering to the Lord. He refers to it as spiritual worship.

Contrary to modern perspectives, biblical teachings offer a unique view of work. Genesis 1 portrays work as a joyful activity meant to bless the world and culminate in songs of praise to the Lord. Genesis 2 and Romans 12 present our work as a form of priestly worship, offered to care and sustain God's creation and world, the temple-cosmos. In this context, our work transcends achieving FIRE. It becomes a form of worship, praise, prayer, and even joyful play. The Scripture encourages us to embrace the Benedictine monks' principle of "ora et labora" even amidst the complexities of the modern world.

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