Work and/or Prayer?
On the eve of the Day of Atonement, when the time had come to say KolNidre, all the Hasidim were gathered together in the House of Prayer waiting for the rabbi. But time passed and he did not come. Then one of the women of the congregation said to herself, “I guess it will be quite a while before they begin, and I was in such a hurry and my child is alone in the house. I’ll just run home and look after it to make sure it has not awakened. I can be back in a few minutes.” She ran home and listened at the door. Everything was quiet.
Softly she turned the knob and put her head into the room—and there stood the rabbi holding the child in her arms. He had heard the child crying on his way to the House of Prayer, and had played with it and sang to it until it fell asleep
Say a prayer or sing to put a baby to sleep? Since the time that Jesus chided Martha (who was distracted with much serving) for being anxious and troubled about many things, and praised Mary (who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching) for having chosen the best part (Lk. 10:38-41), there has always been tension between work and prayer, between action and contemplation, in Christian spirituality and devotion.
Many who are concerned with prayer and devotions perceive in social activists a lack of tranquility, a tendency to make their work their prayer, and a grim and determined attitude which can be destructive of themselves and the community. The social activists in turn accuse those concerned with traditional devotions and rubrics of living a dichotomized faith, preaching only salvation in the world to come and enduring the tribulations of the present in expectation of future glory, because of a privatized understanding of the social dimension of the Nazarene’s teachings.
One of the most enduring features of Western culture, since the time of Plato, is the assumption of the separateness and distinction of the physical and spiritual realms. The world of faith is the spiritual or religious realm where God lives and acts. The world of material reality is the one we hear, see, feel, touch and smell—the world of science, politics, economics.
This dichotomy is a heritage of the Western worldview and is a significant dimension in Christian theology and devotion. Modernity also holds to the absolute separation of these realms, and even to the non-existence of the spiritual realm. This way of thinking is deeply embedded in the global economic system and in the mass media. It has influenced and continues to exert a strong influence on the worldview of many people of faith.
Contemplation in a world of action
Today, as the physical sciences keep pushing the frontiers of time and space, as technology makes tremendous discoveries, as an increasing number of Christians become more actively involved in the struggle for peace and justice and the battle to combat environmental destruction, the tension between contemplation and action has intensified.
The Second Vatican Council declared in 1965 that: “The human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one. In consequence there has arisen a new series of problems . . . calling for efforts of analysis and synthesis” (Gaudium et Spes 5). The Council went on to say that: “A hope related to the end of time does not diminish the importance of intervening duties but rather undergirds the acquittal of them with fresh initiatives.”
The Council called on all believers to prove the fruitfulness of a faith which penetrates their entire life, including its worldly dimensions, and activates them toward justice and love, especially to the needy (Gaudium et Spes 21). The Good News is fundamental for development, according to Pope Benedict XVI in his Encyclical Caritas in Veritate 18, because the Word, in revealing the mystery of the Father’s love, “fully reveals humanity to itself” (GS 22). There ought to be no separation of work and prayer, of social action and devotion.
The presupposition is that one cannot be a Christian without becoming a contemplative (the deep awareness of our life in the one and triune God), and conversely, one cannot be a contemplative without having an experience of being saved by Christ through the Spirit in God in a cosmic spirituality that leads us towards newer dimensions of freedom as we build the earth.
The hope and the joy of the present world
The primary message is simple— Christian faith is profoundly social. We cannot be truly called Christian unless we heed the Church’s call to serve those in need, work for justice and peace and defend the integrity of creation so that coming generations can enjoy a sustainable future. Integral spirituality is the creative tension between prayer and social work, where there is no separation between the spirit and the world because a human being is a spirit in the world.
Social justice is where everyone in society is given his or her due. This is closely connected with peace, because where gross injustice reigns, there will be a lot of resentment and frustration which leads to violence and terrorism. A sustainable future is one where in preserving the integrity of creation, the needs of the present generation are fulfilled without jeopardizing the capability of future generations to fulfill theirs.
The Church in the world can help the faithful discover their role in the eyes of faith and impact the world through the proclamation of the Good News. Through prayer and work, the contemplative in the world of action can participate in humanizing the structures of society through service organizations and media outlets, and through lobbying and advocacy, influence the decisions that shape society.
While serving one another, Christians must also be a force for establishing a more just and peaceful society. They must identify crucial issues, mobilize people, and support efforts to help build a society where there is justice, freedom and peace for all. This work of justice should permeate the liturgical and educational ministries. Looking outside itself, the community of believers joins with others engaged in working towards the same goals, even atheists, to build a world of justice, peace and integrity of creation.
The feast of the Ascension can make us better comprehend the present situation of the global political economy and see God’s hand at work in the signs of the times and so, in the same breath, strive for personal holiness and social transformation.