Don’t Just Pray and Work—Read

A forgotten part of the Benedictine life is what many modern Catholics are missing.

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Often presented as a quintessential summation of the Rule of St. Benedict, the phrase ora et labora is actually of medieval origin, being found nowhere in the Rule itself. Yet this distillation of the Benedictine life misses an essential component that even a cursory reading of the Rule reveals: the place of Lectio Divina and study in the life of prayer and work.

In the Rule, a monk’s time is carefully legislated. If we look at the time allotted for reading, however, taking into account both the reading during meals, liturgical reading at Matins and Compline, and the time set aside for private reading, we find that monks are to be reading or listening to reading for perhaps 4-6 hours a day during the year, with additional time during Lent.

The Benedictines are justly famous for three things: the beauty and richness of their liturgical offices, the agricultural technology they spread wherever they made foundations, and the learning of their scholars, as exemplified in figures like St. Bede, St. Bernard, Bossuet, or Prosper Guéranger. But if we limit ourselves to conceiving of the Benedictine balance as solely found in ora et labora, the last of these excellences, “Benedictine erudition,” remains unexplained.

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The missing link in the chain is, of course, study. While Lectio Divina has first a spiritual aspect— the holy reading of Scripture, with the aid of the Church Fathers and other commentators—its wider meaning can include all study which builds up the reader in the pursuit of his end, or telos. 

Man is a multilayered creature, existing with one foot in the material world and another in the spiritual realm; therefore, many proximate ends serve man’s final end: union with God. As a bodily creature, man’s life requires nourishment and rest to fulfill the bodily ends of leaping and laughing, of running and reproduction, of seeing and swimming. Intellectual and spiritual faculties such as reasoning, willing, and praying—presupposing the health of the body—pursue the higher ends that accord with man’s higher faculties: the knowledge and love of other spiritual beings, namely God and our neighbors.

All human flourishing sanctified by grace is holy, and therefore all study which leads to human flourishing is a kind of “holy reading,” whether it supports man’s physical, mental, or spiritual capabilities. All studies, then, are Catholic and holy when pursued in this holistic view of man’s final end. We might take lectio, then, in a broad sense of studium: study, thought, intellectual endeavor. 

Viewing this emphasis in its strictly intellectual rather than meditative aspect, we might say that studium divinum—as distinct from prayer and manual work—is essential for balance and fullness in the Christian life. Historically, the holistic study that built up the whole person manifested itself or was best embodied in the “liberal arts,” studies that make one more human and therefore free or liberal, developing the higher faculties that set man apart from the animals. Traditionally, however, these liberal or freeing studies, pursuits, or arts were also joined to the development of the gymnastic or physical aspects of man. 

Certainly, the primary mode of Lectio Divina is reading God’s word, and that should hold pride of place (as well as the principal sense of the phrase) in the hierarchy of Christian study. A holistic study of the sciences is crucial for maintaining balance in work and prayer; the intellect must be cultivated to prevent imprudent, fanciful, or ungrounded ideas from wrongly intruding into our belief. 

Yet I see this very problem regularly occurring among both traditional and conservative Catholics: rigidity in the former and squishiness in the latter both stem from a poor intellectual formation. Of paramount importance in this regard is a widespread ignorance of history (both sacred and secular), poor knowledge of the role and reach of Church authority (and where to find its true expressions), and lack of groundedness in the artistic heritage of the West, including literature and poetry, music, and visual arts.

Squishiness and rigidity are both related to an inability to make distinctions and a discomfort with nuance. Confusion over where to look for definitive teaching on faith and morals (as opposed to the vast number of questions which only have probable and pious opinions, or even multiple valid answers) often gets laity and clergy alike into trouble. For example, one of my college classmates mentioned that at the Latin Mass he attends a discussion among the men of the community centered around a burning question: whether it was sinful for a married woman to work outside the home. For this even to be a question reveals an astounding ignorance of historical precedents, moral principles, and the art of making distinctions.  Squishiness and rigidity are both related to an inability to make distinctions and a discomfort with nuance. Tweet This

Fundamentally, the root of many positions that gain for traditionalists a reputation of rigidity is discomfort with holding multiple truths in tension, with there being multiple right ways of doing something, and with distinguishing levels of importance and authority. Many questions, even in the Catholic Faith, do not have “one-size-fits-all” answers. 

Reminiscent of OCD tendencies in which there is a single “right solution” to an anxiety or compulsion, claims that “you must have a spiritual director,” or that “wives can never work,” or that “you can only receive Communion kneeling,” or that “instrumental music is always inappropriate for liturgy,” all reveal attempts at making a world with many gray areas fit into the boxes of black and white absolutes.

In the above examples, even a rather cursory knowledge of history would immediately deflate each of the absolutes in which the phrases are couched. But I’m not trying to pick on traditionalists in particular. Why does Bishop Barron have to wonder if Hell is empty? Why are so many otherwise theologically conservative priests still teaching that Communion in the hand was a widespread practice in the Ancient Church, or that the Novus Ordo is “more traditional” than the so-called Extraordinary Form? All of these are ridiculous positions to take against the backdrop of easily available information. And that is saying nothing of the voluminously heretical strands increasingly imposing themselves on the fabric of the Church.

While I’ve noted that there are a lot more shades of gray in our world than some of us might like, there are some things that are black and white, and I’m not trying to detract from them or sound relativistic. Indeed, to take that approach would be yet another variation of rigidity, since it would be claiming that the world is only made up of gray tones and that there are never times of only one right answer! Did I mention that the ordination of women is not up for grabs?

Someone may object: not everyone has time or ability for serious study. Certainly, such time does come and go depending on the season of life: unmarried young adults and older couples have a lot more time to read than, say, young parents with a lot of small children. Still, everyone can make a little time at least each week (what are you doing with your Sunday?) to work through a worthwhile book. Track with a stopwatch how much time you spend on social media and “doom scrolling” the news, or even good Catholic websites, and let me know how much you could save for reading. 

How are we, in fact, supposed to put on the full armor of God and gird ourselves with the belt of truth if we are tweeting (contra T.B. Joseph) rather than studying wisdom? That life’s later responsibilities often entail a highly decreased ability to study highlights all the more why a Liberal Arts education is so crucial for one’s college years: with such a foundation that schools like Wyoming Catholic or Thomas More give, the studium I’m speaking of has been frontloaded, and instead of wasting one’s time on a degree you probably won’t use, you could be solidifying intellectual foundations that will last the rest of your life.

In this short article, I’ve drawn on literary analysis, modern psychological insights, and historical research to show that an intellectual formation is crucial to maintaining balance—keeping what is hard and fast firm, and what is squishy soft. This secret of Benedictine balance is lost if you forget the lege part of ora et labora. Really, our motto—and our daily practice—should be ora, lege, et labora. As John Wayne said, “Life is hard. It’s harder if you’re stupid.” Let’s not make life harder for ourselves by forgetting the place of reasoning and continual study in the well-balanced Christian pursuit of holistic human flourishing.


  • Julian Kwasniewski

    Julian Kwasniewski is a musician specializing in renaissance Lute and vocal music, an artist and graphic designer, as well as marketing consultant for several Catholic companies. His writings have appeared in National Catholic Register, Latin Mass Magazine, OnePeterFive, and New Liturgical Movement. You can find some of his artwork on Etsy.

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