Work & Prayer
Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House
The Romans had a saying: 'To solve a problem, go for a walk!' The Benedictines have a saying: 'To work is to pray.' As I prepared a seedbed in the vegetable garden, I was reminded of both of these bons mots. The truth is that the mind and will often need the rhythm and attention of physical work before the heart has space to pray. Physical activity can make room for the heart to rest and be in God's presence. Contemplative prayer need not necessarily be accompanied by physical stillness -action can be a door into the light of the Divine Life.
In my case, the spade or garden fork is a tool for prayer. Thirty years ago, the gardener of the neighbouring allotment to mine once remarked, 'You always turn something up when you're digging.' For me, it is often something of God's word and wisdom that I have been too busy to take hold of and hold in my heart. It is as if digging the soil and pulling out the couch grass is being mirrored in my heart and mind. There is often a release of physical tension and energy in physical work that is the precursor to a more receptive disposition to the work of the Spirit.
Some of this tandem activity of body and soul is related to the capacity for attention. Attention is the ability to give total commitment to listening to the still small voice; the ability of the will to remained fixed on the reality of God can be strengthened by attention to a physical task. We often talk about becoming Tost to the world' when engaged in a physical activity. It may be that this experience of lostness - this vacuum of mental activity - is a place where the penetrative grace of the Spirit can bring its light. I do not pretend to understand this relationship between engagement with our Creator through engagement with his creation, but I know from my own experience that it is a real and living one.
It can be helpful to use physical work as a medium for other kinds of prayerful engagement with God. I am thinking particularly about intercession. If I have a burden of prayer for someone or for a particular situation, I will offer a piece of work with an intention for that object. It could be cleaning a floor or hanging out the washing, mowing a lawn or cutting a hedge. I use the mental space that the work provides to open my heart and will to the heart and will of God. This seems to me to be a more profitable way to plug the mental and emotional gap than plugging in my MP3 player or listening to the radio.
The same goes for journeys - I often dedicate a journey to a time of particular intercession. For readers who struggle to be prayerful in a pious way, all this may come as a merciful get-out! I am not advocating the abandonment
of' studying to be quiet', but I am saying that the Lord who called the fishermen as they mended their nets may also speak to you in the peeling of potatoes. Remember Herbert: 'Who sweeps a room as for thy laws makes that and the action fine.'
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