In the Fourth Nocturn

Prayer and work

Homily read on 15 October 2019, the first Anglican daily morning prayer at my parish during the new semester at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

The motto of the Benedictine monastic order, famously, is ora et labora: pray and work. If one looks at the lives of Benedictine monks and nuns, these two words seem very well to summarize how they spend their time: seven times a day, and once at night, the office bell rings, and they all go together into chapel and say their prayers — very similar to the ones we have just said this morning. Then, when the psalms have been sung, the collects completed, and those present dismissed, they all go back to the field, the orchard, or the library and carry on with work.

But for St Benedict and his followers, these two things are not separate: prayer is a form of work — the highest form, the Opus Dei, the work of God. And work is a form of prayer.

The first of these, prayer being a form of work, is perhaps rather easier to understand than the other, especially in the case of monks. But work, of course, goes beyond merely what we do ‘for a living’. As students, we work. We write essays, do homework and exams, we read the literature of our subject area, and try to learn as much as we can. If this work is prayer, then like all good prayer, our work should be doxological: we should work to the glory of God.

It’s easy to say that as a kind of platitude: a nice sentiment that doesn’t involve any real effort in putting into practice. It’s certainly hard for me to remember in the middle of an examination, or when I’m struggling over my homework, that my calling in doing my uni work is the worship of God. So let me go a little deeper, in a way that’s relevant to the prayer at the end of this homily.

We live, brothers and sisters, in dangerous times. The global climate is on a dangerous precipice, and our governments continue to take insufficient action to prevent the situation worsening, even as billions of people face displacement and famine. Dangerous and divisive political ideas are on the rise in our own country, and even more so among our neighbours. It feels especially intimidating, to me at least, to know that it is our generation’s responsibility to fix things, because we will bear the brunt of what our parents fail to do.

The root of much of the malaise in the world is disregard for knowledge. Climate change denial; climate change apathy. Conspiracy theories about immigrants; conspiracy theories about queer people. The blind belief that one’s own convictions are correct, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. As students, of course, our occupation is to fight such stubbornness and ignorance — in ourselves and in others equally.

Galileo Galilei, a lifelong devout Christian even as he was censured by his church, said that he could not believe ‘that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use’. I would go further: if we allow this gift from God — our faculty of learning and wisdom — to go unregarded, we dishonour the gift he has given us. When we ignore the truth about the world, we dishonour the knowledge of God which is revealed in that truth.

As students — people whose work is centred on the attainment of knowledge — the godly purpose of our work is to use the knowledge of God’s creation to honour God’s creation. The word worship derives from the Old English roots worth and -ship — to worship something is to respect its proper worth or value. Worship is more than just words — worship is action. Fridays for Future is a call to worship. An Antifa rally is a call to worship. A lecture at university is a call to worship.

We just need to know how to hear the call: at university, we come to class every day to learn everything we can about our little corner of God’s creation. But it’s equally important to learn how to use and share that knowledge effectively so that we make wise decisions, and so that we can help others to make wise decisions. This is the calling of our generation: to end the misuse of knowledge. We each have our part to play in fighting the prejudice and apathy that so mars God’s world today, and our goal in this stage of our lives is to learn what we need to know to do that.

When I announced the resumption of daily morning prayer on Sunday, I said that it is a ‘wonderful way to start your day’. I think — I hope — all of you who come here regularly agree. But in starting each day with prayer, we should think to start as we mean to go on. We don’t need to stop ourselves seven times a day to pray. Prayer in words is important, but we can, and should, do it in action too: while we work, and in our work. And as we go into this new semester, let’s remember now the greater meaning and purpose of our work, so that we can likewise start as we mean to go on. Sometimes it’s hard to see how the work we’re doing has anything to do with making the world at large better. It’s easy to forget to work to God’s glory in the middle of the mundane tasks of everyday life. But even though we will always forget sometimes, I hope we can reflect on this calling at least once every day, so that we never forget that we have the task of nurturing the holy creation and all those who live in it. Amen.

Almighty God, the giver of wisdom, without whose help resolutions are vain, without whose blessing study is ineffectual: Enable us, if it be thy will, to attain such knowledge as may qualify us to direct the doubtful, and instruct the ignorant, to prevent wrongs, and terminate contentions; and grant that we may use that knowledge which we shall attain to the good of our fellows. Amen.