Ora et labora—“pray and work.” St. Benedict’s motto guided not only his Rule for monastic life but also greatly impacted Western civilization. With classrooms returning to life and millions enrolled in higher education, could this 1,500-year-old monastic precept have something to say to today’s students, accustomed to the decidedly non-monastic lifestyles of globalization, digital savvy, and calculated scientific reasoning?
Perhaps more than we know.
St. Benedict’s ora et labora is a summons across the centuries to uncover the graces that emerge when such virtues as prayer and work are united as a lived reality. How is such an idea possible—let alone relevant—for the swamped college student, continually on the brink of exhaustion with grades, deadlines, constant group meetings? Grace is only as valuable as the individual allows it; but such possibility and relevance does indeed exist. A foothold for ora et labora to take flight can begin quite practically: in the college student’s need to find work, whether it be federal work study or some kind of on campus or off-campus job, to assist with tuition, loans, books, or just a little pocket money.
At Loyola Marymount University, for example, such an experience is possible—in Student Housing. Across the 150-acre campus, situated on well-placed bluff offering stunning vistas of the Pacific and Los Angeles basin, nineteen residence halls and apartments house over 3,000 students each academic year. When move-in weekend rolls around in late August, the campus floods with SUVs and moving trucks, sweating parents hoisting mini-refrigerators and flat screen TVs up flights of stairs, they are not alone in their toil: assisting them are members of Student Housing’s boots on the ground, typically a dozen or so student housing services assistants who have spent the entire summer working in all nineteen buildings at least 40 hours and 5 days a week in preparation for this moment.
Whether it be the foreboding tasks of lofting beds or refurbishing 300-pound wardrobes to the finer nuances of room upkeep such as replacing valence clips, drawer sliders, and screen repairs, having to coordinate complex furniture moves and communicate strategies accordingly, interface with diverse vendors and specialists, inventory large-scale storage materials, unload freight deliveries such as mattresses for an entire hall, so embedded in such duties would inevitably by summer’s end resemble Henry V on St. Crispin’s Day: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” Indeed, many of these alumni years later maintain friendships, often attending each other’s weddings and other important life milestones. Sometimes months or years pass without contact when a sudden text message appears—as if they are right back at work, slogging through another day armed with mallets and buckets, under the eternal heat of the sunbaked landscape.
And that’s just the summer. During the academic year, this same staff of student service men and women are summoned to answer service calls and work orders placed by students and even some parents, all while maintaining their own demands in the classroom, carving out the great vocational question: What does God want from me? While positions are open to all graduates and undergraduates, generally a certain kind of student is drawn to the unique demands of the housing assistant: quite simply, someone wanting to still believe that such a thing as a “Renaissance man” exists in this day and age. They are drawn to the bigger life issues, interested in politics, theology, economics, philosophy. Election seasons are a heightened time for ideas and debate—though they quietly discuss such topics; a student passing the crew on campus would never know how much is dependent on them. Transportation around the sprawling campus, via the famed university golf carts, is also not spent trivially: such an opportunity is for “cart talk,” moments to quietly reveal deeper truths, anxieties, and hopes unfortunately not always thoroughly examined amid the busyness of collegiate life. There is a quiet to getting the actual work done: the ora part of this example of ora et labora.
Loyola Marymount’s Jesuit heritage, in its ethos of forming “men and women for others,” rightly conjures the duties of a housing assistant. That is without question, but the physical aspect of the job, the blue-collar nature evokes the work of one’s hands, and thus St. Benedict’s motto naturally precisely defines what this kind of student worker experiences. Work and prayer are not unlike the two wings of faith and reason. Both are needed for true contemplation of the divine. The physicality even echoes Jesus of Nazareth. He was not isolated away from the trials of life, but as a carpenter’s son valued the demands of everyday life, the dignity of work, and the ethics of an honest wage. Pope St. John Paul II told his fellow Poles in 1979, “I come from your midst. I come from the quarries of Zakrzowek, from the Solvay furnaces in Borek Falecki, and then from Nowa Huta. Through all these surroundings, through my own experience of work, I boldly say that I learned the Gospel anew.”
Most poignantly, working in Student Housing bridges the student to a deeper appreciation for the machinations behind the operations of a college and university. In this role, one is privileged to get to know the people who make up Facilities Management: the custodial, janitorial, multicraft, waste management, and grounds teams. These are the departments relied upon for not only maintenance, but are unheralded champions of the mission so advocated by the more visible proponents of Catholic education. In many ways, they are the longest serving veterans on staff in the whole university community, and their doling out wisdom and insight is one of the cherished parts of the experience. Student crews have formed such bonds they have either held an impromptu reception for a longtime custodian of an upperclass apartment upon attaining his American citizenship (Ricardo), lobbied for full time employment of a temp (Gildardo), exchanged CDs with a veteran of a first year residence hall sharing his love for his native Caribbean music (Charles), paid respects to surviving family members of fallen members of the Facilities Management family (Richard, Albert), joked with Relinda and Lorena, and have been generally inspired by the overall greatness of Carl, Alberto, Francisco, Sal and Robert.
All of this highlights that in ora et labora, the dignity of human work is not simply about profit and productivity, but about the wellbeing of the worker. In this way, we might be able to foresee a revitalized workplace on a national level: robots and automation may be economically conducive to a company, but perhaps it is in the betterment of mankind to invest in the wealth of its human hands—such profit may not be monetary compared to the convenience of machines, but untold numbers may benefit from the fruit those human hands, hearts, and heads can offer.
Such a vision is not a political or social utopia, but a real possibility in the here and now, characterized by the commitment of these men and women for others, these happy few band of brothers, these earnest underdogs less interested in the predictability of the status quo than in the answers of living an examined life. All this I know to be true, because I was a student of this student Renaissance project myself, a grateful graduate of Ora et Labora 101. And I do not know where I would be without being afforded such an incomprehensibly providential opportunity.