One of the great gifts of Benedict of Nursia to all time was his insistence that work can be prayer. Many saints have repeated this lesson down through the ages. St Therese of Lisieux’s little way was to do everything to which she put her hand as well as she possibly could, as a gift to God. Mother Teresa of Calcutta made caring for the dying an act of love for the One who is Love Himself.
I never really understood this until I was a busy mother with six restless children. I had friends who took it in turns to go to Mass so that they could pray in peace. I had other friends who went occasionally, if at all, because – with children to chivvy and chase – they ‘got nothing out of it’.
It was tempting. Imagine me with the whole mob, on one of the all too many weekends that my husband was away with work.
We arrive during the first hymn, because getting them all out of the house on time, no matter how early we start, defeats me week after week. I get them settled in two pews one in front of the other, since there isn’t a pew left with seven seats. For the next 45 minutes, I try to listen, participate, and pray in between:
- stopping incipient fights
- separating unrepetant whisperers
- retrieving the toddler from the aisle
- taking those with urgent bladders out to the toilet (one after the other, because co-ordinating these things is apparently impossible)
- answering whispered questions about what is happening
- preventing the toddler from clambering under the pew in front
- finding the early readers’ places in their children’s missals
- stopping jokes in sign language
- blocking the toddler from climbing over the pew in back
- finding a clean handkerchief to wipe a runny nose
- intercepting notes
- collecting toys and books ‘accidently’ dropped out of reach
- retrieving the toddler from a sympathetic co-parishioner two pews back
– you get the picture.
Then one day, the priest gave a sermon for me. In truth, my mob appeared pretty well behaved to anyone who didn’t see the constant herding that it took – so perhaps it was just a sermon in general. But the cap for sure fitted!
He started with St Therese’s Little Way, then began to apply it to practical examples. The one that stopped me in my tracks was the mother who took her children to Mass even to the detriment of her corporate prayer life. The action of taking those children to Mass was itself a prayer, he said, an act of devotion to God; a declaration to those children, to God, and to herself, that Mass was a priority that just couldn’t be set aside.
That message I could take to heart! And ever since, when something that urgently needs doing interrupts my prayer, I make a prayer of the doing.
Prayer, then, is any action done for God; and any action done for God is a prayer.