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Ora et Labora: On Language and Living

Before being voted “most likely to join the military” at my pacifist, Mennonite high school (read into that what you will), I had the opportunity to visit the truly peaceful grounds of a Benedictine monastery. Field trip. I wish I could tell you about the deep, spiritual experience it was to be in such a solemn environment, and how the stillness of the place struck a chord in me that’s resonated since. In actuality, great student that I was, I remember only two things about our time there: the communion-flavored grape juice we had at lunch, and the following conversation.

A few of the monks had graciously lent their time to showing us the place and teaching us about the monastic life. “Ora et labora,” we were told, was the sum of it all: prayer and work, balanced. They went on to describe their practices for deepening the faith and interceding for their surrounding community, but I was already stuck, left in the dust with a curiosity. I raised my hand.

“The roots are the same,” I pointed out.

“What?” said the good friar.

“The word ‘ora’ meaning ‘prayer’ is the suffix of ‘labora’ meaning ‘work,’” I said. “Why is that?”

Silence. Then a stutter. “It’s just—” he began. “It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just ‘ora et labora’: prayer and work.”

I didn’t buy it. Still don’t as a matter of fact. I’ll go so far as to say I wouldn’t believe the holy man even if these Latin sound-a-likes were only so by sheer chance.

What I mean is this: I don’t agree with the statement, “it doesn’t mean anything.” Words have depth to them, entire worlds holed up in their cores, and I’d rather break the shell to see what’s inside than take them for granted.

Words matter.

In Owen Barfield’s History in English Words, the Inkling chronicles through the lens of said tongue the tendency toward “internalization” in Western language and thought. It’s fascinating to see, in words alone, shifts in consciousness over time toward the individual and away from the community, away from integration and into the arms of reductionism; praising comprehension, foregoing apprehension.

All this is to say again that words matter. They shape the way we think. Remember. Live. And it doesn’t take a long look around to see the ways that “internalization” has shaped our perception of the meaning of our comings and goings.

I don’t mean to level any blame at the good monks we visited that day. I simply had to look elsewhere to find the answers I sought. And while ora et labora may not have any special significance for my life today (I never did join the Benedictines, Mennonites, or the military, for that matter), what does is whether I go about slinging worlds of meaning left and right without a second thought. Someone might just get hurt; or maybe worse, kept from seeing what’s shining beneath the surface of things: distracted by the rote of our busy lives and language.

“Utter words,” says Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, “as though heaven were opened in them and as though you did not put the word into your mouth, but as though you had entered the word.”1 If there are worlds in our words, their each and every utterance is an unfolding meaning which we step into, co-creating as we go. If we are to realize—in the fullest sense of the word—that “all matter is radiant of spiritual meaning,” we’ll often need new language for the task, which is to say new and renewing perspective. This is a driving reason I’ve come to appreciate poetry more over the last few years (thanks for the kickstart, Malcolm Guite) and find even dead languages fascinating. There’s nothing wrong (and a lot of good) in having the ground under my feet shaken a bit from time to time, and having my assumptions challenged. The more the better, I say.

Come to think of it, these Latinates—courtesy of our kind, Benedictine hosts—may have plenty of significance for my life today after all.

Breaking the Shell

Interestingly enough, though I haven’t found any indication these words are truly connected (please message if you can!), following an etymology of labora back to Proto-Indo-European ultimately accounts only for the “lab” in the word: something taken or gained.This might just leave room for a potential combination of roots — perhaps with one such as, oh, I don’t know…ora: of the mouth.

Please note: there may not be a true relation here. I’m not trained for this arena by any stretch of the imagination. I’m an amateur through and through, but am happy to toy with a little mystery. It makes sense though, doesn’t it? Ora refers to the mouth (or in the case of our Benedictine slogan, what comes from it), and lab-ora refers to what is taken for the mouth, or the means to take for the mouth: exempli gratia, to labor. Food for thought.

For those bearing with this etymology, then, one could interpret the roots of ora et labora as “what the mouth produces, and what it consumes.” And that has plenty to bear on my life. While “prayer and work” can be watered down to dry practice (been there), I think there’s something deeper going on here with these words.

First, what is taken for the mouth; consumed. What narratives do I give credence to? Are they centered on my own navel-gazing realities, meanings, desires, and perspective? Or are they stories of mystery and connectedness with others, the world, and the Reality that surrounds me and of which I am only a part and player?

And then there’s ora: what is produced. Are my language and living subtle and deep, rich and dangerous, pregnant and healing to those in my life? And what about to myself, who must step into the meanings that come from my mouth? Or on the contrary will I be known as trite, precise, and busy, my words as reduced and empty? Meaningless? Shallow?

I land on different sides of these questions every day, but I hope and strive to know the worlds I create with my words leave a little room for wondering and the wondrous, for re-humanization and community and being known, and for more grace in my language and living, which is to say in my ora et labora. Perhaps this is the heart of its Benedictine sister-phrase, laborare est orare: work become prayer. Our rote become poetry. Life become living.

Here’s to more of it for all of us.


Tyler Rogness is learning to live on purpose, and to sink into the small moments that fill a life. He loves deep words, old books, good stories, and his wonderful family who put up with his nonsense. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Ekstasis Magazine, the Amethyst ReviewThe Habit Portfolio, and the Agape Review. More of his work can be found at  

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash


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