Arts and Culture

Art, Work and Prayer

by Father Robert Lauder

Ninth in a Series
REREADING a section of Father James Martin’s The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life (HarperOne, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2010, 432 pages, $26.99), I came upon a page that dealt with three topics that have long interested me. The page reminded me of both how many years I have been reflecting on these topics and how my ideas have changed over the years.
Father Martin writes the following:
“Olivier Messiaen, the twentieth- century composer, once said that music serves for humanity as a conduit to the ineffable. When asked if a listener needed to have a spiritual experience to appreciate his music, Messiaen answered, ‘Not at all. But it would be the highest compliment to me as a composer if you had a spiritual experience because of hearing my music.’
“Work can be prayerful if done contemplatively. ‘Hands to work, hearts to God’ as the Shakers used to say. Sometimes when I’m washing dishes or ironing or arranging the altar for Mass, I lose myself in the task and am reminded of doing small things with love.
“But you have to be careful. Busy Jesuits (including me) sometimes say half-mischievously, ‘My work is my prayer.’ This may mean our work leads us to God. Or it may be an excuse for not praying. Or it may mean we’re doing neither wholeheartedly.” (p. 173)
From this reflection, the three topics on which I wish to comment are art as a way of encountering God, work as prayer and prayer that is separate from work.
Partly because of my interests, and partly because of my education, art, specifically film, theatre and literature, has taken up a great deal of my time, especially since I have been teaching philosophy. Films, theatre and literature that deal with a religious topic are especially interesting to me. I have created two courses at St. John’s University that deal with art and the Divine. I think a film, play or novel that deals with the mystery of God can lead someone, at least indirectly toward an encounter with God. Every time I see On the Waterfront or a stage production of A Man for All Seasons or re-read Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair or The Power and the Glory, I feel inspired. I could be wrong but I think of these experiences as not merely aesthetic or artistic experiences but as religious experiences.
I also believe that art that might not usually be judged “religious” might lead someone to encounter God through its beauty. Recalling that God is Ultimate Beauty and all beauty is a reflection of God, it seems to me that a person who does not do what most people consider religious, for example attend religious services or read sacred scripture, might find God along another route. Perhaps this is a way that some artists, who may not even think of themselves as religious, encounter God.
It is difficult to believe how many hours my friends and I spent when we were seminarians discussing the tension in a priest’s life between prayer and work. We wanted to avoid what we called “the heresy of good works,” in other words working hard but neglecting prayer. Looking back on those discussions I think we had an excessively narrow understanding of prayer. I think of prayer as hearing and responding to the Word of God. My suspicion is that people who are involved in ministry are responding to God’s Word when they visit the sick or bury the dead or instruct the ignorant. What they are doing is either prayer or a gigantic waste of effort and time.
Of course there is also private prayer such as the rosary or meditation or centering prayer. If someone never engages in private prayer, never directly talks to God or focuses attention on listening to God, then that person may not be able to hear or respond to God’s Word at other moments in his or her life. Neglecting private prayer, neglecting time set aside just to be with the Lord, may make it increasingly difficult to engage in work that could be prayer such as visiting the sick or burying the dead or instructing the ignorant. Private prayer can help us to be more attentive to God’s loving presence in our daily lives and in any ministerial work that we might undertake.

Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.