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Meeter Center Lecture: Duty or Delight: Labor and Prayer in the Middle Ages

  • Thursday, March 4, 2010
  • 3:30 PM–3:30 PM
  • Meetr Center

by John Van Engen of the University of Notre Dame

The relation of labor and prayer throughout western society from Roman Christian times to the late Middle Ages was always a balance of labor and leisure. In dealing with this tension, Prof. John Van Engen, the Andrew V. Tackes Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, presented a fast- paced though thoughtful lecture on March 4th entitled “Duty or Delight? Labor and Prayer in the Middle Ages.”

He set the stage by asking the following questions: How did this all play out? Was prayerful worship dutiful labor or restful recreating? Was sustaining life through work travail or fruitfully fulfilling? Or can we even answer such questions? He responded by giving examples from various theologians such as Augustine, Nicholas of Lyra, Cassian, and later Joachim of Fiore, as well as various orders and lay people who expressed and lived out their interpretation and understanding of Biblical injunctions. The question of how to work productively and yet pray without ceasing became the problem issue for this entire age. Could one pray and work, meditate and be productive; or were these distinct acts performed by distinct groups?

Historically people always did both – worked and prayed. Only after Christianity became a dominant cultural force did the issue of solitude enter the equation. Still, monks or the monastic life called for a disciplined spiritual body and manual labor which was self-sustaining. The end goal was constant prayer with tranquility of mind, and the means was labor with contrition: prayer was the unmoving center of life and labor.

Over time there were historical complications. Leisure was a problem so where did prayer fit? Those who wanted greater freedom for prayer could be seen as excessive. What about those outside the religious houses? Individuals were to pray the Lord’s Prayer and attend church. Work equaled the world while prayer equaled the church. This separation defined the situation for close to eight hundred years until Mendicants came on the scene – those who begged for a living and hence were perceived as being in the world yet spiritual. Friars set the tone for working in the world yet caring for spiritual needs until the time of the Reformation, at which time growing resentment by both Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church toward those who were able bodied yet begged and thus “stole” from the poor grew increasingly vocal. So, the quandary continued and Van Engen concluded as he began – “With prayer and work as ideal forms of life yet as varied concretely substantiated social roles, whence the obstacles individuals faced certainly in the middle ages and yet perhaps still today in bringing them together.”

March 2010
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