Ten years ago, I found myself at a vocational fork in the road.
I had spent years praying and dreaming about pastoring a church—studying theology, writing sermons, visiting hospitals, and interceding with folks toward this goal.
But like many millennials, I was tight on cash. With a growing family, I had to think frankly about the feasibility of seminary, how little money I’d make as a pastor, and how very little progress I felt I’d made in the Christian life. How was I to lead others down a path I had yet to travel?
A pastor at the church I was attending, knowing I was looking for a job, suggested I connect with one of the congregants who owned a plumbing company.
With the possibility of a job that didn’t require an advanced degree and could immediately provide security for my family, I chose to pursue plumbing with a prayer: God, make me the kind of person who can one day be a pastor in your church.
A decade later, I’m still plumbing. It turns out that work, manual labor in particular, had been sitting right under my nose as perhaps the most direct route to learning the skills needed by those who desire to lead the church. I suspect I’m not alone. Any of us can become better at following Jesus by focusing on the demands and spiritual realities of our work. Rightly understood, work is the training ground where good Christians are made.
How does work make us better Christians? How can we “redeem the time” we spend laboring?
If the Christian life can be summed up as being made “partakers of the divine nature” in and through Christ (2 Pet. 1:4, ESV), then I think it could also be said that the core activity of the Christian is prayer.
As defined by one 19th-century Church of England priest, prayer is “the soul’s approach to God,” and the soul that approaches God takes on the characteristics of God. It’s similar to a copper pipe—cool to the touch and reflective of external light and eventually taking on the characteristics of the flame as it is made ready for the solder.
In his letter to the Thessalonian Christians, Paul says, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:16–18).
When do we pray? Always. At what frequency? Constantly. Even when turning wrenches? In all circumstances.
Basil the Great, a fourth-century bishop and one of the famed Cappadocian Fathers, helped reform the monastic communities in his area of the ancient world and wrote a template for an ascetic life—a disciplined life lived with God, a life of prayer—that was meant for all Christians.
For Basil, the beginning, middle, and end of the Christian life is love—love for God and love for neighbor, as Jesus taught his followers. Christ also taught that service lovingly rendered to our neighbor is service he accepts as to himself.
“He who loves the Lord loves his neighbor in consequence,” Basil explains in his Long Rules. “‘If anyone love me,’ said the Lord, ‘he will keep my commandments’; and again, He says: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ On the other hand, he who loves his neighbor fulfills the love he owes to God, for He accepts this favor as shown to Himself.”
Doing one’s work for the sake of one’s neighbor is arguably itself a form of prayer, both because Christ is near in our neighbor receiving the service, and because of the disposition of our hearts to please God in our service.
Basil later says that
in the midst of our work can we fulfill the duty of prayer, giving thanks to Him who has granted strength to our hands for performing our tasks and cleverness to our minds for acquiring knowledge … praying that the work of our hands may be directed toward its goal, the good pleasure of God.
Why manual labor in particular? Another famous monk from a couple hundred years later will help us: Benedict of Nursia. Often called the father of Western monasticism, and a student of Basil, Benedict coined the phrase Ora et labora, “Pray and work,” and instructed his monks to abide by a gently alternating schedule of manual labor punctuated by times of prayer.
For Benedict, manual labor was of the utmost importance, which we can gather by the fact that it was the only thing in all of his Rules that he explicitly calls “monastic.” If the monks couldn’t work well, then they wouldn’t pray well. For the monk, as for all Christians, prayer is the work, slackness in one kind of labor meant slackness in other kinds of labor too.
But at a deeper level, manual labor and prayer share something else in common: the recruitment of one’s entire being.
When I’m installing a water heater, I must gather my will, my intellect, my body, all of my faculties—every facet of my being is involved in the execution and completion of the work. Manual labor serves as an occasion of reintegrating what are otherwise disintegrated parts of me, scattered hither and yon.
What I practice in manual labor, then, pulling the various parts of myself into an integrated whole, I apply to my times of prayer, showing up mind, body, soul, and strength to be with and offer praises to God. Here is another answer to the question Paul’s teaching raises, with so many more answers left to discover.
Over the past decade as a blue-collar worker, I have accidentally found a way of life that, far from keeping prayer at bay and hindering me from being with God because of my duties, has put me in the middle of a centuries-long, devout experiment that teaches me at least these two things: In Christ, I am praying precisely because I am working, and I am becoming better at being a pray-er because I am a worker.
My hands participate in the work of bringing order to the world around me, and they thumb through theological works; they bring peace between homeowners and their homes, and they build the kingdom; they’ve learned to turn wrenches, and they’re learning to pray without ceasing.
I’ve discovered that practicing being in God’s presence and growing in the Christian life is something any of us can do in virtually any line of work, not just as pastors or church leaders. My plumbing vocation certainly isn’t the life I expected, but it’s turning out to be the life for which I prayed.
Nathaniel Marshall is a licensed journeyman plumber. He is also a Benedictine oblate and worships at Christ the King Anglican Church in Marietta, Georgia, with his wife and two daughters.