Regardless of my performance on any essay, paper, exam, or assigned homework, the professor’s formal notation at the bottom of every student’s submission remained the same.
Having briefly scanned my work, I’d eventually come to his scripted concluding mandate to “Ora et labora!”
With already monumental deficiencies in the English language, my Latin vocabulary couldn’t even fill a thimble. Historically rooted in directives among monks of a monastic order, I learned the expression means to simply “pray and work!”
Once more Doug, my good friend and pastoral colleague, and I, were prevented from taking our annual pilgrimage north of the border into Canada. Unable to enjoy the glorious sites and minimal sounds of a week-long silent retreat at the Loyola House Retreat Center in Guelph, Ontario, we set our sights south, instead.
Pandemic-induced, we are currently relegated southward to embrace the similarly gracious and hospitable setting of The Retreat House and Spiritual Center of Maria Stein.
Rather unscripted, our nearly four-day itinerary has essentially been to pray and study the scriptures together. We utilize numerous resources to aid our contemplations including a thought-provoking daily contemplative prayer phone app called, “Pray As You Go.”
What’s more, this valued time together affords us opportunity to engage in supportive conversation exploring some of life’s varying challenges which come our way.
The Center serves as nothing less than a welcome place and these days, given hesitancies among the masses, we’ve almost had the place to ourselves except for a few congenial staff and volunteers who show up to work in and around the sprawling facility and campus.
Nestled near a wooded area and almost completely surrounded by fertile farmland, the setting is replete with countless paths for walking, contemplation, and even, should one choose along the way, consideration of all 14 Stations of the Cross. A thoughtful labyrinth is carved into the landscape to invite spiritual examination. Plus, multiple inviting Adirondack porch swings are positioned around a modest yet serene circular pond. There also exists a mounded island arising out of the center of the quiet waters atop which a massive stainless steel cross is perched.
Taking numerous opportunities to stroll the grounds and get some exercise, Doug and I could not help but notice the vast amounts of thick green grass surrounding the property. Given the large acreage of lawn, and, we surmised, the recent rains and perhaps limited opportunities to get out and mow given schedules of volunteers, we were not surprised by the height of the grass nor the plentiful array of unsightly dandelions protruding far above the lawn.
To complicate matters, rains were heavily in the forecast for the entirety of our brief stay.
Casually conversing as we walked outside Sunday afternoon, it was easy to assess our surroundings. Though I was instructed by my counterpart to focus more on the beauty of trees, foliage, and wildlife, having an odd infatuation for “life on the edge,” I couldn’t help but notice the overgrown grass aggressively protruding upon the edge of thousands of feet of concrete sidewalk.
Not to be outdone, my well-read companion then informed me that the Taraxacum officinale, or common dandelion, isn’t native to these parts, but was brought here by European settlers in the 1600s. Deducing how this fertile weed has thoroughly spread across the fruited plains, our exchange digressed into calculating how long it could take someone to mow the entire grounds of the expansive retreat center campus.
The next day’s afternoon, contemplatively strolling down a lengthy corridor and having just passed the chapel, we came across a kindly gentleman engulfed with a handful of tools. To my surprise, Doug inquired regarding the lawn and how and when it might get mowed.
I hesitate to get overly spiritual, but what happened next was something of a God-moment. Almost immediately, the two of us were mysteriously transported from that place and time. As if whisked away by the spirit, we stood in a large metal-sided garage. More specifically, we were each seated upon our own personalized lawn mowers.
Believe it or not, Doug, owner himself of a zero turn mower, was perched upon a hefty commercial grade machine of essentially similar mechanics. I, an owner of a John Deere tractor mower, took over the wheel of a comparable Simplicity.
Protectively adorned with earplugs, we turned the keys and, as they say, “put the pedal to the metal!”
Profoundly communing with God’s grand creation, we spent the remaining afternoon hours scurrying around cutting that immense lawn “down to size” while any rains kept at bay.
Undeterred by the relentless dandelion population re-emerging, and refusing to leave any job half-finished, the next morning, dutifully following time for devotions and prayer, we were again “spirited” away to the maintenance garage to start our engines and complete the task.
As a couple of Lutheran pastors, we hardly felt like Benedictine monks, but when it was all said and done, the resident staff was extremely grateful for the collective labor of love of two modest retreatants.
For the curious, it turns out it requires about ten hours to mow it all, but only five if you work alongside a cherished friend.
I’ll sign off by encouraging one and all to always “Ora et labora,” that is, to remember to humbly “pray and work!”
Ken Pollitz moved to Ottawa in 1991 as mission-developer/pastor of New Creation Lutheran Church. His biweekly column provides insights and viewpoints from Putnam County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org