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Prayer Sustains the Works of Mercy at a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality

People often ask what exactly it is that we do at Casa Juan Diego, and it’s easy to begin by listing off the activities that fill our days. We tend to the needs of the men, women, and children living in our Houses of Hospitality, we distribute food to the community, we receive and organize donations, we offer medical services, we supervise community service workers, we put out a newspaper, we mediate conflicts among guests, we transport our guests to and from appointments, and the litany goes on. Essentially, we follow the tradition of the Catholic Worker in performing the Works of Mercy, fourteen corporal and spiritual works based on the principles of the Gospel.

While doing the Works of Mercy that are visible or tangible constitutes a large portion of our daily labor, these activities in themselves are not what define our work. Caring for the needs of the poor – particularly immigrants in our case – is very important, but the life of faith is not one of perpetual action. God designed human nature to thrive on a balance of activity and rest, of action and contemplation, of cultivating both an exterior and interior life.

Thus, the work at Casa Juan Diego is also perpetually rooted in prayer, which Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin counted among the spiritual Works of Mercy. Ideally, prayer is the Work that inspires and energizes our practice of all the others. Because it’s more difficult to describe what God accomplishes in us and in others through prayer and meditation, we tend to fall back on identifying the work based on visible actions. Nevertheless, the union of both action and contemplation is what truly defines our ministry.

It is a long-standing tradition within the Catholic Worker Movement to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the daily prayers of the Church. Our community says Morning Prayer together during the weekdays, and we each have our own individual prayer practices as well. If we believe what Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin taught, in keeping with centuries-old monastic thought, work and prayer are two sides of the same coin. St. Benedict’s motto ora et labora(pray and work) is a pithy summation of this mindset. Countless holy men and women throughout history have served as testimonies to a life of integrated action and contemplation, and at Casa Juan Diego we seek to imitate them.

The word “liturgy” is a great help in understanding and living out the integrated life that the saints have modeled. Liturgy simply means “the work of the people.” Because the Church is the people of God, its particular work or act of liturgy is twofold: to glorify God in prayer and worship, and to partner with God in doing his will “on earth as it is in heaven.” The word liturgy tends to be more heavily associated with the first facet of its meaning, in reference to our offerings to God through prayer, song, and sacrament. What we often don’t realize is that these aspects of liturgy are not separate from the larger work of God’s Kingdom in the world outside the walls of the church. The Church’s understanding of liturgy reminds us that prayer is work and work is prayer, if we have eyes to see.

This is the ideal, but it is a struggle to live out. When we encounter people who have suffered greatly and are difficult to work with it’s not easy to make our work a prayer. When we are tired or discouraged at the end of a long day it’s a challenge to work faithfully at prayer. Perhaps even more commonly we fall into the habit of drawing sharp divisions between prayer and work, compartmentalizing our “spiritual” life and our “mundane” life. But there are moments too when prayer and work seem to flow together naturally, giving us encourage-ment to carry on.

Despite the immense need of our immigrant guests and neighbors, we’re able to continue our work day after day because of the balance and conversation between action and contemplation. We often find ourselves at the end of our ropes, confronted with a single mother who has no resources and no one she can depend on, or a man with a disease slowly destroying his body who has no legal documents and no medical treatment. We do what we can, enlist the help of the community, and we also retreat to prayer, bringing the burden to God in the silence of our hearts. In the same way, we devote ourselves to prayer and to simply being present to the Holy Spirit until we are again moved to action, moved somehow to work on our personal sanctification, or that of our world.

Both work and prayer are essential elements of the Christian life. However, the life of Jesus himself teaches us that neither is complete nor sustainable without the other. In order to pour himself out in compassion to others, Jesus spent time alone with his Father, withdrawn from the crowds. At the same time, his prayers were fueled by the stories and sorrows of the people he met. Ultimately, there was very little distinction between the work and prayer of Jesus, as his life was an incarnate prayer and his prayer was a labor for the glory of the Father (one of his most famous prayers caused him to sweat blood). In the same way for us, the ideal is for action and contemplation to be so enmeshed that they cannot be separated in our thoughts or our work. With Dorothy, Peter, and other saints throughout history, we seek to embody this ideal in our community at Casa Juan Diego, so that our prayer and our practice of the Works of Mercy may nourish each other and enable us to truly welcome Christ in our immigrant brothers and sisters.
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXI, No. 1, January-February, 2011.