“Orare et Labore”

Dear Friends,


Few historians suggest that fifth-century Europe was an optimal period in which to live. It wasn’t. The old social order, unequivocally imposed by the Roman emperor through his army—fearsome as it had been—had collapsed. Nothing had yet replaced the fallen order. The flux was dangerous. People were generally nervous in the resulting instability. Yet, despite these uneasy conditions, one of the great figures of Western Christendom emerged to write a document on how to live life properly; a document that remains influential today. That person was Saint Benedict of Nursia. The document is known, simply, as the Rule. The Rule was adopted by Benedictine monasteries across the world, and has persisted down through the centuries. Its precepts have been studied and implemented by numerous communities well beyond the confines of the Benedictine order.

I accidentally discovered, for myself, during my convalescence from cancer, one specific value of Benedict’s Rule, his endorsement of labor as a necessary daily component of the balanced life.


Benedict seems to have been an exceptionally practical spiritual man. Theorizing was not his way. He gave useful advice on achieving balance in one’s life. And he gave instructions on administering community life, as well. With respect to the first, his Rule is sometimes popularly summarized by the words “orare et labore”, for Benedict counseled that an individual’s life should consist of a balance of daily prayer and daily labor.

A prayerful attitude is fostered by an appreciation of “the Other” in one’s life. Humans have sought to understand “the Other” in various ways. I suspect we have managed to misunderstand “the Other” in even more ways. I am blessed with having a keen relationship with whom I understand to be God. I realize that other people may be skeptical about such a notion. For those who are, I would suggest they might consider Benedict’s counsel for prayerfulness as pointing to the importance of self-reflection—not in a self-absorbed or self-referential attitude—but in a humble, objective, consistent and continual evaluation of one’s life on a daily basis.

Benedict’s definition of “labore” is literally much closer to what we, today, call “labor” than it is to what we commonly think of as “work”. Here’s the difference. “Work” consists of tasks and assignments one performs for remuneration. “Work” requires concentration and dedication. It can become addictive for the mental or egoistic satisfaction it provides; just as it can be for the value of the remuneration one receives for performing it. Benedict would likely counsel to not let the work of, for example, administrating a monastery get out of balance with an abbot’s prayer life, or, indeed, of his(her) “labors”.

“Labor” is of a different quality than “work”. “Labor” involves dedication and attention, as does work. “Labor” can also be addictive (perhaps, most especially, as an escape). But “labor” leaves considerable room for being “in tune”. It is usually difficult and manual in nature. It can be restorative.

I’ve already written enough about neuropathy (complained about it too much, is probably closer to the truth). For me, neuropathy is disabling because it interrupted and inhibited my ability to “work” (especially on my computer). It also conflicted with my workshop maintenance tasks. I commented to Monica that it was fortunate that I undertook, early-on, my “screw-sorting” activity. With the present numbness of my fingertips and my poor fine motor control, I never would be able to accomplish that task, today. (I’m assured by my doctors that the neuropathy will pass as my nerves recover from the unintended collateral damage they sustained during my chemotherapy. But the medical experts also caution that it can take months—even years—for the nerves to recover. “It just depends… on a lot of different things.”)

Without blaming neuropathy anew, let me simply observe that while my fine motor control may have been damaged, my gross motor control still functions tolerably well. Gross motion is more forgiving and susceptible to correction than is fine motor control. A few weeks ago I embarked on a little landscaping project in our back yard that unexpectedly became a major one. In the doing, I learned a good deal from Saint Benedict.

The project involved digging some three square yards of stubborn, sticky serpentine clay from a hillside, and shoring up the resulting escarpment with a 5-foot high brick-and-mortar wall. Needless to say, the project took me several weeks, although, at first, I did my best to finish it in one day! The result of my initial enthusiastic (if false) start was a considerable amount of muscular pain in places I’d not felt such pain for years. I began to pace myself and learn when to quit for the day.

As I learned the lessons of labore, I kept receiving little “quizzes” to test my deeper understanding of the subject matter. For example, one morning I came across a little root where I was digging. The little root rapidly revealed itself to be a gigantic one. Dealing with it distracted me for the next two days and slowed me from achieving my intended goal. It reminded me that I was in no race to reach my goal. It helped me find satisfaction in eventually literally uprooting the wayward obstacle. The digging itself, of course, resulted in a excavation pile. The pile had to be bagged for transport, maneuvered out of the back yard and be staged for loading into our station wagon, when Monica had no need of the vehicle, herself. Driving the bags to a permitted disposal destination, unloading them, saving the bags for the next load (and cleaning Monica’s car) were all part of the labor. I won’t go into the details of selecting and hauling bricks the opposite direction, mixing the mortar, and constructing the wall with attention to levelness, consistency and aesthetics. My “little” project turned out to be laborious, indeed.

The undertaking of this labor turned out to have been highly therapeutic. Not only did I experience a great satisfaction, every day, at seeing visible progress towards my goal, but also I was, every evening, physically tired (not to say, exhausted). That improved my sleeping patterns. This was a tiredness of the body in a healthy reaction to exertion; not the stressful exhaustion that came from worrying about my cancer. The labor surely contributed to my physical and mental health, which is improving daily.

Not only did I achieve my goal, but I became more aware that the process was worth more of my attention than was my goal. Concentrating on my goal only stressed me; settling into a pattern of overcoming the individual challenges of the process could be pleasurable. Relaxing into the rhythm of work resulted in achieving my goal. Reaching it, almost came as a bit of a surprise (maybe even disappointment)… the goal, itself ,was far less important than the value of the details, enjoyment and lessons the process provided.

The mental attentiveness to the task at hand—whether it was digging out an inconvenient root or judging the proper viscosity of mortar—absorbed my mind peacefully, driving out unnecessary worries or unanswerable questions. Working with the soil, bricks, shrubs in the comfortable foggy Bay Area weather, or in its bright sunshine, forced me to recognize differences and appreciate the materials with which I was dealing. Picking up a tool—whether a shovel or a spade or a trowel—brought to mind the powerful mystery of tools, per se, in human endeavors and accomplishment. All these (and more) came as ancillary by-products of labor. They could not, as easily, have come from work… or prayer, for that matter.

St. Benedict advised that labor played an important role in a monk’s life, because it provided access to knowledge and understanding in a way prayer did not. Labor had a practical consequence that is augmented by, and strengthens the sincerity of prayer.

The trick, today, is to include “work” in the balancing act of life that Benedict described. Work, since Benedict’s time, has become a dominant necessity in our contemporary culture where money has become a substitute for goods made by hand, or services provided by skilled persons. It’s clear to me, after engaging in my labor, that labor deepened my reflections about myself and my condition, and it animated my prayer life with a certain fresh humility and objectivity. Involving orare et labore with my work should help me not only achieve, but also maintain balance among the three. It feels that way. Surely, I can trust the Saint who wisely counseled making orare et labore central components of life’s balancing act. After all, there are hundreds of communities of men and women who, today, scrupulously (and joyously) continue to follow Benedict’s Rule fifteen centuries after he composed it!


Thoughts on neuropathy and touch – Infusion 9/12

Dear Friends,


Once again, I apologize for not being consistent in producing these occasional essays. I’ve just completed my 8th cycle of chemotherapy. As I write this, I’m in the Clinic undergoing my 9th cycle. This means there are only 3 cycles left!

Maybe I’d forgotten that my caregivers had been instructing me that during this process the chemo would gradually accumulate in my body, the poisons (er, medications) gaining in strength as that happened. As this took place, they warned me, my side effects would intensify. That is precisely what happened after cycle 8, two weeks ago. After this 8th infusion, all my previous symptoms heightened (neuropathy, nausea, drippy nose[1], fatigue [better described, in my case, as apathy or ennui], etc.) Despite my best “intellectual” intentions, my body and mind rejected anything I determined to accomplished that smacked of mental (to say nothing of physical exertion).  My mind’s compelling response was a puerile (I somewhat regrettably observe from this that childishness may never be completely erased, in even an adult male.) “Nah. Not now. Who cares? Watch some mind-numbing TV. Take a nap.  You can do all you want, tomorrow.” And so the week sped by without my posting a single blog update.

I’ve been jotting notes on selected Christmas cards Monica has addressed for us, confiding that–uncomfortable and annoying as the side effects may be–I recognize them to be predicted, within tolerable ranges, and by-products, merely, of what is healing me. Hence, I can easily put up with such incidental by-products while I slowly glean meaning and lessons from this process of illness, vulnerability, care-giving, care-receiving, healing… from the entire rich and related process.

I am similarly consoled to be able to turn over the monitoring of the intensity and the assessment of potential dangers of my side effects to my nurses and doctors, who have far more experience than I, in comparative patient reactions. So I find myself completely at ease with where I am, with respect to my annoying but not unmanageable discomforts and the timeline of treatment.

That said, I’m saddened (but gratefully aware of the reasons) to find that especially the women in my family (particularly Monica; Krysia; in her way, Anastasia; and my sister, Wandzia), find distressing, my apparent weakness and discomfort. They would rather not have me go through this unavoidable phase. It’s easier, by far, for me to come to terms with what I am experiencing, than it is for them to accept what they observe. I’d react in exactly the same way if our roles were reversed. Different experiences of the same illness. Evidence of the often under-recognized wider impact of illness: wider effects than can be observed in one patient, alone.


I’ve been thinking about nerves (i.e. neuropathy).

Pensée, the First

Think about one single nerve, whose one end terminates in the tip of your index finger. Perhaps this nerve is dedicated to recognizing temperature. It possesses some sort of knowledge about an acceptable temperature range for human beings. Or, more likely, any particular nerve is far “dumber.” It simply passes on observed information having to do with temperature. Elsewhere, that information might be interpreted to be within or outside an acceptable range. This particular nerve is essential to the time-honored tale of the toddler learning not to touch the burning oven or fireplace. Perhaps there is nowhere (even in our mind) that some pre-determined “temperate range” exists, prior to the experience of pain that can be registered by this nerve. This nerve, while specialized to deal with temperature, might merely (and in common with other nerves) register comfort or discomfort. Over the course of time, some operation of the mind might accumulate the massive amount of data continuously transmitted by this single nerve about the status of its specialization. Then the mind might begin to filter away those communications that are benign and ignorable. In this way, the mind might eliminate large amounts of incoming information that doesn’t need to be processed because experience shows that it can be ignored. At the same time the procedure heightens responsiveness to messages from the nerve that fall outside the ignorable range. “Ouch. This stovetop hurts me!”

My goal, here, is not to try to define “message”, “mind”, “information”, “knowledge”, or any of the other words I’ve conveniently (but not in any precise way) used, above. My goal is even less to attempt to describe the mechanism by which nerves “communicate”, “learn”, “process” or (importantly) “forget” what they register. It is enough, in this crude simplistic explanation, that I recognize, dimly, how many details exist, and how careful must be the intellectual and scientific work to describe and understand this process, even down to its chemical, molecular and electrical/energetic functional mechanisms. But all these are undeniably exciting, in themselves, as fields of attention.

Instead, my goal is to isolate this particular,—minute—nerve, on my index finger, to recognize two following facts that can be deduced (and verified by scientific investigation and experimentation).

(1) There must by multiple and countless “siblings” or “independent clones” of this single nerve. I know this because—even confined to my index finger—discovering that the stovetop is too hot for me to touch can be learned at various spots along my finger, and even at different points on the tip of my finger. One fixed nerve-ending couldn’t suffice. I’d have to be endowed with duplicate nerve endings at the top and sides of my fingertip, and more—closely-spaced—along the length and circumference and plane of my finger’s skin surface. Mind-boggling.

(2) If the nerve I’ve been describing is specialized for temperature, there must exist similar nerves, of a similar kind, specialized for other sensations (roughness/smoothness, pressure [very light to very strong…probably differentiated], movement/stasis, weight, thickness [in conjunction with other nerves], texture, density [solid or liquid], viscosity, stickiness…). The list is seemingly endless.

Its, perhaps, easy to see where I’m heading. I want to be aware of the incredible density of sensory apparatus nature has concentrated on my index finger. Aware of it, I can extrapolate that density to my remaining fingers; then to my hands; and thence to the rest of my body. I have an impression (and don’t wish to digress by trying to verify it) that the nerves I’m thinking about are not evenly distributed throughout my skin. My ankles—though evidently sensitive (in addition to appearing attractively svelte, these days)—seem to me not to have a comparable concentration of the same nerves as I’ve become aware of in my fingers.

Pensée, the Second

How interesting that…

  • I experience a distinct feeling of calming when my nurse puts her hand on my chest in order to stabilize it while she inserts a needle into my port.
  • in the West, we customary shake hands in greeting, instinctively affirming the potential, or reaffirming an existing relationship.
  • experimental studies have confirmed that the absense of touch in young mammals and human children cause substantial degradation of later confidence, happiness, and feelings of security.
  • liturgical ceremonies from the consecration of priests and bishops, to ritual confirmations of kings and emperors have historically, down to the present, included what is called “the laying on of hands.”
  • during the imposition of the Sacrament of the Sick (which I’ve been priviledged to receive), there is a similar laying on of hands. It conveys a distinct calm and brings peace.
  • holding hands is sought after by young lovers. When I hold hands with Monica it is a wonderfully brightening, loving, and consoling (not to mention exciting) experience.
  • we instinctively stroke the faces and bodies of those who are in pain.
  • we humans tend to want to cuddle… bringing the sensory apparatus of one being in close proximity with that of another.
  • we can share this intimacy, or this yearning to communicate, with other sentient human beings; not only human, but other species who co-exist with us on this earth.

I believe there is a good deal to wonder at, in the awareness of the density of sensory apparatus that is part of our corporeal selves. Clearly, many of the apparati exist to make us aware of danger and protect us against a potentially hostile external world. But many more seem to exist to pass messages among us that are even more communicative (think broadband, for you techies) than our uttered language.

With these thoughts, then, it seems appropriate to wish that during the forthcomingh holiday season, you be touched by and touch with great awareness, the people who surround you, nurture you, and live their lives with you. May you, too, be warmed by the Spirit who fills these festive days with meaning.




[1] Verification needed… I can’t tell if its a “medical urban myth” or has any basis in reality. I’ve not (yet) lost my hair, but my eyes (and especially my nose) seems to drip constantly and voluminously. I asked someone what causes this to happen, especially by my annoyingly constantly-dripping nose. They answered that—despite the fact I’d not lost the hair on my head or chin—I’d lost the hairs in my nose. Among their jobs was to keep my nose from running.  I find this—for some quirky reason—immensely amusing. But I’m also skeptical. Any feedback would be welcome at grycz@well.com . Merry Christmas!