Thursday, November 22, 2012

Wisdom of Sirach: Praying With Our Hands

The Wisdom of Sirach is much like the book of Proverbs. It is a rambling book of wisdom that should probably be read carefully at least once every decade of one's life. The wisdom of the book becomes more profound as your experience in life increases. However, the world of Sirach was very different from our world.  

An example of this different world, and an actual source of spiritual trouble for many people today, is that very few of us nowadays make our living with our hands. Very few of us practice a craft. Wise Sirach tells us that builders, blacksmiths, and potters pray with their hands: "Their prayer is in the practice of their craft" (38:34). He particularly points out that a source of this prayer is the attention they pay to their craft, the builder who is "keeping watch to perfect his work" or the blacksmith who "inclines his ear to the sound of the hammer and [whose] eyes are focused on the...object...and keeps watch to perfect its detail" (38: 27, 28).

But many of us today have no craft--not even as a hobby. I think the Wisdom of Sirach, which is the wisdom of the Church, would teach us to find a craft, to find something to do with our hands, something that requires attention and practice to acquire skill, something that produces a real thing.

The problem with sales, financial services, media, church work or scholarship, and just about anything that has to do with computing--where many of us make our living--is that although the work requires attention, it creates nothing real, or at least nothing very real and certainly nothing that is very lasting. We can spend our life's energy manipulating data and moving merchandise and never really touch or change what we are giving all of our attention to. And we who spend so much of our attention on moving and manipulating nothing very real, if we are going to experience the kind of prayer that Sirach speaks of, we need to plant a garden, or build a bathroom, or paint a picture or knit a sweater. We need to have a craft, even as a hobby. We need it as part of our salvation. We need it to learn how to pray.

There are many also who labour in serving others, in medicine, in teaching, in other various ways. These, it seems to me, also pray in their work in as much as they attend to their "masters" as to the Lord. That is, in as much as a doctor or teacher or a waitress serves others, the other is his or her master. The master of the teacher is the student. The master of the doctor is the patient. "He who is first shall be last."  "The greatest shall be servant of all." How can that be?  It can be because Jesus is both the Lord of all and the Servant of all. Laying aside His glory as God, Jesus came to all human beings as their Servant. Christians are empowered to imitate Christ. Nevertheless, it seems very few doctors look to their patients as masters or teachers to their students as masters--in this sense a waitress is in an easier position to find prayer in her work than a professor in that it is probably easier for a waitress to see her clients as Christ, the Master, than it is for a professor or doctor or politician to do the same.  

But serving others as master is a skill we can grow in. Like the blacksmith who must learn through attention and repeated encounters of hammer and steel how to form something useful; so we who serve others can grow in the ability to see Christ in our patients, in our students, in our customers. If we attend to this, if we look for Christ in the weak, sick, unruly and impatient faces of those we serve, we like the potter or the builder may too be praying in our work.

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