by Frater Enatheleme
Note: This essay was originally written in Anno Legis IV:xv, and published first published in Lion & Serpent 12, No. 1. It has been revised and expanded for the broader audience and context of Thelemic Union, in celebration of Labor Day in the U.S., Anno Legis V:iv.
Mother of fertility on whose breast lieth water, whose cheek is caressed by air, and in whose heart is the sun’s fire, womb of all life, recurring grace of seasons, answer favorably the prayer of labour, and to pastors and husbandmen be thou propitious.
—Liber XV: Ecclesiæ Gnosticæ Catholicæ Canon Missæ by The Master Therion
As any local group of Thelemites grows and develops, it will naturally encounter greater expenses. Thelemites doing ritual work will find opportunities to acquire communal ritual furniture such as altars, banners, magical weapons, and so on. The costs of promulgation, including Internet presence and printing costs, for example, become routine. In a highly developed group, regular expenses may rise into the thousands of U.S. dollars per month as the group seeks to establish a permanent presence in a rented venue or purchased property. Currency is a symbolic means of labor exchange, and the above developments are also attended by an increasing need for volunteer labor which must be reliable and effective for important activities like cleaning equipment, maintenance of infrastructure, building furniture, cooking feasts, etc. A formula for integrating these mundane needs with the holistic goals of Thelemites already exists, in the postclassical adage laborare est orare (labor is prayer).
There are many perspectives and opinions about the methods that local groups of Thelemites should use to raise money—nearly as many opinions as there are individuals who care to think about it. Among the most prevalent areas of disagreement is whether a local group should be principally funded by membership dues, or by fund-raising from outside the local group. Raising funds from the local group through membership dues supports an ethos of self-sufficiency and accountability. In a casual examination of other Orders that have established such an ethos in the past, the benefits of an approach of self-sufficiency in Thelemic groups become apparent.
Let us not, with folded arms, float with the tide of indolence, but ever strive after increase of that true knowledge which is wisdom and remember that “to labour is to pray,” or as the Latin motto has it, “Laborare est Orare,” for the day.
—The Rosicrucians: Past and Present, at Home and Abroad by Wm. Wynn Westcott
“Laborare est Orare” is a motto that derives from the Rule of Benedict and which was later adopted by Freemasons. By embracing this ideological mindset, the Benedictine Order attained a high degree of self-sufficiency which arguably helped them to survive the fall of Rome.
Benedict formulated a Rule by which the monks of his monastery would live. It laid stress on the equal value of prayer, study and work, and in this way Benedict laid the foundations for self-sufficiency in a period when a community would either survive on its own, or not survive at all. At the core of the Rule was the edict, laborare est orare (to work is to pray). Benedict’s monks were to be no mere ritualistic bookworms—he wanted them to get dirt under their nails. As the movement spread across Europe the Benedictines set up abbeys that prospered, safe behind their massive walls; even when the depredations of the barbarian invaders were taking their greatest toll of the country around.
— Connections By James Burke
This concept is not difficult for many Thelemites to find relevant and applicable to local groups. But Benedictine monks traditionally walled themselves off (literally) from the rest of society; today, Thelemites must have different strategies for attaining a level of self-sufficiency. In a post-industrial, late capitalist service economy, in an organization which (unlike monasteries) does not seek to separate itself from worldly interaction, self-sufficient might be summarized as:
Independence supported by cooperative labor and financial contribution, resting on a foundation of shared commitment.
When a body of Thelemites is supported fully by those same Thelemites, outside forces can only hurt the group if conditions are extreme, e.g., if there is a major economic depression or everyone moves to another location. Even then, with ample savings and contingency income, a group may survive the storm. For we are magicians, and we thrive not by closing ourselves off from the outside world, but by engaging it. As Crowley writes in The Dangers of Mysticism:
The Magician is not nearly so liable to fall into this fearful mire of pride as the mystic; he is occupied with things outside himself, and can correct his pride. Indeed, he is constantly being corrected by Nature. . . . The mystic is solitary and shut up, lacks wholesome combat.
The phrase “labor is prayer,” has a simple and direct meaning which must not be overlooked. It needn’t be accepted on faith. Materialistically, by attaining self-sufficiency through labor and funding, a Thelemic community preserves and develops its teachings and practices. It is, therefore, one method of ensuring transmission of the gnosis. Thereby, labor invokes and is a form of karma yoga.
If we extend this kind of thinking to our daily life, considering all our efforts and skills to be of potential benefit to our local Thelemic communities, the group’s strength will grow immeasurably. This strength will also be of benefit to individuals. Consider how this has benefited the Benedictines:
The great church was the central symbol of faith about which all the manifold activities of a self-supporting community revolved. The Cistercian lay-brother was neither a slave nor an anchorite, but a skilled craftsman who wrought in metal, wood and stone, who built roads, wove cloth, bred stock and planted trees, and who tilled the soil of field and garden to make barren wastes fruitful. Yet all these manifold and highly individualistic activities were undertaken, not for personal enrichment, but for the benefit of the community and as an article of faith which was summed up in the precept of Stephen Harding: Laborare est Orare.
— High Horse Riderless by L. T. C. Rolt
In Thelemic communities, many of our practices could be considered “monastic,” but we do not withdraw entirely from the world into monasteries. The writings of The Master Therion do not recommend monastic isolation except for temporary periods. As Magi, standing “upright; their head above the heavens, their feet below the hells,” (from Liber Tzaddi) we do not cut off the lower to exalt the higher. In these respects, the following passage comparing a development in Zen to the Benedictine ethos is relevant:
One of the main attractions of Zen during the classical period of the shogunates was its double virtue in reforming monasticism and in its appeal to the ordinary person engaged in lay life. It did the former by simplifying monastic life and insisting on both hard labor and the practice of meditation… The movement appealed to the laity because it took seriously and in a practical way the Mahayana dictum of the identity between the empirical world or samsara and the transcendental world or nirvana. It took the idea expressed in the Latin tag laborare est orare, ‘to work is to pray,’ important for Western monasticism, in new directions, for it integrated the meditative task and the skills of ordinary life.” —The World’s Religions, Ninian Smart
The Freemasons, of course, are very near Ordo Templi Orientis on the initiatory family tree, and their words on this subject may ring true for Thelemites who are working, as it is written in Liber XV, to build “temples of gold and ivory and marble.”
Now, this doctrine, that labor is worship, is the very doctrine that has been advanced and maintained, from time immemorial, as a leading dogma of the Order of Freemasonry. There is no other human institution under the sun which has set forth this great principle in such bold relief. We hear constantly of Freemasonry as an institution that inculcates morality, that fosters the social feeling, that teaches brotherly love; and all this is well, because it is true; but we must never forget that from its foundation-stone to its pinnacle, all over its vast temple, is inscribed, in symbols of living light, the great truth that labor is worship.” — Symbolism of Freemasonry by Albert Mackey
Other organizations which use fund-raising events, or get grants, or which rely too heavily on the contributions of a few generous members to support the majority of their operations are at the mercy of those unstable sources of income. If local communities of Thelemites wish to survive and thrive, they must find a way to fund their activities primarily through broad-based shared financial and laborious commitment. This motto, Laborare est Orare, captures an ethos which can give focus to that effort. When community members consider all the work that they do as a potential means to contribute to their Thelemic community, we will see them easily supporting, sustaining, and improving their facilities and equipment. When those same people are also contributing their labor and genius to the production of classes, rituals, amateur theater, even creating products for the group to sell, the community becomes a vibrant society. As Aleister Crowley wrote in Liber CXCIV:
“. . . thus we gather up all the threads of human passion and interest, and weave them into an harmonious tapestry, subtly and diligently with great art, that our Order may seem an ornament even to the Stars that are in the Heavens at Night. In our rainbow-coloured texture we set forth the glory of the whole Universe–See thou to it, brother Magician, that thine own thread be strong, and pure, and of a colour brilliant in itself, yet ready to mingle in all beauty with those of thy brethren!”
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4 thoughts on “Laborare est Orare: The Prayer of Labor”
Lodge structures East and West establish chapters by having enough members to fund and maintain a building or shrine. I’ve watched my own Rebekah and Odd Fellows lodge fail due to a 50 plus year failure to recruit and sustain members. C. 1900 30-40% of the population were in a lodge in North America. The social and economic benefits of membership drove this boom.
I do not think the numbers are in favor of that sort of a revival. I think a revisioning may be in order. Householder Lodges may be the future. As I’m not an OTO member I can’t speak to this, but I think that a smaller space, combined with a return to the use of c. 1900 multimedia technologies, emblems, good storytelling and reflection can bring a gold that is not the common gold.
Whether or not a group can sustain a dedicated temple, there will always be expenses and a need for volunteer labor. Regardless of the level of contribution needed, the argument being advanced with this piece is that the community is best served by shouldering that burden itself by embracing an ethos identifying contribution as a form of invocation. Cheers.
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