Work like everything depends on you…or God?

April 30, 2012 | Uncategorized | 33 comments

A few years ago, I mentioned that one of my favorite quotes is this famous saying, usually attributed to Ignatius of Loyola:

Work as if everything depended on you, pray as if everything depended on God.

Love that! What it seemed to be saying was, “Work hard, pray hard.” This really resonated with the way I like to do things.

Then I got some emails from readers saying: That is probably not the correct version of the quote. Evidently, what St. Ignatius actually said was more along the lines of:

Work as if everything depended on God, pray as if everything depended on you.

I haven’t been able to find a source for the quote either way, so I’m not positive that this second one is correct. But quite a few knowledgeable people have emailed me to say that it is accurate, and it’s given me a lot to ponder. There’s a surprising amount of wisdom contained in this second quote. Consider:

Pray as if everything depended on you

Imagine that the leaders of the ten most populous countries were going to gather for a meeting about how they could usher in an era of peace and harmony, and they were going to invite one speaker to come and give them advice: You. Through some crazy circumstance, you were the sole person picked to address this group, and the FATE OF ALL HUMANITY hung in the balance of what you said. Can you imagine how hard you’d pray? I don’t know about you, but I don’t know if I would do anything but pray.

The thing that works about this advice is that high-pressure moments bring our weaknesses into relief. In daily life, it’s easy to try to control everything, to think and act like we have to need of God, because we are gods. But then when we are put in positions where we’re actually in charge of high-stakes situations, our mentality shifts. We see with startling clarity just how feeble we really are, and how unworthy we are of being in control of much of anything. At least in my experience, rarely are my prayers more passionate and sincere than when I end up in control of an important situation, and I feel like everything depends on me.

Work as if everything depended on God

When I first heard this version of the quote, I interpreted it to mean, “Be lazy.” It tells you a fair amount about my personality type that I thought, Sweet. If that’s true, then I can sit around and do nothing and trust that God will handle everything. I’m not wasting time on Twitter, I’m just following St. Ignatius’ advice and working as if everything depends on God (i.e., not at all)!

But I think that maybe, just maybe, I misunderstood what that advice is getting at. The quote, if correct, doesn’t say, “Don’t bother doing any work, because it all depends on God anyway.” Rather, the spirit of it is that we shouldn’t work in a frantic, controlling way. We should work diligently but peacefully, and not be afraid to rest when it’s time to rest.

Over at the Country Monks blog, Fr. Mark Stengel summed it up well when he wrote:

If I pray as if everything depends on me, I would have to pray with a greater sense of urgency and need, recognizing my own inadequacy. I would have to pray for the wisdom and strength that I will need. I would need to seek forgiveness and humility, so that my past sins and my present flaws might not be stumbling blocks for those I am trying to serve.

If I work as if everything depends on God, then I will go forward with greater confidence and energy, since the work to be done is in more capable hands than my own. If the outcome is in God’s hands, then I will perhaps be able to persevere in the face of opposition and apparent poor results. If it all depends on God, then I will not hesitate to “step out of the boat, “ out of my own comfort zone, as I try to serve. And if God is in charge, then He will not allow my mistakes to ruin His work, but will make all things work together unto good.

Anyway, again, I’m not positive that the second version is even right. But even if it’s not, I think it contains a lot of rich food for thought. Which version makes most sense to you? Does anyone know for sure which one is correct?

33 Comments

  1. Kimberlie

    I am sorry I can’t verify the quote but I will say that the second one makes more sense. I mean afterall, if everything depended on me, I sure better be praying because otherwise I’d make a huge mess of things. I think you are right about the wisdom in working as though everything depends on God because if I follow that advice I would put my hand diligently to the plow but trust that God will sanctify and make right whatever my failings. I don’t do this at all. I am a frantic, control-freak, but wouldn’t it be a wonderful life if I could live by this quote?

  2. Mark L

    What a great meditation as I start my work day. Thank you!

    (Sometimes I wonder why I’m sitting here. This helps.)

    ML

  3. LPatter

    Just got back from spiritual direction and this new interpretation – one that I had not heard proposed before – is rocking my world. LOVe it!

    I agree – though I’d never have suggested it, #2 works better.

    WOW!

    St. Ignatius, ora pro nobis (in our work and in our prayer!)

  4. Gina

    I love this.

  5. Michael

    I always told students to pray as if it depended on God (because it does) and work as if it depended God (because we’re supposed to be following Him). Though I appreciate what you’re saying in this version.

  6. Amy

    I first heard the quote attributed to Saint Augustine. Sophomore year in college we studied Predestination and the Pelagian heresies. Inevitably, a certain percentage of the class would start freaking out and having long (obsessive)talks about the subject in the dorm, the lunchroom, the confessional… you get the point. This quote surfaced as a way out of the free will dilemma. A way to get dressed in the morning and keep living life with a loving and creative God. It gave me a lot of peace that year (and further into life when things seem over my head).
    The answer to this yahoo question seems relevant to the discussion…
    http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080404193750AArlpKD

  7. JenF

    Wow, I really like that a lot. I’ve always heard the 1st version. and I have to say, it always made me feel a little stressed and inadequate (though I could see how it would make sense). This new version (and the interpretations you provided) bring me a lot of peace. Thank you!

  8. MrsD

    Looooove this! I think this was for me today:)

  9. Beth Turner

    I have to be honest, as a former Calvinist, the second quote kind of scares me. It seemed to me that there was continually a sense that “nothing good you do can be attributed to you, but everything bad you’ve ever done is entirely your fault.” One thing I loved about becoming Catholic was the way my deeds did matter, and bestowed merit as well as condemnation.

    That being said, your reflections on the second version of the quote give it a context that makes it much more appealing! And I particularly appreciate what it might look like to “pray as if everything depended upon you” – partly because it rejects the Calvinist spirituality that seemed to make the ideal self as passive as possible, and partly because I’ve found that big, heavy, difficult prayers are so often fruitful.

    • Emily

      Beth — just popping in to say that I too love that about now being Catholic having been raised in a hyper-Calvinist home — what I do actually matters!

  10. Mary

    If you pray as if everything depended on you, you pray with faith. If you work as if everything depended on God, you don’t take the credit.

  11. elizabeth

    This is one of those quotes that makes the contemplative life so appealing–I could seriously think about the ramifications of both versions for the rest of my life. But I’ve got kids and laundry and homework, so I guess I’ll just say thanks for giving me something worthwhile to ponder while matching socks:)

  12. Jen G

    This second interpretation makes sense to me. I have often struggled with anxiety and of feeling overwhelmed by work. I find that when I pray (I pray the rosary daily as one example), I feel a definite sense of peace about things that used to stress me out. In daily prayer, I am putting on the armor of God and it helps me to get through my daily battles with peace and joy. It took me a while to make the connection between my prayer and my changing outlook, but it’s true!

  13. Rachel

    I wonder if either version was ever written by St. Ignatius. To me it sounds like that spurious St. Francis of Assisi quote: “Preach the Gospel always; if necessary, use words.” Both of them have a sentence structure that sounds very modern; not at all like people talked hundreds of years ago. They’re like slogans you’d put on a bumper sticker. Alas, I’m not articulate enough to explain myself any better than that.

    In any case, it’s a good quote (both versions) and a good thought-provoking post!

    • Becky

      I know what you mean about the sentence structure sounding modern, but keep in mind that if the quotes are originally from St. Ignatius or St. Francis as attributed it would have been in a different language. It would be correct for a translator to render it into the appropriate modern sounding idiom.

      It would be helpful if someone who can read the older languages could find the quotes(s) in the original language.

      • Rachel

        Good point that the translator could have made the quote sound more modern. And kudos to “future librarian” below for finding the reference in the Catechism!

  14. The Ubiquitous

    I like the second the best now that you elucidate it.

  15. John

    Jennifer’s post and Mary’s pithy addendum in the comments, especially when taken together, make perfect sense. This reflection comes with perfect timing, given the stress I am facing at work these next two weeks or so. Thank you!!

  16. Christine Falk Dalessio

    I can’t say which is right – but I love the idea that God is God. I am so bad at that… In my life at the moment, there has been a huge boulder thrown into the path of my journey, and I’ve been amazed at the peace I have in my heart, knowing God is in charge of the things I can’t change… and I have to add that I am learning that when evil rears its ugly head, we have a chance to pray more, pray harder – and isn’t that where victory lies?

  17. A future librarian

    The quote is actually cited in the Catechism the other way:

    2834: “Pray and work.”(121) “Pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on you.”(122) Even when we have done our work, the food we receive is still a gift from our Father; it is good to ask him for it and to thank him, as Christian families do when saying grace at meals.

    n121: Cf. St. Benedict, Regula, 20, 48.
    n122: Attributed to St. Ignatius Loyola, cf. Joseph de Guibert, SJ, The Jesuits: Their Spiritual Doctrine and Practice, (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1964), 148, n. 55.

    http://old.usccb.org/catechism/text/pt4sect2art3.shtml

    The catechism’s text/citations might not reflect current scholarship, though.

    • Denise

      Personally, I think you can make both quotes work well, so long as you are drawing your interpretation out of solid Catholic teaching. 🙂

      The initial version is the one I’ve always heard, but I have to say that when I read the second version my first thought was, “Mother Angelica!” I just finished her biography (on your recommendations), and that is exactly how she operated. She started all her major works with gusto and complete faith that God would bring them about if it was His will, and prayed like crazy that she wouldn’t mess up.

      Fr. Stengel’s comments only solidified that connection for me. His mention of “stepping out of the boat” resonates with Mother Angelica’s comments that you posted recently, about how we have to step out in faith and be willing to look ridiculous, so that God can bring about the miraculous.

      • Denise

        Oops! I apologize: I meant this to be a general comment, not a specific reply to librarian’s thoughts.

  18. Christina

    This reversed saying resonates more with me than the other one. Especially lately since one of my main prayers is “please God, don’t let me screw this all up.” I feel like the weight of the souls of others is on my shoulders and I’m terrified of doing the wrong thing (or failing to do the right thing). Then struggling to just start working and trusting that God has everything under control (and that if he could bring good out of the greatest evil ever, killing God, then my sins don’t pose a problem at all).

    This is telling you to trust, to not be afraid to start or stop working as needed. Yet it seems that the other though is equally as valid, for it challenges us to not give in to “trusting” God as a mask for laziness. It reminds us that God works WITH us and thus we pray for His Grace and receive it when we act. Grace is freely given, yet we have to accept it.

  19. Ashley

    I like what Fr. Stengel said, “And if God is in charge, then He will not allow my mistakes to ruin His work, but will make all things work together unto good.” I volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center and we were just discussing this general idea last week. People have a tendency to call on the boss when there are difficult conversations because they don’t trust themselves (myself included). You can’t blame yourself or play the “what if” game though. You just have to trust that you planted seeds and hope that they bloom. The first version seems to go against that idea and I find it overwhelming.

  20. shwell

    I just got finished reading Mary Emma and Company by Ralph Moody. It is the 4th in a series of books about his life in the early 1900’s. The first book is Little Britches.
    I though I’d share a quote from the book.
    Uncle Levi has come to their housewarming, they have moved from Colorado to Massachusetts, a widow with 6 children and had to start from square one, they had no house, no jobs, very little money but they knew how to work. Anyway…
    Uncle Levi said “Father wa’n’t overly religious, but I recollect his tellin’ me,’Pray to God to help you, then work just as hard as if you hadn’ta prayed.’ The way you folks has been workin’, I don’t calc’late the Almighty’s about to let you down.”

    And WOW, they really did work hard in that book to make a new life for themselves, and truely wonderful things and people came along and helped them, but they were also working hard to help themselves. Much harder than I work some days, kind of put things into a new perspective for me.

  21. Fr Bernard M, OP

    See James P. M. Walsh, “Work as if Everything Depends on— Who?,” The Way Supplement 70 (Spring 1991), 125–36. Walsh thinks the authentic Ignatian message was, in effect, “Pray as if everything depends on you” (that is, pray desperately, trust God fervently), and “work as if everything depends on God” (work calmly and with detachment).

    I’d have to see a real citation to believe St Augustine would say what’s attributed to him in the comments (and blog mentioned) above.

  22. Fr Bernard M, OP

    PS — Walsh is a Jesuit historian, and The Way is (was) a very reputable Catholic scholarly journal of spirituality. He also deals with the translation issues in the article.

  23. Christie

    I definitely prefer the second one. We need to through our whole hearts and souls into prayer, but when it comes to life, finances, jobs, bills, family crises, we have to believe that God will provide.

  24. Mike P

    Hello! My professor in Ignatian Spirituality (Wilkie Au) would agree with you. He argues that the second quote is consistent with the tradition of Ignatian Spirituality, yet more concretely with the Jesuit Order’s Rule (as articulated by St Iggy himself). I think it would be a fun exercise to compare the quotes with the rule/mission of the Jesuit Order 🙂

  25. Delainey Drieger

    Definitely some food for thought. You have fed my mind and soul today – thank you for that.

  26. Jackie

    I’ve heard the quote as”
    “Act as if everything depended on you; trust as if everything depended on God.” This is probably another quote, but the style is the same. However, I like the first version you presented – reminds me of something my mom told me – “work without ceasing, pray like there is no tomorrow!”

  27. soulja

    “as if” means “pretend”…no?
    So I’d like to propose a brand new version of this much debated quote:
    Pray AS IF everything depends on you,work WITH THE CONFIDENCE that everything depends on God.

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