The Benedictines' motto, "Ora et Labora," means "work and prayer." As Labor Day approaches, it's worth thinking about the connection between work and prayer. Both involve authenticity.

Speeches and articles celebrating Labor Day will undoubtedly stress the dignity of both labor and laborers. Labor will be emphasized as the occasion for creativity and growth.

Homilists will highlight the laborer's reflection of God's creative actions: God, who worked six days creating the cosmos and then rested on the seventh day. Christians will point to Jesus' statement "My Father works until now, and I work" (John 5:17).

I find these points consoling and true.

Another dimension of work is its uncompromising nature. The successful accomplishment of a task requires the rigorous application of rules: For example, how useless painting is when one neglects properly preparing the wood's surface! The lesson of respecting the nature of material being -- wood has to be prepped to receive paint -- is important. The fruit of this lesson is a sense of freedom.

Why freedom? When one has struggled to do things correctly, one is freed from illusion and freed for the enjoyment of one's work. "God rested on the seventh day and made it holy" (Gen. 2:3).

This reverence for the nature of things, which work demands, is a vital disposition for prayer. It reminds me of a possible etymology of the word "sincere" ("sine cero"). It's Latin and means "without wax;" it referred to marble statues that were pure marble, not camouflaged with wax. In other words, they were authentic.

One of the most disconcerting aspects of the psalms is their honesty. The psalmist confesses hatred of enemies and the desire for revenge! These un-Christian dispositions, an unflattering part of our nature, cannot be dealt with unless they are faced squarely, as the psalmist does. Only thus are we authentic.

Like the labor of work to bring about an authentic product, prayer, as taught by Jesus, calls us to authenticity. In the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, we note that the publican, who authentically acknowledges his sinfulness and need for God's mercy, is praised by Jesus. If I am praying authentically -- if I'm real in my prayer -- then I'm taking a laborious but necessary step in achieving that freedom from illusion which will set me free for an authentic Christian life.

(Rhett Segall attends St. Michael the Archangel parish in Troy.)