Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Spirituality of Work

Since today is the day after Labor Day, I thought that a good topic for discussion on Relevant Radio's "Inner Life" show would be "The Spirituality of Work." 

The pain and frustration associated with work is the result of sin.  These are often the result of our own sins and those of others, but also because of Original Sin, which resulted in difficulties and pain in work, for God said: "Cursed be the ground because of you! In toil shall you eat its yield all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to you, as you eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat..." (Genesis 3:17-19).  But this pain was not part of God's original plan.  Made in the image and likeness of God, humanity was created to work with God in caring for creation.  A chapter earlier in Genesis we read: "The Lord God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it" (2:15). 

Jesus, the model human, shows us the beauty of work.  We often think of his work of redeeming humanity only in terms of his three years of active ministry when he taught, healed, raised the dead, and then suffered, died, and rose.  But each of the years and minutes of his "Hidden Life" was redemptive.  When he worked as a boy and adolescent side by side with Joseph, he was saving the world.  When he did his chores around the house, he was saving the world.  All this was done in obedience to the will of the Father and as an act of love for the Father, thus undoing the rebellious sin of Adam and Eve. 

Jesus declared that through work we imitate God the Father.  He said: "My Father is at work until now, so I am at work" (John 5:17).  He made it clear that he worked in union with God the Father when he said: "I cannot do anything on my own; I judge as I hear, and my judgment is just, because I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me" (John 5:36).  If, as Jesus says, he can do nothing on his own but does everything in union with the Father, how much more is it true that we can do nothing on our own.  After telling his disciples that he is the vine and they are the branches, Jesus says: "Whoever remains in me
and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). 

With this in mind, everything we do can play a part in the ongoing conversion and salvation of the world.  When we pray a Daily Offering prayer at the beginning of the day, we ask that everything we do may be done in union with God's will and may give glory to God.  Chuck Neff, the host of the "Inner Life" show, shared that one work he particularly dislikes is mowing his lawn.  He said that as he mows he thinks about various people that he wants to pray for or has promised his prayers to and he offers his work for them.  I
added that praying a version of the Jesus Prayer--"Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me"--can be another way of uniting prayer with our breath and our work. 

We can also see work as an opportunity to practice and grow in the virtues.  Take the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love.  We can make our work an act of faith by surrendering it to God and trying to see how it can give glory to God.  We can acknowledge that God is always present and we can ask, "what are you trying to teach me through this work, through this event?"  When our work becomes especially burdensome and we are tempted to get down and to despair, we can exercise the virtue of hope, recognizing that our true home is heaven and that this--whatever it is that causes us pain or struggle--this too shall pass.  We exercise hope by substituting positive thoughts for the negative ones.  And we can exercise the virtue of love, telling God that the work in which we are engaged is being done as an act of love for him.  Especially when we are dealing with people who frustrate or upset us, we exercise love by praying for them, willing their good, and expressing that love in the way we treat them.  In this way work becomes a very practical way in which we grow in holiness.

One of the last questions we addressed involved rest, balance, and overwork.  In Genesis God rested from the work of creation to show us the importance of balance.  We too must rest, for in doing so we practice good stewardship of ourselves, our bodies.  But it is also a way of exercising trust.  When I am tempted by overwork it is usually not only because I want to give glory to God.  There is often a good bit of ego involved in the temptation to work too much or too hard.  It involves the fear of saying "no" and displeasing others.  It involves the desire to look good and to be successful.  God wants us to do good work and to follow St. Paul's advice to the Colossians: "Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord and not for others..." (3:23).  In that way we can seek God's glory at all times and not our own. 

An audio of the program can be found here, on the Relevant Radio website.  Just go to the calendar and click on September 4. 


  1. Maybe I'm just looking at a tangential topic, but I view a huge problem in our society as being a tremendous focus on self. In your closing you mentioned "... we can seek God's glory at all times and not our own," but that is not at all what our culture emphasizes. We seem to not value work in the same way we don't value suffering --- it's not what "I" want to be doing, or to have happen to "ME". Whether it is the baby who might crimp my lifestyle, or the government who might take too much of my money, or the Church which doesn't want me to have fun --- it's all about me, me first, and me alone.

    We seem to have confused the emphasis in the Second Great Commandment: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Aha, we exclaim: So we are to love ourselves!! And we do.

    The value we don't put on work, like the value we don't put on love of neighbor is due to our ego, selfishness, and our unwillingness to sacrifice. Sacrifice is the word not taught in our culture anymore. All the things that God commands involves that we willingly sacrifice -- as He did. But we just don't seem to be able to do so anymore, and so we answer the call to love our neighbor by saying: "I agree, let's get the government to do it," as if a government can love.

    We have a long way to go to change our culture, to again value sacrifice, love of neighbor, and yes, work --- because that is what all these things are. And work is a good thing.

  2. Yes, I think what you say is true: that we and our culture are very self-centered. The spirituality of offering, especially when seen in the context of uniting our day to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, can help us "die" to ourselves in order to truly live. I like how Pope Benedict put it in a talk he gave at a Diocesan Conference in Rome in June, 2010. He said:

    "The Eucharist celebrated obliges us, and at the same time enables us, to become in our turn, bread broken for our brothers and sisters, meeting their needs and giving ourselves. For this reason a Eucharistic celebration that does not lead to meeting people where they live, work and suffer, in order to bring them God's love, does not express the truth it contains. In order to be faithful to the mystery that is celebrated on the altars we must, as the Apostle Paul exhorts us, offer our bodies, ourselves, as a spiritual sacrifice pleasing to God (cf. Rm 12:1) in those circumstances that ask us to make our 'I' die and that constitute our daily 'altar'."