Work and the Unity of Life

“If any one will not work, let him not eat.  For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.  Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living.  Brethren, do not be weary in well-doing” (2 Thessalonians 3:10-13).

“Idleness is the enemy of the soul.  Therefore, the brethren should be occupied at certain times in manual labor, and again at fixed hours for sacred reading […] And if the circumstances of the place or their poverty should require that they themselves do the work of gathering the harvest, let them not be discontented; for then are they truly monks when they live by the labor of their hands, as did our Fathers and the Apostles” (Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter 48).

“In working, man imitates his creator and in God’s plan work is always personal, subjective, done by one who is a person.  Work as objective, its end product, is important and, as such, it is valued in different ways, but whatever work an honest man does, however humble, gives him human dignity which demands respect.  We do not value people by what they do.  We value them and their work by what they are, sons and daughters of God. […] Work is sometimes hard: this is the penalty that sin placed on man, and the Christian will join his sufferings in this to those of his master: Christ.  Industriousness, meanwhile, is a moral habit which makes man good” (Rodger Charles, SJ, “The Social Teaching of John Paul II”, in The Wisdom of John Paul II, 54-55).

Jesus calls us to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.  This “perfection in Christ” that we seek in faith must integrate the transcendent (spiritual) and temporal (earthly) dimensions of the human person.  Work, then, involves the whole person: body, mind, and spirit, and is a sharing in the activity of the Creator:

“Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another.  Hence work is a duty: ‘If any one will not work, let him not eat.’  Work honors the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him.  It can also be redemptive.  By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work.  He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish.  Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2427; cf. Genesis 2:15).

Consequently, we are to become as competent as possible in our individual disciplines and professions—from housewife to aerospace engineer—bringing the truth of the Gospel and the natural law to bear on the temporal order.  When we live and act in accord with God’s will, we perfect His work and bring it to fruition.  Thus, our work and rest must imitate His:

“The faithful must accomplish their work with professional competence, with human honesty, with a Christian spirit, and especially as a way of their own sanctification.  Moreover, we know that through work offered to God, an individual is associated with the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, whose labor with his hands at Nazareth greatly ennobled the dignity of work” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 67).

The link between Christian spirituality and work is the unity of life.  To respond to our vocation, we must see our daily activities as an occasion to join ourselves to God, fulfill his will, serve other people, and lead them to communion with God in Christ.  “Awareness that man’s work is a participation in God’s activity ought to permeate … even the most ordinary, everyday activities.  For, while providing the substance of life for themselves and their families, [we] … are performing [our] activities in a way which appropriately benefits society.  [We] can justly consider that by [our] labor [we] are unfolding the Creator’s work … and contributing, by [our] personal industry, to the realization in history of the divine plan” (Laborem Exercens, 115; cf. Gaudium et Spes, no. 34).

The prayer and sacramental life of the Christian, while prior to the active life, has to be intimately connected with it:

“Because of the very economy of salvation the faithful should learn how to distinguish carefully between those rights and duties which are theirs as members of the Church, and those which they have as members of human society.  Let them strive to reconcile the two, remembering that in every temporal affair they must be guided by a Christian conscience, since even in secular business there is no human activity which can be withdrawn from God’s dominion.  In our own time, however, it is most urgent that this distinction and also this harmony should shine forth more clearly than ever in the lives of the faithful, so that the mission of the Church may correspond more fully to the special conditions of the world today” (Lumen Gentium, no. 36).

Therefore, professional and family life, and even our rest and recreation—lived in the presence of God—should be the overflow of the interior life:

“Applying their time and strength to their employment with a due sense of responsibility, they should also all enjoy sufficient rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social and religious life.  They should also have the opportunity freely to develop the energies and potentialities which perhaps they cannot bring to much fruition in their professional work” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 67).  “The alternation between work and rest, built into human nature, is willed by God himself, as appears in the creation story in the Book of Genesis (cf. 2:2-3; Exodus 20:8-11): rest is something ‘sacred’, because it is man’s way of withdrawing from the sometimes excessively demanding cycle of earthly tasks in order to renew his awareness that everything is the work of God” (Dies Domini, 65).

The spiritual life is completely integrated and indeed completed in family and professional life.  This unity of life inevitably leads to an evangelization—the sharing of the Good News of Jesus Christ— not only of individuals through friendship but also extends to entire societies and cultures.  The world is the field in which the word of God is sown.  Through our efforts as evangelizing saints in the workplace—as sowers of the seed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and as living witnesses to the goodness, beauty, and truth of our Catholic faith—the world will bear succulent, rich fruit.

Yet, we may never know what fruits are produced (at least in this life) because it is God who picks and distributes the fruit of our labors!  We may never know how our witness of faith through our work has touched someone, and we must trust that in and through the Holy Spirit—in the sublime moment of complete giftedness where we truly love God and our neighbor as ourselves—that someone will meet Jesus in us.  It is then that our work becomes a participation in the salvific work of Christ on the cross:

“Christ’s redemptive work, while essentially concerned with the salvation of men, includes also the renewal of the whole temporal order.  Hence the mission of the Church is not only to bring the message and grace of Christ to men but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, no. 5).

Work and the unity of life is a personal call and commitment to sanctify others starting with the family and spreading out in ever widening concentric circles to colleagues, friends, and acquaintances.  This holistic approach to work is only limited by the lack of interior life or apostolic zeal of the individual.  “Such an individual form of apostolate can contribute greatly to a more extensive spreading of the Gospel, indeed, it can reach as many places as there are daily lives of individual members of the lay faithful” (Christifideles Laici, no. 28).  Hence, wherever we find ourselves, there the Church will be exercising her evangelical mission to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the very ends of the earth.

©2011 Aurem Cordis and Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers

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