Finding Dignity in Work
The Church gives us some crazy eschatological readings today. She invites us to contemplate the end of time. But to understand it from a different angle I want to focus in on the second reading from St. Paul (2 Thes 3:7-12); thus understanding the final line of the gospel – “By your perseverance you will secure your lives” (Lk 21:19).
During college I spent my summers in northwest MT fighting forest fires. In my final year, my boss and his wife found out that their daughter, due that August, was in fact two daughters. Now Todd and Holly already had a two-year-old daughter. They had also just bought a new house, which had some potential, but certainly qualified as a fixer-upper. On top of all this, August is the busiest time of the year in northwest Montana, things were finally drying out and thunderstorms began to produce less rain and more lightning. So Todd found himself working a minimum of 50 hours a week with newborn twins, and a less than optimally functioning home. At one point, he informed me he had slept 6 hours total in the past 72. Holly, caring for the three children alone most of the time, probably slept fewer than that.
Now Todd and Holly’s experience that summer was objectively unique, but subjectively it’s a good depiction of how most the people spend life. Do you ever feel like you will spend your life in triage mode, only addressing what is immediately important, having no time to savor the goodness of anything? This is the life of most Americans. This struggle is nothing new. St. Paul, in our second reading today, gives us an instruction on what it means to work, and it’s worth drawing out a bit.
Work is such an interesting thing because as Christians we believe our goal here on earth is salvation – to be with God for eternity. Yet, we spend more than 1/3 of the time we are awake working, something which doesn’t immediately strike us as a spiritual act. In fact, we seem to have, for the most part, relegated work to the secular realm. This isn’t right! Work is not a secular act. God commanded Adam to till and keep the garden before the fall. Thus in a mysterious way, we were created to labor, and this is a participation in God’s ongoing creation and providence.
It is when we relegate it to the secular realm that we begin to see all the disorder. The second we lose sight of its end – participation in creation – we begin to believe our work here on earth defines us, and we are either overwhelmed by the fact that we cannot possibly accomplish everything we have set out to do in this life, or we are afraid we will fail in our work and accomplish nothing in the world. What does St. Paul suggest? He identifies himself as the model; “In toil and drudgery, night and day we worked.” St. Paul doesn’t tell us to sit back and wait for Jesus to come, nor does he judge his work according to his achievements, rather he exhorts – In Jesus Christ to work quietly.
This past week, the Metropolitan Archbishop of the Eastern Orthodox Church came to give the seminary a presentation. As a young man, after finishing his time with the Greek special forces, he entered a monastery on Mt. Athos. After describing their life, in which they rise at 3 A.M. to pray, then labor most of the day, living by a basic, austere diet, he proceeded to say, “It is a simple life, no stress. You here in America are all stressed, on Mt. Athos we have no stress.” Now let’s think about this – we have St. Paul who traveled the world as a missionary and funded it making tents, we also have a bunch of Monks doing manual labor and living intense ascetical lives. Yet neither St. Paul nor the monks feel the anxiety most of us feel about our work, or our school, or our lives generally. Why? Because they bring Christ into all their work.
At first glance, that is so cliché – What does it actually mean to bring Jesus into our work, and how does that actually change anything? Is this just a pious platitude? Should you just put a painting of smiling Jesus in your office above your desk? No – no offense to smiling Jesus pictures. Hans Urs Von Balthasar, a theologian of this past century, said, “Wherever there is a Christian, there is the Church; he bears the light with him, and therefore (as long as he bears it truly) he never comes into an area outside the Church (Razing the Bastions pg 89).” Look at Jesus’ life. God became man, dwelt among us, and chose to spend 30 of his 33 years doing manual labor in Nazareth, a backwater town of 200.
For 30 years, you could have looked at Joseph, Jesus, and Mary and seen a poor working family who appeared like any other. Now we know every act Jesus performed was in fact God performing that act. Therefore, our labor has been made sacred. What does that mean? Well, it means that as long as we are working well and honestly, we can entrust our work to God, we can discern our work, and it bring to prayer. When is the last time you brought your work to prayer, or brought your studies to prayer (other than asking Joseph of Cupertino to help you pass your test)? It doesn’t matter if you work at a restaurant, or you’re a student, or an engineer, you can make your work a spiritual offering to God.
The danger for us is really the opposite of the “unwillingness to work” that Paul faces. We love to work, the average American works 6 days a week. The danger here, as I mentioned before, is letting it enslave us. Pope Saint John Paul II the Great (too many titles) spent four years doing hard labor in a limestone quarry under German occupation. This work was difficult and monotonous, But in his wisdom John Paul II tells us, “The primary basis of the value of work is man himself, who is its subject… However true it may be that man is destined for work and called to it, in the first place work is “for man” and not man “for work”.
So we bring Jesus into our work because he reminds us of our dignity amidst our work in the world – something we often forget. He also reminds us of our real end, of which he speaks in the Gospel today. We cannot forget that this world is passing away. The final judgment will come, and for those of us who have been given much, much will be demanded. Regardless of when this world actually ends, each of our individual lives will end soon enough, and what will we have to show for it – just our worldly accomplishments? As Blessed John Henry Newman so curtly reminds us, “Thus man and all his works are mortal; they die, and they have no power of renovation.” It is only in Christ that our labor here endures into eternity.
To finish my story, my boss Todd and his wife Holly survived fire season with their new twins and made plenty of progress on their house. And the deep joy they experienced in that exhaustion resulted in a fourth child, a son, just over a year later. Our work is good, it challenges us, expands us, and if we unite it to Christ, it furthers the kingdom of God. So, let us go about it with the attitude of the Greek Monk – no stress – that when the day of the Lord comes – blazing like an oven, he will find us working quietly and he will welcome us into eternal rest.