The Spirituality of Work

Every Day Catholic – April 2010
The Spirituality of Work By: Kathy Coffey

Monday is the most dreaded day of the week. After the weekend, a collective sigh wafts across the world: “Ugh—back to work.”

Understandable. The drill can be tedious, the routine exhausting and the boss stupid. But when 6.9 million jobs were eliminated during the recession of 2007-2009, those who were still employed gained new appreciation for their work. Work may appear to be a grubby girl cleaning the sooty fireplace, but beneath the ragged camouflage hides the beautiful Cinderella.

As the classical philosopher Marcus Aurelius said, “The color of one’s thought dyes one’s world.” How can we learn to see work as a productive outlet, a means of support and God’s gift?

The problem may come from compartmentalizing our prayer and our work. Is Sunday the tidy hour given to God, separate from anything else we do? Or does our faith permeate every minute of every day, especially endless hours spent working?

To resolve this dilemma, like every other, let’s look at our model, Jesus. He was surrounded by people who worked: fisherfolk, farmers, tax collectors, shepherds and soldiers. He drew his images from a woman baking, a farmer pruning vines. He himself worked hard. Author Carol Perry points out that his contemporaries called him not rabbi, but carpenter.

Jesus’ first followers continued along that path. Paul the tentmaker wrote: “You know for yourselves that I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions. In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak” (Acts 20:34-35). The Benedictine abbeys of the Middle Ages were founded on two cornerstones: ora et labora, prayer and work. The Franciscan missions in California were beehives of activity: Crops were grown, grain milled, wine made, furniture carved, cloth woven, paintings and sculptures created. St. Thérèse of Lisieux fell asleep during formal prayer, but she found God in routine, daily occupations—her “little way.”

Nineteenth-century Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins observed, “It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work. Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, white-washing a wall, driving horses, sweeping, scouring….To go to Communion worthily gives God great glory, but to take food in thankfulness and temperance gives [God] glory too. To lift the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dungfork in his hand, a woman with a sloppail, give [God] glory too. [God] is so great that all things give [God] glory if you mean they should.” To update his words, we might substitute a bulldozer for the dungfork and a laptop for the sloppail, but his idea that work praises God transcends time and culture.

Golda Meir, a former prime minister of Israel, once visited the Vatican. She was welcomed by the Swiss Guard, colorful banners, music and procession. In awe, she asked, “All this for the daughter of a carpenter?” The response came quickly, “Around here, we think pretty highly of carpenters.”

These examples from our tradition show that we’ve always respected work, considering it essential to a full life. Our language reflects that belief. After an illness, we gauge health by return to work: “She’s feeling better. She’s back to drywalling!”

A subtle pecking order undercuts this respect, distinguishing “loftier” work (done with clean hands) from “lower” work (grubbier). But healthy folks relax those distinctions. An “earthy” pastor drew protests when he pitched in to wash dishes after a potluck dinner. He pleaded with those who tried to take over, “Please let me finish. It’s the only tangible thing I’ve accomplished all day.”

Parishioners were embarrassed when the same priest tried to fix an overflowing toilet in the church. But he knew that, on a Sunday, a plumber was hard to find, and the need was urgent.

A local physician delights in her garden. Mucking in the dirt relieves her stress. Like many whose work is primarily mental, she finds that a physical process helps her feel whole.

More dangerous than the hierarchy of work is the suggestion that somehow we taint our spirituality with drudgery. The teaching of Jesus about the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:28-29) prompts criticism of overwork and consumerism. We need to understand that the paycheck fills legitimate needs: providing education, shelter and medical care for ourselves and our children. Furthermore, work provides a creativity, a social dimension and a step beyond the self that’s necessary to a gospel outlook.

Simply telling others we love them may seem phony if emotion isn’t translated into deeds. How many children eating Mom’s enchiladas or Dad’s lasagna have known they’re cherished? How many spouses have appreciated their mate’s overtime that bought a car or remodeled the kitchen? Sometimes people decide to work less and sacrifice the plasma TV in order to spend more time with family.

Anyone who’s ever questioned work’s importance to the human spirit should watch preschoolers at play. Many pretend to be firefighters, parents, doctors, engineers or truck drivers, modeling mysterious adult responsibility. In Montessori schools, children wash dishes that aren’t dirty for the sensuous joy of the task: clean scent, warm water, popping bubbles.

We may have lost that first fascination with work through numbing repetition. But many recapture it through hobbies: Working on a toy railroad or a pottery wheel seems more fun if it’s not for a deadline or a paycheck.

Our outlook thus colors our work. Seeing the potential to meet God at every turn of the page or pour of the coffeepot enlivens repetitive processes. Another exciting possibility is that our efforts will be blessed by God’s cooperation. Mark’s Gospel compares this surprise to farming: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how” (4:26-27).

We may never see the fruits of our labors. We won’t know how a word or a kindness affects another person, even another generation. But if we plant the first seed, then God can pour forth abundant harvest.

Permission to Publish received for this article, “The Spirituality of Work,” by Kathy Coffey, from Rev. Joseph R. Binzer, Vicar General, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 11-24-2009.

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