Thursday, 30 April 2020 15:22

The Dignity and Holiness of Everyday Work

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Some years ago, I went through a formation program in spiritual direction. This program involved times of formation at the school where I would interact with the other students. In getting to know one another we would often engage in small talk, asking one another about our lives, our families, our work, the ministries which we were involved in, etc. In these conversations with the other students, when speaking about the type of work that we were involved in, I would sometimes hear something to the effect of, “Oh, I do the Lord’s work”, before someone began to describe how they worked for some parish or diocesan ministry. The implication being that “the Lord’s work” consisted of working as a part of an explicit ministry of some kind. If I could describe my interior reaction, my response would have been a sort of grimace (hopefully not showing on my face), but the reality was that I experienced an aversion to the injustice, the violence that this implication commits on a lesson which I had learned through much suffering. This lesson was that of the great dignity and holiness of everyday work, work which is explicitly part of some ministry, as well as work in the home, or some secular workplace. The reality is that all our daily labor is meant to be “the Lord’s work.”

What is “Work”?

From the onset of this article, it is important to be clear about what work is, what is included in our discussion. From the opening of the Papal Encyclical, Laborem Exercens, we read that 

Through work man must earn his daily bread and contribute to the continual advance of science and technology and, above all, to elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society within which he lives in community with those who belong to the same family. And work means any activity by man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances; it means any human activity that can and must be recognized as work, in the midst of all the many activities of which man is capable and to which he is predisposed by his very nature, by virtue of humanity itself. Man is made to be in the visible universe an image and likeness of God himself… (1)

In essence, all work is work. Intellectual, manual, care-giving, whatever the circumstances, and whatever the location or environment. Through all of these labors, man is created to be an image and likeness of God, to be about “the Lord’s work.” No type of work is to be excluded from the qualities of dignity and holiness which will be discussed.

What Gives Work its Dignity?

 Laborem Exercens goes far to hold up “participation in work” as a fundamental dimension of what it means to be human. This “participation in work” is part of how man expresses his having been made in the image and likeness of God. 

The church finds in the very first pages of the Book of Genesis the source of her conviction that work is a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth…When man, who had been created ‘in the image of God … male and female,’ hears the words: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it,’ even though these words do not refer directly and explicitly to work, beyond any doubt they indirectly indicate it as an activity for man to carry out in the world. Indeed, they show its very deepest essence. Man is in the image of God partly through the mandate received from his creator to subdue, to dominate, the earth. In carrying out this mandate, man, every human being, reflects the very action of the creator of the universe. (2)

This command to subdue the earth was not only made to Adam and Eve, but is a perennial command made to every person throughout history. It is a command which is ongoing, unfolding throughout time. “Each and every individual, to the proper extent and in an incalculable number of ways, takes part in the giant process whereby man ‘subdues the earth’ through his work.” (3) Work becomes a means by which man fulfills and realizes his very humanity, daily engaging in, and maturing in, the expression of having been made in the image and likeness of the Creator. (4)

When looking at the dignity of work, society has often been accustomed to associating the level of dignity of work with the type of work being done, namely, more physical types of labor are considered less dignified. However, in Christ, we are faced with “the fact that the one who, while being God, became like us devoted most of the years of his life on earth to manual work at the carpenter’s bench. This circumstance construes in itself the most eloquent ‘gospel of work,’ showing that the basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done, but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person.” (5) Put simply, what primarily gives work its dignity is precisely that it is being done by a person; work does not confer dignity upon the person, the person confers dignity upon the work.

To be clear, the encyclical does state that the value of work is not “primarily” determined by the work being done. There are other factors considered when examining the objective quality, or value of work. The 

Different sorts of work that people do can have greater or lesser objective value, let us try nevertheless to show that each sort is judged above all by the measure of dignity of the subject of work, that is to say, the person, the individual who carries it out… in the final analysis it is always man who is the purpose of the work, whatever work it is that is done by man - - even if the common scale of values rates it as the merest ‘service,’ as the most monotonous, even the most alienating work. (6)

This last quote highlights an important aspect of work which must be understood, which is, that man is always to be the “purpose of the work.” What work does for the man, that is facilitate his becoming more human, becoming more the person he was created to be, must always be primary. What work materially “produces” is secondary. In light of this, we do well to reflect upon the specific example of the work of a mother at this time. Laborem Exercens has very strong and affirming words regarding the importance of a mother’s work in the home. 

Experience confirms that there must be a social re-evaluation of the mother’s role, of the toil connected with it and of the need that children have for care, love and affection in order that they may develop into responsible, morally and religiously mature and psychologically stable persons. It will redound to the credit of society to make it possible for a mother - - without inhibiting her freedom, without psychological or practical discrimination, and without penalizing her as compared with other women - - to devote herself to taking care of her children and educating them in accordance with their needs… Having to abandon these tasks in order to take up paid work outside the home is wrong from the point of view of the good of society and of the family when it contradicts or hinders these primary goals of the mission of a mother. (7)

There is great benefit to the children and to society as a whole, when our governing institutions support and facilitate a mother’s ability to be about the care of her children. Society would do well in re-evaluating the importance assigned to the role of mothers.

What Makes Work Holy? The Significance of a Christian at Work

 While work has been given a natural dignity by virtue of its being a normal and regular expression of man’s humanity, grace elevates work, imbuing it with supernatural effectiveness. A soul is imbued with sanctifying grace at baptism, becoming incorporated into the very life of Christ, sharers in His Sonship. This makes possible the reception of actual grace and habitual grace. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church

Sanctifying grace is a habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love. Habitual grace, the permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God’s call, is distinguished from actual graces which refer to God’s interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of sanctification. (8)

Habitual grace continually resides within a soul which is in a state of grace, aiding them in accomplishing the good which God is guiding towards, while actual grace is grace given by God in the moment, to draw a person to do good or avoid evil. A significant point here is that sanctifying grace enables a soul to “live with God, to act by his love.” Sanctifying grace makes it possible for a person to become an instrument which makes present the love of God, which allows God to act amongst humanity in a real and tangible way. In this way, the daily labor of Christians is intended to be carried about in charity, for the love of God and neighbor, to not only bring about the perfection of the Christian, but so as to make God’s loving action present to all workplaces, to all families, and to all communities.

This brings up an important distinction between “good works” performed charity, and “good works” performed for any other reason. A Christian in the state of grace not only brings about a natural good by their labors, but also makes present the supernatural action of God. Conversely, a non-Christian, while capable of bringing about natural good by their efforts, lacks the capability to convey the same supernatural effectiveness. For this very same reason, a Christian must strive to remain in a state of grace, both for the sake of the salvation of their soul, as well as to most continually invite the love of God to present in their actions.  

What Does Embracing This Reality Look Like?

 A Christian who recognizes the dignity and the holiness possible of the work which is their vocation must learn to approach their work accordingly; differently than would a non-Christian. Daily recognizing the call to bring Christ into their workplace, to be the “Christ” which others may be brought into contact with. Developing the habit of lifting their thoughts and hearts to the Lord throughout the day so as to invite Him into every task and communication; to truly make His love present, to truly become an instrument of His love and peace.

Our daily labor is the “space” where we work out our salvation, where we put into action all which we profess to believe, and where we are confronted with our own weaknesses and short-comings. However, we are confronted with this reality to be able to better recognize and embrace the reality of who we are, and Who God is; that we might make a more sincere offering of ourselves to Him in humility and be more disposed to receive the awesome gift which He makes of Himself to us. The lens of humility makes it possible to perceive the truth of ourselves, of our great need for God, as well as the great mercy and love which He has shown us. With this more accurate view of reality, and appreciation for God’s graciousness, we are invited to learn the ways and love of the Father, to truly be “Christ” to others by making His love present to those around us; to be about the Lord’s work. 

Bibliography

John Paul II, Encyclical Letter on Human Work Laborem Exercens (14 September 1981). Washington, D.C: United States Catholic Conference, 2000.

Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000.

John Paul II, Encyclical Letter on Human Work Laborem Exercens (14 September 1981), Greeting (Washington, D.C: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 1.

Laborem Exercens, §4.

 

Footnotes  

1. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter on Human Work Laborem Exercens (14 September 1981), Greeting (Washington, D.C: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 1.

2. Laborem Exercens, §4.

3. Laborem Exercens, §4. Ibid

4. Laborem Exercens, §6

5. Laborem Exercens, §6.

6. Laborem Exercens, §6.

7. Laborem Exercens, §19.

8. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 2000.

 

Chris FernandezChris Fernandez was born and raised in south Florida. Chris studied at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, FL where he obtained a bachelors degree in aerospace engineering. In 2013, Chris received a certification in spiritual direction from Our Lady of Divine Providece, School of Spiritual Direction, in Clearwater, FL. Then in 2019 he received a masters degree in theology, with a concentration in spiritual theology, from Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT. Chris is a lay member of the Home of the Mother, currently living in Jacksonville, FL with his wife and three children.