God Labors And So Do We

I have not blogged in a while because last week I was on vacation and this week I've been catching up on all the work that piled up while I was gone.  Now I am in Queens Village, NY, at the Novitiate for the Little Sisters of the Poor to whom I am giving an eight day retreat. 

There was some irony in the fact that I had vacation during the first week of a month when the General Intention of Pope Benedict had to do with work: "That everyone may have work in safe and secure conditions."  The temptation is to see work as a necessary evil that pays the bills so that we can do what we really enjoy doing, like golf, which is what I did during my vacation.  But while one of the effects of the Original Sin was "hard labor" ("By the sweat of your face shall you get the bread to eat" (Genesis 3:19), it wasn't meant to be this way.  Labor was always part of God's plan.  Why? Very simply, since God "labors" in creating and sustaining Creation, so humans, made in the image and likeness of our laboring God, also work. 

Jesus worked.  One of the reasons that people rejected him is that for most of his adult life he worked with his hands.  In last Sunday's Gospel (Mark 6:1-6a) the people in his home town were "astonished" and said, "Where did this man get all this?  What kind of wisdom has been given him? ... Is he not the carpenter...?"  Later, Jesus, who shows us what it means to be human, declared that he was following the example of his Father in heaven:  "My Father is at work until now, so I am at work" (John 5:17).

Work is part of our human dignity, part of what makes us like God.  It is, or can be, holy.

Recently I got together with a friend of mine, Rip O'Dwanny.  We were sitting outside one of his establishments, County Clare, on the East side of Milwaukee, talking, as we do from time to time, about life.  At one point Rip raced upstairs to get one of the fifteen copies of a book that he'd recently purchased to give away to people he knew or whom he thought might appreciate it or find it helpful.  It's by Robert Ellsberg and is called "The Saints' Guide to Happiness: Practical Lessons in the Life of the Spirit."  I was familiar with Ellsberg but not this book which was published in 2003.  One of the things I enjoy about travelling to give retreats and missions is the time I have on airplanes and in airports.  It's time that I spend reading and I began my trip to New York reading this book.

Chapter 3 is called "Learning to Work."  Here is some of the wisdom of the saints that I found there:

From Meister Eckhart: "To be right, a person must do one of two things: either he must learn to have God in his work and hold fast to Him there, or he must give up his work altogether.  Since, however, we cannot live without activities that are both human and various, we must learn to keep God in everything we do." And, "The kind of work we do does not make us holy, but we may make it holy."

From Carmelite Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection's "The Practice of the Presence of God":  "Our sanctification does not depend upon changing our works, but in doing for God's sake that which we commonly do for our own.  ...[God] regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed."

And from the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:  "To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dung fork in his hand, a woman with a slop-pail, gives him glory too.  He is so great that all things give him glory if you mean they should." 

Finally, from the Trappist monk Thomas Merton:  "The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it."  Ellsberg comments: "How differently we would approach our common tasks--boring and burdensome as they may seem--if we believed our work were in service of the king we seek."

Yes, work can be holy and can give glory to God.  When we "offer it up" as an act of love for God, it acquires eternal significance.  St. Paul wrote this advice to slaves: "Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord and not for others..; be slaves of the Lord Christ" (Colossians 4:24).  Moreover, we need not think, like the Shakers, that the work we do may potentially benefit visiting angels.  It benefits beloved sons and daughters of God, persons made in God's own image and likeness, or, as C. S. Lewis puts it, "possible gods and goddesses."  We are such for we were made, in the words of the Second Letter of St. Peter, "to share in the divine nature" (1:4).