Over the years, the meaning of work has been a repeating topic for me both personally and in my role as coach, godparent, and friend. It seems we all struggle with the question of what makes our work relevant. This reflection represents my evolving thoughts on the object, the subject, the challenges, and that illusive thing called the meaning of work.
God created Man in His image and this differentiates us as humans from the rest of creation. He blessed us and gave us dominion over all living things…a mandate to govern the world. This mandate is not conveyed as a right to dominate or as a punishment for original sin, but as the incontrovertible and forever valid ability to use the gifts of our intellect and physical capacity to take care of all creatures. God also gave us all the amazing resources we need to accomplish this work: animals, trees, birds, creatures, and plants (Genesis 1:26-30).
We are called to imitate and progress God’s creation, to be faithful stewards of all creation, to play an active part in the unfolding of God’s divine plan. We do this by providing the substance of life for our families, our communities, and ourselves, with all the resources that can be discovered and developed. This is an awesome responsibility. It is what I call our creation mandate. Work is God’s will.
We are challenged in Matthew’s Gospel to make the most of the talents we are given (Matthew 25: 14-30). But what are those talents? What is our real potential? Some of us grow up knowing exactly what our life’s work will be, but many of us struggle over a lifetime trying to uncover our talents despite the fact that our family scripts or the topics we enjoy are right in front of us pointing the way. Sometimes discernment devolves into analysis paralysis and that prevents us from saying “yes.” Yes to what?
In the ancient world, people were separated into classes according to the type of work they did and physical work was deemed unworthy of free men, fit only for slaves. But Jesus was a man of physical work: a carpenter. He was no slave. He radically upset the paradigm of work and bestowed dignity upon all work, manual or intellectual, done by any person. His parables often speak to the various forms and professions of work and he eliminates class differentiation. He models for us that 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.
As the image of God, man is a person who is capable of acting in a planned and rational way and of deciding about himself. As a person, he performs various actions that belong to the work process, independent of their objective content. These actions all serve to breathe life into his humanity, to fulfill the calling to be a person. Man is the purpose of the work.
The parables and examples of Jesus are echoed in the passionate teaching of the Apostle Paul, which points toward the morality and spirituality of human work. In Acts 20:34-45, 1 Thessalonians 2:9 and 4:11, and 2 Thessalonians 3:8-12, Paul instructs us that man must work tirelessly for his self-support and to share with others.
Scales on Our Eyes
Inevitably there are times in our life’s work when we lose sight of the plan and our role in it, or opt for the crooked rather than the straight path. How do we know when this is happening? We become slaves to work. We wallow in the drama of having much to do. We are lured by the importance of our work. We become chained to advances in technology and tools that are given to us as a resource, not to rule our lives. We become so invested in the work, in and of itself, that we forget just why we work. We lose track of our creation mandate, forgetting what God has revealed and called us to do. The Desert Father Pistamon admonishes, “Work as much as you can, only do it without getting worried about it” (Casey and Tomlins, 2005). The Gospel of Matthew admonishes us to depend not on ourselves, but on God (Matthew 6:24-34). How is it possible that our egos overshadow the wisdom and truth of God’s Word?
“By the sweat of your face, shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground, from which you were taken, for you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
The blessing of work in the creation mandate is contrasted with the curse that sin brought with it. Work is also sweat and toil imposed on us as the consequence of original sin. We work long and hard, we bear the burden of grave decisions, we endure tension and conflict, and we care for others. But there is an ethical dimension that is implicit in toil. From this we progress God’s plan and derive dignity. Dignity accrues to us because through our cooperation we can see the triumph of our progress and contribution to God’s design.
And, there is something extremely mysterious and compelling about toil that is found in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ. This mystery contains the Cross of Christ: obedience until death, and the Resurrection: a new and permanent form of life. From the Paschal Mystery we derive hope. We are offered the possibility of sharing in the work that Christ came to do (John 17:4), and by carrying our cross every day we show up as true disciples (Luke 9:23-25).
The Rule of Benedict
“Idleness is the enemy of the soul” (RB 48:1).
More than 1,500 years ago, Benedict of Nursia was a student in Rome who became fed up with the decadent Roman lifestyle. So, he made a new life for himself in the countryside in an attempt to return to the wisdom of Christianity. He wrote The Rule of Benedict (RB) as a way of life. Benedictine spirituality finds its inspiration in the Bible, and offers a way of life and an attitude of mind rather than a set of religious prescriptions. This way of life demands caring for the people you live with, loving those you don’t, and loving God more than yourself. It is a living tradition with timeless relevance in the way it treats stewardship, relationships, authority, community, simplicity, prayer, spiritual and psychological development, balance…and work. Today thousands of professed monastic men and women around the world live under this rule of life in Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries; thousands more lay people, myself included, find in this rule a compass and grounding for our own lives in the secular world. The rule’s principles and guidelines have endured for ages and have been credited with saving Christian Europe from the Dark Ages. In this chaotic world gone awry, we might do well to figure out what pages we could take from this book!
In the rule, work is given a significant role right alongside prayer (RB 48). Work periods are specified every day just as prayer periods are, and those periods change in emphasis according to the liturgical year. No matter what time of year, prayer is frequent, study is constant, and work happens every day. Work is an ascetical practice that is rigorous, demanding, and balanced. It disciplines the monk toward constancy and obedience. It fills life with creativity and usefulness, and enhances the ability to ruminate and be humble. Work is seen as a therapy. It also builds up the community. It teaches the monk to live well in this life. Joan Chittister in her commentary on the rule writes: “Work and prayer are opposite sides of the great coin of life that is both holy and useful, immersed in God and dedicated to the transcendent in the human. It is labor’s transfiguration of the commonplace, the transformation of the ordinary that makes co-creators of us all” (Chittister, 1998).
Regularly I make a retreat to a Cistercian Abbey in Western New York. Cistercians are cloistered, live according to a strict observance of The Rule of Benedict, and support themselves (e.g., work) by making and selling goods such as bread, preserves, communion wafers, etc. This abbey makes bread, and years ago I used to ponder—rather obsess over--“Why bread? What is the divine symbolism here?”
One year while on retreat during a blustery, wintry Friday evening in February, an elderly monk died. Throughout the weekend, there was no buzz or swirl about his death. Life at the abbey continued as usual with only a few visible changes. The monk rested in a simple, open pine box in the abbey church where I could observe his brothers sitting silently one at a time beside the box. During the Saturday morning conference for those on retreat, the retreat master abandoned his planned lecture and reflected on his deceased brother in a very easy and loving way as the natural and joyful entrance into the communion of saints. The Saturday afternoon mass became a funeral mass, and then, much to my surprise, those on retreat were invited to process through the cloister to the burial site. The cloister walk was silent: I was not even tempted to take my eyes off the walk to peek at the quarters. The burial was outside in the freezing cold: even without a coat I don’t remember being cold. I observed an entire community absorbing the death of a brother into their normal routine with calm and reverence, but then life at the abbey is always filled with calm and reverence. The rhythm of this life is constant, gentle, full, enriching, ordinary, and balanced. Life at the abbey did not alter that weekend…I did. My view of life and death shifted from a focus on the “importance” of major events and outcomes, to a knowing that the cycle of life and death is a process, an ordinary routine with subtle nuances. It’s how we approach and handle the routine and the nuances that matter. Thousands of loaves of bread were made between the time the monk died on Friday evening to when he was buried on Saturday evening because bread is always made on Saturday morning. I came to understand that earning a living making bread has nothing to do with the bread, and everything to do with the work.
In today’s world in which we tend to be defined by title and material parameters, I believe the lessons from the monastery are of profound importance. At the end of the day (or a life), there has to be something that leaves us with a feeling of happiness, worthiness and hope… or life may well have been in vain. That something, Benedictine spirituality teaches us, is preferring Christ to everything else and living our creation mandate calmly and reverently, each and every day.
So now when I get the question, What am I doing making baseball caps? How do I reconcile making MTV videos? Where is the value in making cookies? How do I find the meaning in my work? my reply is: it’s not about the caps, or the videos, or the cookies…or the bread. It’s about the act of working: how you convey vision and possibilities, how you make ethical decisions, how you interact with and influence those around you, how you love and develop your people. It’s about the daily routine of contributing, calmly and reverently.
Janet Thirlby is a consultant whose 25-year-old firm, Thirlby Consulting, specializes in leadership development, strategic business transformations, board retreats, seminars and training. Jan’s interests and expertise are facilitation, coaching, talent management and succession strategies, executive search, and alternative dispute resolution. Jan serves on the board of The Paulist Press, and as facilitator for the Vicariate Council of Orleans County. In the past she has served on several community, arts and education non-profit boards including 10 years as an officer of the board of Young Audiences of New Jersey. Jan presently is enrolled in the Masters in Strategic Leadership program at Roberts Wesleyan College. Jan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.