There are certain days when it takes every ounce of willpower to drag myself to work and attempt to render what can rightfully be called a semi-productive day. We all have days when we just can’t see the purpose of our work, or if we do, we still can’t be bothered to do it. The general feeling of malaise might stem from a lack of passion, boredom, restlessness, laziness or any other number of things, including an underlying feeling that our work is a time devouring inconvenience that prevents us from doing the things that would really make our lives more meaningful and rich—nurturing relationships with friends and family, helping others, reading scripture, and of course, spending time in prayer.
I do like my job, and I’ve had other jobs in the past where nearly every day I dreaded punching my timecard. I’m grateful that I’ve found something that I enjoy on most days, but I know there are many who struggle to find value or joy in their work. For some, their work is pure toil and unforgiving labor, while for others, though it may not be awful, it’s not life-giving or fulfilling.
Still, it’s a great misconception to view our work—this mandatory, hefty chunk of our lives—as a means to an end. It’s easy to assume that we work so we can take care of our loved ones and ourselves, and that our jobs are merely something to occupy our time and render us “productive” in the vacant eyes of society. And while work does allow us to provide for others and ourselves, there is something deeply mystical and spiritual about it as well that we must not overlook.
“Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.” – Gen. 1:28
These oft-quoted words stand as God’s directive to humanity while on earth. We are to create life, families and communities of love. But we are also called to “subdue” the earth for the sake of human flourishing. In a mysterious way, we’re called to be co-creators with God in bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven. In Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical, Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), he explains that through our labor, be it manual or intellectual, we elevate the “technological, cultural and moral level of society.” It’s in accepting this sacred task of joining our work with God that we can find meaning and purpose in our job, even if we find it mundane, boring, or of seemingly little social value. We act in the likeness of God when we help build up creation, and that is very good news.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French philosopher, Jesuit priest and trained paleontologist and geologist, knew well the sacredness of the physical world, and moreover, our role in “subduing” and building it up through work. In a mysterious way, every form of work done well plays a part in building the Kingdom of God. He contended that through his work, a Christian “is to divinize the world in Jesus Christ.”
To the Christian, there is no life of faith, family, work and leisure. There is simply one life lived in fullness for God—all aspects of this life tuned to the harmony of grace. This means our explicit adoration of and union with God—although heightened in a mystical way through Mass and the Eucharist—can and should continue as we set about earning our daily bread, be that as teachers, doctors, artists, laborers, lawyers, nurses, policemen, parents and any other honest profession or station in life.
“Try, with God’s help, to perceive the connection—even physical and natural—which binds your labor with the building of the kingdom of heaven; try to realize that heaven itself smiles upon you and, through your works, draws you to itself; then as you leave church for the noisy streets, you will remain with only one feeling, that of continuing to immerse yourself in God.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “The Divine Milieu”
Through this understanding of our work, whether we enjoy it or not, we are still participating in molding our souls in the likeness of God, as well as elevating the world to God’s final vision of creation. Teilhard de Chardin has these words of encouragement to all of us, regardless of our profession:
“If your work is dull or exhausting, take refuge in the inexhaustible and becalming interest of progressing in the divine life. If your work enthralls you, then allow the spiritual impulse which matter communicates to you to enter into your taste for God whom you know better and desire more under the veil of his works.”
As this great French thinker highlights, work also shapes us into the saints God created us to be. Similar to our relationships, sufferings, faith community and family, work plays a fundamental role in forging us into God’s handiwork. Whether we’re driving a bus downtown or saving lives in the E.R., our work is essential in not only creating a better world, but in elevating our dignity. John Paul II describes it beautifully as well:
“Work is a good thing for man—a good thing for his humanity—because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being.’”
This insight offers a great elixir to all of us who labor. The wisdom of the Catholic faith provides not only a profound spiritual and natural explanation for the purpose of work—to allow for the flourishing of God’s people—but it impresses our work with inestimable worth. This means that every insignificant task we do on a forgettable weekday morning—from organizing a spreadsheet to helping a customer on the phone—makes us more like God.
Of course, it’s challenging for us to accept this truth, or if not to accept it, to live and breathe it. In doing so, we learn that God does not place “greater value” on work done in certain professions, as if the more admired or coveted our profession, the more valuable our work; rather, God values our commitment and dedication to doing our work to the best of our abilities with the aim of building up creation.
While God expects us to work as best we can in producing visible fruit—be that natural or spiritual—we still finally must accept that our efforts may not appear to be “worthwhile” in this life. The majority of the work we do, from washing dishes to cleaning up after our children, will seem insignificant, largely forgotten. And then there will be the moments when, despite our best efforts, we fail in our endeavors. It’s at these times we must be content to labor for the Lord without reward, without knowing of the good our work is producing—both in the world and in our own souls. As Thomas Merton tells us:
“We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting an immediate reward, to love without an instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition.” (No Man Is An Island)
This won’t always serve as consolation on some Monday mornings, but I do find it encouraging knowing that Jesus worked a day job, just like the rest of us. Jesus—the eternal Son of God—chose to work humbly with his hands as a carpenter. Why did he have to work? Why didn’t he instead spend that time preaching the Good News and healing the sick? I don’t know, but I’m sure God had his reasons. And if Christ deigned to labor amongst us, earning bread by the sweat of his brow, then our calling to work—no matter our title or job description—must surely be pretty important in the eyes of God as well.