I was recently asked to give some reflections on the “spirituality of work,” and one of the most profound insights I discovered during my research came from Saint John Paul II’s encyclical on work, Laborem Exercens:
Excellence in one’s work is the foundation of effective evangelization.
The Lebanese author Kahlil Gibran has a great way of articulating this point: “Work is love made visible.” Christian evangelization always, in the first and last instance, makes love — divine and human — the core animating principle of all activity (cf. 1 Cor. 13). In fact, Vatican II defines holiness as the perfection of loving.
Love, which for a Christian can be defined as freely willing another’s good after the manner of Christ crucified, transforms all work into an opportunity to grow in perfection by glorifying God and serving one’s neighbor. For a person of faith, all work, regardless of how arduous, menial, tedious or toilsome, when it is suffused by love-from-the-cross, overflows with meaning and purpose.
Pursuing excellence in one’s work — e.g. integrity, honesty, attention to detail, diligence, giving one’s best — gives evidence to others of the “hope that lies within” and makes more credible the faith we claim to represent and profess. Excellence, which Aristotle linked closely with the work of virtue, reveals love as refracted through all the virtues required by our work.
Even more, the pursuit of excellence in our specific field deepens our covenant union with the laboring God who has clearly revealed Himself in Scripture as a master craftsman driven by love to work ceaselessly for our salvation. Indeed, our trusting faith in His goodness rests on the extreme, mind-blowing quality of love that marks His every work on our behalf in creation and redemption.
Does this not make you want to pursue excellence in your work and, as St. Paul says, “…do everything for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31)?
I’ll end this brief reflection with two quotes that emphasize my point:
“If a man is called to be a street-sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will pause to say ‘here lived a great street-sweeper who did his job well.'” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
“We all have the duty to do our work well. If we wish to realize ourselves properly, we may not avoid our duty or perform our work in a mediocre way, without interest, just to get it over with.” — St. John Paul II