Charlie's Blog: The Discipline of Work


The Discipline of Work

What I have always taught, over the last forty years, is that a Christian should do all honest human work, be it intellectual or manual, with the greatest perfection possible: with human perfection (professional competence) and with Christian perfection (for love of God’s Will and as a service to mankind). Human work done in this manner, no matter how humble or insignificant it may seem, helps to shape the world in a Christian way. The world’s divine dimension is made more visible and our human labour is thus incorporated into the marvellous work of Creation and Redemption. It is raised to the order of grace. It is sanctified and becomes God’s work, operatio Dei, opus Dei.

We have reminded Christians of the wonderful words of Genesis which tell us that God created man so that he might work, and we have concentrated on the example of Christ, who spent most of His life on earth working as a craftsman in a village. We love human work which He chose as His state in life, which He cultivated and sanctified. We see in work, in men’s noble creative toil not only one of the highest human values, an indispensable means to social progress and to greater justice in the relations between men, but also a sign of God’s Love for His creatures, and of men’s love for each other and for God: we see in work a means of perfection, a way to sanctity. 

It doesn't take a detective to see the huge influence that St. Josemaria Escriva has upon me. When I became Catholic, I asked the next logical question. What do I do now? Some people choose to become priests and deacons. Others choose religious life as a nun, monk, or friar. For everyone else, there is just being an ordinary Christian in the world living as single or married working the daily grind in offices, factories, homes, schools, etc. There are some who feel called to become a third order religious such as offered through the Carmelites, the Dominicans, and the Franciscans. I admire those who can take such a path because a third order vocation is very demanding when combined with the daily tasks the rest of us do. This is where I find the teachings of St. Francis de Sales and St. Josemaria Escriva to be so valuable. They speak to the ordinary and offer a spiritual path that can be performed in the middle of the world.

The universal call to holiness means that everyone and not just clergy and religious should be holy. It became fashionable and remains fashionable for many Catholics to just phone it in. They may be Catholic in Name Only appearing at Mass for Christmas and Easter and whenever they need their children baptized. Otherwise, their faith is purely cultural. Others are bare minimum Catholics who observe weekly attendance at Mass and the Holy Days of Obligation, but do not allow their faith much practice beyond the walls of the parish. It would be easy to pile on these people and condemen their sloth, but the sad truth is that much of these ways has been taught to them in the parallel thinking that Heaven is for the ordained and the consecrated while everyone else should hope to land on the steps of the backdoor of Purgatory. Yet, when I read the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, I see ordinary people being the holy ones. Here is the exhortation of St. John the Baptist to his hearers:
And the crowds were questioning him, saying, “Then what shall we do?” And he would answer and say to them, “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise.” And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.”  
LUKE 3:10-14 NASB
John the Baptist did not tell those who came to him to be baptized to become robust spiritual athletes and perform a lot of religious rites or pray the Divine Office. Those are good things to do, but John told them to be good where they were. Perform works of mercy and be honest in your work. This seems simplistic, but I urge you to pause and consider what the world would be like if everyone followed this simple advice of John the Baptist. How much misery is in the world because people fail to do these simple things?

When I was a Protestant, the gist of the spiritual life was to read the Bible each day, pray, and don't use tobacco products or watch movies that were rated R. Catholics can laugh at this, but they substitute praying the Rosary daily and a couple of novenas each month for the blue law Christianity of the Protestants. These things may be good in and of themselves, but they must actually result in holiness and not merely the ornament of spirituality. This was the spirituality of the Pharisees who John the Baptist scorched with the guilt ray. It matters less what you do so much as the intention and the spirit in which it is done. This is an important principle to grasp because it shows how a person in a clerical or religious vocation can be bad while someone in the world can be holy.

It is no secret that bad priests exist. It still amazes me that men who have the power to transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Our Lord can be unholy in their thoughts, words, and deeds. Yet, I read of scandals with priests and bishops on an almost daily basis. Some shun their vows of celibacy and have affairs. Others compromise with the world to gain favor. Still others indulge their material desires. Then, there is the sex abuse scandal where priests committed acts that are scandalous even among those incarcerated in prison. How can these men be this way? The answer is that their religious activities are done the same way most people go in and work each day. It's just a job to them. Their faith grew cold long ago, so they keep going through the motions. Their intentions have moved from doing service to the Lord to just doing.

If bad intentions can turn the sacred into the ordinary, we can also see that the converse is also true. The ordinary can be turned into the sacred. By following St. Paul's exhortation to do our work as unto the Lord and to be living sacrifices, the ordinary life of any Christian can be devoted and consecrated to the Lord and offered up. This is the teaching of St. Josemaria Escriva. Your ordinary work that God has called you to do can be the means to your holiness and sanctification. The means of this transformation comes from the intention of your heart.

St. Josemaria Escriva taught his followers to begin each day with the Morning Offering. Here it is:
O Jesus, 
through the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
I offer You my prayers, works,
joys and sufferings
of this day for all the intentions
of Your Sacred Heart,
in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass
throughout the world,
in reparation for my sins,
for the intentions of all my relatives and friends,
and in particular
for the intentions of the Holy Father.
Everything you do each day can be offered to the Lord. Your work, whatever it is, can be done as unto the Lord. That customer that snipes at you can be endured with patience and offered up to the Lord. That long commute that stresses you out can be offered up to the Lord. The homemaker can turn washing dishes and changing diapers into sacrifices unto the Lord. Even the cold beer the blue collar worker enjoys at the end of the week can be offered up in thanks to the Lord.

I credit St. Josemaria with helping me on this and giving me hope and encouragement. I am just an ordinary guy grinding it out each week. My work is rarely pleasant. I don't always do it with perfection or even enthusiasm. But I do offer it up each day and try my best. I also remember the ordinary people in the Bible like St. Joseph or Jesus Himself that made a living by the sweat of their brows. Many of the apostles were fishermen. St. Paul was a tentmaker. I firmly believe there is a soft spot in the heart of God for the blue collar people. I also believe that is why He has put me in the jobs I have done over the years. I am educated and have read many books, but I must also admit that much of my growth has also come from the dirty jobs I have done over the decades. I have learned humility, fortitude, and patience from my labors. I am at the point now where I pity those who make their living through moral compromise. I don't think I could ever make it to Heaven as a hedge fund manager.

The discipline of work is to take the ordinary work of life and turn it into a pleasing sacrifice to the Almighty. This means to do honest work. Some jobs can never be honest. For instance, the loan shark and the stripper would have to change professions. Other jobs can be done either honestly or dishonestly. For instance, you can be a good cop or a dirty cop. Either way, at a basic level, you should do honest work. Then, you should do it with diligence and perfection. This means not being lazy or idle but putting your effort into it. Finally, you should be humble about it trying not to draw attention to yourself or being a show off. There are many who do excellent work, and they make sure everyone knows it. But the one whose intentions are directed towards the Lord eschews this bragging and considers the labor as doing one's duty.

Frustrations are also part of work. Things don't always go as they should. Customers and co-workers scream at you. Your boss is a rat demanding of you a work ethic that he has never had. Your equipment can be shoddy. I don't know a day that goes by without these frustrations. You have to bear these as mortifications and offer them up as well. I also remind myself that evil is never satisfied, so what may be pleasing to the Lord is never going to be pleasing to the world. You can do the best job possible, and the world will hate you for it. This is because the world is ungrateful. I remember reading a biography of Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time. I was struck by the fact that the management of the Chicago Bulls hated Mike's guts. They also hated Phil Jackson, arguably the greatest basketball coach of all time. It blew my mind, but it does not surprise me in light of original sin. Jesus was perfect, and the world hated Him, too. The lesson is that doing good work will make you plenty of enemies. Do not let this discourage you but strengthen you.

Finally, you can pray all day throughout the day as you work. The commute is a great time to pray the Rosary. You can pray the Angelus at your lunch hour. You can pray for people you encounter throughout the day. I think God puts people in your life each day to pray for them.

I am not perfect in my practice of these things. I don't even think I am good at these things. I just try my best and ask forgiveness when I fail. For Lent, I decided to give up laziness. People express surprise that I would say this because they tell me they don't consider me lazy at all. But they don't know me like I know me. I don't do everything with good intentions or perfection. Sometimes, I slack off. I know I can do better. I can help my wife more around the house. I can complain less. I can be more patient with the thistles of life. This is why work is a discipline. The soul needs to be purged of all imperfection, and the crucible of the daily grind is what polishes the tarnish from your spirit. St. Josemaria Escriva, pray for us.