Wednesday 29 January 2014

Thou Hast Sanctified the Work of My Hands?

By Artur Suski, S.J.


One of the great tragedies of our contemporary, post-modern era is the sad reality that many of us hate the work that we do. We begrudgingly get up to go to work, and when we get home, we let everyone know how we are fed up with our work. True, there are many who really enjoy what they do, but aren't they the minority? According to a somewhat recent article in the New York Times (June 2013), “an alarming 70% of those surveyed in a recent Gallup poll either hate their jobs or are completely disengaged, and not even incentives and extras can extricate them from the working man's blues.”

So what’s going on? The days are long gone when St. Benedict’s famous phrase ‘Ora et labora’ (Pray and work – in the Latin vocative case) was at the heart of a worker’s attitude toward work and prayer. Is it that we all missed our true vocations, or is there something else that has gone awry? It is no easy task to analyze this phenomenon, but perhaps the Spiritual Exercises (SpEx) of St. Ignatius of Loyola can help us understand what is going on.

In the 'Second Week' of the SpEx, we meditate on the life of Jesus and actively engage him in our prayer of the imagination. Then St. Ignatius throws a curve ball our way at a critical point about halfway through the week. He presents us with 'A Meditation on the Two Standards'. The two standards, as you perhaps rightly guessed, are: Christ’s Standard and Satan’s Standard.

It is not immediately obvious why St. Ignatius gives us this meditation. Those praying the SpEx often pray it to find out God’s will in a serious life choice. For instance, am I to marry or to join a religious order? St. Ignatius assumes that all doing the SpEx are devout Christians who long to do God’s will. Easier said than done! He knew that despite our best intentions, we still have buried tendencies that draw us away from God. Why are we following Christ, anyway? Is it for personal gain? Or, is it for God’s greater glory? This meditation is meant to bring to the surface any sinful tendencies that might have been missed in the 'First Week' of the SpEx.

In this meditation, we are to imagine Satan addressing his evil minions and devising a ‘strategic plan’ for his work. What should their ‘mission statement’ be?

“First they [demons] are to tempt them [us, the people] to covet riches that they may the more easily attain the empty honours of this world, and then come to overweening pride. The first step, then, will be riches, the second honour, the third pride. From these three steps the evil one leads to all other vices.” (SpEx 142)

This is very insightful and a great help to our analysis of our choice to follow Jesus, and to choose a career or work. If riches, honour, and pride are at the root of our career choice, we will become entangled in the Standard of Satan. Even if we will gain these “coveted” riches and honours, we will ultimately be left dry, unfulfilled. How many of us have made career decisions based on these three things?

The problem is that our career decisions and the reasons behind choosing them aren’t always black and white. Many of us are pushed into a career by parents or other family members, while others are pressured by their peers. Finally, it seems that people mature at a later age these days – often choices are made without really giving them much thought.

The good news is that we can always rethink our approach to work. It’s not that we have to change our work once we ‘undo’ the original intent (riches, honour, and pride), although this is sometimes necessary. All it takes is renewing our commitment to God’s project by dedicating our work to him. We can remain where we are, but let us offer our hardship to God. Let us work not for the sake of the three traps set by Satan, but for the sake of charity – toward God, our families and our neighbours: “The world tells us to seek success, power and money: God tells us to seek humility, service and love” (Pope Francis). Once we discover this deeper meaning behind our work, we will come to love our work!

Our society today must rediscover or reinvent a spirituality of work. We know that God intended us to work: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” (Gen 2:15; italics mine) “God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.' ” (Gen 1:28) Indeed, we were not created to be idle spectators of a universe that is in constant movement. We have been bestowed with gifts that enable us to praise the Creator with the works of our hands.

St. Benedict, in his famous aforementioned quote on prayer and work, tried to capture something of St. Paul’s call to “pray always” (1 Thess 5:17). For St. Benedict, it is possible to do mundane and seemingly unfulfilling work and still turn to God in prayer. Recently, as I was shovelling snow, it occurred to me that I could use this very repetitive action to pray. No one else was around, so I decided to sing some Taizé hymns, an act that is not encouraged in a busy office for various reasons! How delightful it was! And how quickly the time passed! Each one of us can find creative ways to incorporate prayer in our work and offer it for God’s glory. You’ll be surprised how much your outlook on work will change! Be fruitful in your work and may the Lord multiply the works of your hands!

I conclude with this Jesuit joke, which has been slightly modified for the purpose of this blog entry:

There is always a right way and a wrong way to proceed:  Two Jesuit novices both wanted to complete their daily chores while they prayed. They decided to ask their superior for permission. The first asked, but was told no. A little while later he spotted his friend working and praying. "Why did the superior allow you to work, but not me?" he asked. His friend replied, "Because you asked if you could work while you prayed, and I asked if I could pray while I worked!"


  1. Excellent article! I wonder, though, if some of the dissatisfaction that most of us have with our work stems from the system itself. And by "system" I mean our modern society.

    In the days of St. Benedict and St. Ignatius, daily life for the majority of the population was characterized by manual labor. Even "white collar" workers could not escape some sort of manual labor. Society back then simply did not have the modern "conveniences" that we have today. Perhaps there is something about being in nature and working with our hands that fulfills the human spirit more than sitting at a desk in an office working with our minds for most of the day. Just a thought. Thank you for this article! We need more Catholic conversation about work, I think.

    1. Thank you Catholic Foodie for your comments. I completely agree. I believe that it is in our very nature to do manual work (not to mention that our bodies benefit from this from a health perspective). True, our society has advanced quite far technologically and so much physical work has been replaced. But let us not forget that the work we do, even the mundane actions that we don't particularly enjoy, forms us and makes us who we are. We may not immediately understand how we are being formed, but something is happening to our character.
      I recently heard a beautiful story about how struggle (physical labour?) is absolutely necessary to make us into 'real' people. Just this week I was at a Theology on Tap event at which the speaker shared the following true story: A certain person was observing how a butterfly was trying to break out of its cocoon. He noticed that it was struggling quite a bit so he decided to help it by tearing the cocoon and letting it out. He did so and soon after the butterfly died. He asked a friend of his who is a biologist and his friend told him that the struggle in the cocoon is formative for the butterfly. It is at this point that its "muscles" (do butterflies have muscles??) develop which later allow it to fly, etc. I think it is the same for us.

  2. Thank you very much for this. Reinventing a spirituality of work… I like that.