On Labor Day, a Dominican Friar (Priest) reflects on the spirituality of work.
In the Walt Disney movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, seven short men invite Snow White into their everyday world with the words, “Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho. It’s off to work we go!” A song about work by those who do work invites us to look at the spirituality of work during the 2017 Labor Day Weekend.
There are many examples of a spirituality for work in the scriptures. The story of Peter fishing is a good example (Lk 5:1-11). Peter and his partners, James and John, have been working all night at their fishing profession. Their work provided money for housing and food—a livelihood for their families. Peter was an expert at his work. His father was an expert at the same work before him. James and John were experts at their work. After working all night at their trade, their expertise told them they need not lower their nets at Jesus’ request, but their spirituality of work did.
Jews at the time of Jesus believed that sometime after the dawn of creation, human beings were placed in the Garden of Eden, “to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15). What was likely an ideal work situation was disrupted when Adam and Eve ate the apple and sin entered the world. Humans were expelled from the Garden of Paradise. From that time on, the dilemma humans found themselves in was, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19).
However, many passages from the Hebrew Scriptures support work, not from the stance that there was any joy in it, but from the premise that it was necessary to prevent poverty and destitution. It was necessary to support a family and next to God family was the most important thing in the world.
When Peter was somehow inspired by Jesus to lower his nets we are given a new understanding of work. Work is no longer a source of trial and drudgery—the punishment for the sin of Adam and Eve. It is not something we must do to prevent poverty and destitution. Work becomes an essential element of salvation. Work is building the kingdom of God. We do not build the Kingdom of God, a world of peace and gospel justice, for God. We build a world of peace and gospel justice with God for each other.
Through the centuries a spirituality of work can be found in our Christian tradition. The primary principle of this spirituality is that our work should not be done for the money it earns but for the human satisfaction it gives us. In her book The Book of Divine Works, Hildegard of Bingen writes, “We were meant to consider all our deeds within our heart before carrying it out.”
In his third encyclical On Human Work, Pope John Paul II writes, “The sources of the dignity of work are to be sought primarily in the subjective dimension, not in the objective one.”
In his speech in Montgomery, Alabama at the Institute of Non-violence and Social Change, 1956, Martin Luther King Jr. urged that, “If a man is called to be a street-sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted or Beethoven composed, or Shakespeare wrote. 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.’”
In her book, Letters to a Diminished Church, Dorothy Sayers, a contemporary of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams writes, “I asked that [work] should not be looked upon as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of the person should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfill itself to the glory of God. That it should be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that we, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.”
With a spirituality of work based on the principle that our work should be done not for the money it earns but for the satisfaction it brings us, all work, whether it is done by a powerful CEO, an inner-city housewife, a student, or an uneducated field hand, is the same because each is contributing his or her God given gifts to a divine enterprise. The value of all work is not to be judged by how much money it earns but by how it contributes to building the kingdom of God.
The spirituality of work does not come from the pulpit and it doesn’t come from a book, from an article in The Wall Street Journal, or a Sunday reflection. Jesus preached from Peter’s boat but it was not Jesus’ preaching that encouraged Peter to lower his nets. Peter found the spirituality of work when he worked. His failure to catch fish resulted in his ability to seize the spirituality of his work.
However, we need a word of caution. We may not be able to grasp the spirituality of work as easily as Peter. Because clicking a mouse, transferring food from the freezer to the microwave, to the table, and cleaning our floors with a Swiffer Wet-jet is not the same kind of work. The spirituality of work is God at work with us for the sake of each other.