What do the saints teach us about work?
Saint Walter of Pontoise, patron of work-related stress; photo by GFreihalter -Wikimedia
“If you attach your heart to certain places and occupations, obedience often times places you in some other place that you may not like; to be always cheerful, be always humble and obedient.” (St. Ignatius)[i]
When I was young, society embraced what was known as the Protestant work ethic: being a good person requires working hard and long. No surprise that baby boomers became known as the work-aholic generation. In hindsight, it was a period in time in which our country was rapidly excelling through the industrial age into robust capitalism. It is easy to see how faith became separated from work. The emphasis became keeping to the rituals of the sacraments at the proper time and place. Carrying their graces forward into our daily living was easily overlooked.
In all of this, we grew away from our rich 2000-year tradition of living each moment for the greater Glory of God. For example, we have 17th century Brother Lawrence’s example:
“So, likewise, in his business in the kitchen (to which he had naturally a great aversion), having accustomed himself to do everything there for the love of GOD, and with prayer, upon all occasions, for His grace to do his work well, he had found everything easy, during the fifteen years that he had been employed there.”[ii]
As with all saints and holy people, reminiscent through their ‘way’ of living is finding God in all things, which happens to be at the crux of Ignatius’ spirituality too. St. Ignatius had mystical experiences, one of which God taught him in a moment more than he learned his entire life. He learned “a number of things about the faith and the natural world”[iii], to understand profoundly how God is in every moment and that time is captured within eternity. This is the vision of the saints and which God wants for us. It is God’s vision, to see ourselves and creation within the eternal. From that view, the soul desires for every action and thought to be glorifying God. Coupled with that intention, our menial tasks do just that.
More recently, St. John Paul II instructed:
“Man has to subdue the earth and dominate it, because as the “image of God” he is a person, that is to say, a subjective being capable of acting in a planned and rational way, capable of deciding about himself, and with a tendency to self-realization. As a person, man is therefore the subject to work. As a person he works, he performs various actions belonging to the work process; independently of their objective content, these actions must all serve to realize his humanity, to fulfil the calling to be a person that is his by reason of his very humanity.” …” Toil is something that is universally known, for it is universally experienced. … is familiar to all workers and, since work is a universal calling, it is familiar to everyone. And yet, in spite of all this toil-perhaps, in a sense, because of it-work is a good thing for man. (Laborem Exercens)[iv]
We hear often of St. Therese’s little way. But what about St. Josemaria Escriva’s Opus Dei? An entire order for laypeople to sanctify their work by doing it for God’s Glory!
“Your human vocation is a part — and an important part — of your divine vocation. That is the reason why you must strive for holiness, giving a particular character to your human personality, a style to your life; contributing at the same time to the sanctification of others, your fellow men; sanctifying your work and your environment: the profession or job that fills your day, your home and family and the country where you were born and which you love.”[v]
Pope Francis’ address to clergy is relevant to laypeople as well:
“Above all, it means vigilance in order to be free from ambition or personal aims, which can cause so much harm to the Church, taking care to always put in the first place not your own self-fulfillment, or the recognition that you could get whether inside and outside of the ecclesial community, but the greater good of the cause of the Gospel and the fulfillment of the mission that has been entrusted to you. This freedom from ambition or personal aims, for me, is important, its important! Careerism is leprosy!”[vi]
With Ignatius’ tools of examen and mental prayer, we can seek to order our thoughts towards God and refine our ways to Glorify Him. Then, rather than valuing ambition and success of the world, we let God lead us along the path He already has paved for us. True interior freedom is only felt when on that path. And the rewards are remarkable. Fr. Arintero in Vol. 1 of his seminal work (p. 123) speaks of the souls who do so growing in holiness:
“Thence comes the incredible value of all their actions, however small and humble they may appear. Since they are saints, they sanctify and ennoble the most natural and lowly deeds, just as the lukewarm enervate and make base those acts of theirs which could be very great. [citing the mystic Tauler] It also follows from this, as a great mystic points out, that we ought not to be so much concerned with what we do as with what we are, for the value of our deeds will depend upon what we are in ourselves. Therefore St. Francis de Sales said that a great saint can merit more in a lowly occupation than can an imperfect man in the most noble and glorious works. Even when sleeping, the true servants of God can love and merit more than others who are praying or working for the good of souls, because even during sleep their deified hearts keep vigil, praying and loving intensely, although the saints themselves are not aware of it.”[vii]
Who would have imagined how one’s relationship with God could be brought into the workplace in such a powerful way? The saints have a lot to teach us about work. Enjoy Labor day resting with your favorite saint—Catholic Saints has over 15000 from which to choose! https://catholicsaints.info/ . St. Walter of Pontoise, patron of those suffering stress from their work, please pray for us!
As always, continue to pray for worldwide church especially Pope Francis, our clergy and religious.
Lord Jesus Christ, watch over those who are leaders in your Church. Keep them faithful to their vocation and to the proclamation of your message. Teach them to recognize and interpret the signs of the times. Strengthen them with the gifts of the Spirit, and help them to serve their subjects, especially the poor and lowly. Give them a vivid sense of your presence in the world and a knowledge of how to show it to others. Amen.[viii]
Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam 😊
[i] Miss Margaret Colton, transl. (1887) A thought from St. Ignatius for each day of the year. New York, NY: Benninger Brothers. p. 104 Retrieved from http://www.saintsbooks.net/books/St.%20Ignatius%20of%20Loyola%20-%20A%20Thought%20from%20for%20Each%20Day%20of%20the%20Year.pdf
[iii] Rev. Christoph Genelli, S.J. (1871) Life of St. Ignatius of Loyola. London, England: Burns, Oates & Co. P. 31. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/TheLifeOfStIgnatiusOfLoyola/page/n63/mode/1up?q=river
[iv] John Paul II (1981) Laborem Exercens: On Human Work. Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091981_laborem-exercens.html
[v] St. Josemaria Escriva (1974) Christ is passing by. New York, NY: Scepter Publishing. Full text available at https://www.escrivaworks.org/book/christ_is_passing_by.htm
[vi] Pope Francis. (2013) Address to the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy. https://zenit.org/2013/06/06/pope-s-address-to-the-pontifical-ecclesiastical-academy/
[vii] Servant of God John Arintero OP. (1949) The Mystical Evolution Volume 1. B. Herder Book Co.
[viii] Unknown. (2004) 100 Prayers for priests.