Ah, Labor Day. A day to sit back, relax and soak up the unofficial end of summer. Push thoughts of the new school year aside? Maybe. Contemplate what our work means? Definitely.
“Work is meant to provide a dignified livelihood for ourselves and loved ones on the material level, but our work goes beyond that primary purpose,” says Father Jeffrey Kirby of St. Mary Help of Christians in Aiken, S.C. “By doing good work we honor our Creator, and we help edify and build up our society and the world around us. Our work is meant to give order and remedy to our lives and to encourage solidarity with God and with others.”
That purpose should propel us to honor God by doing an honest day’s work.
“Because we are made in God’s image we’re called to extend the work of God in the world,” continues the priest, who has clearly done his spiritual homework on work. “Pope John Paul II really stressed this collaboration and cooperation in his encyclical Laborem Exercens [Human Work]. We aren’t meant to live for work, but to work in order to fully live.”
Honest work, then, shouldn’t be seen as simply a secular burden or a spiritual punishment for original sin — even though work certainly has an element of fulfilling basic needs and redeeming the consequences of original sin. “Through our work, we participate in the good of others,” says Father Kirby, “and we consecrate the world to God one cubicle at a time.”
Tom Spencer tries to do that both at home and as principal at St. Joachim Elementary School in Madera, Calif. Although he left secular education because he wanted to incorporate his faith into his work, he doesn’t think a person needs to be in a religious institution to appreciate the spiritual side of working.
“Work is difficult, and yet there’s value, purpose and meaning associated with it,” he says. “Even working around the house on common tasks can be fulfilling.”
The experts agree: Work is transformed when the worker sees his or her tasks as opportunities to align human effort with the building up of God’s Kingdom. “We’re called to holiness through the ordinary, and that happens to be our work,” says Catholic business consultant, author and motivational speaker Dave Durand.
Durand, the Register’s “Working Life” columnist, adds that you know you’ve given an honest day’s work when “you can put your head on the pillow and say, ‘I gave everything I could as a good steward of the abilities God gave me.’”
Michele Spencer, Tom’s wife and mother of 11, knows the secret of finding supernatural satisfaction from work. The homemaker and home-schooling mom explains: “It’s something I love to do, so the yoke is easy. What we do, taking care of our children is building the Kingdom of God, our society, the Church,” she says. “We forget our work’s true meaning because it seems so mundane. Making dinner and cleaning the house seems not that important, and yet, it’s the most important labor we can do. That’s why I enjoy most of what I do.”
Pope John Paul addressed exactly this point in his encyclical, writing, “Toil is … familiar to women, who, sometimes without proper recognition on the part of society and even of their own families, bear the daily burden and responsibility for their homes and the upbringing of their children.”
In those moments when she does not want to do a particular task around the house, Michele immediately remembers the Catechism’s teaching on how work sanctifies us, setting us apart for Christ. “Work honors the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him. It can also be redemptive” (No. 2427).
For Tom, this includes the times he cuts the lawn, repairs the family car and helps Michele do the dishes. “Even when hot and grimy,” he says, “it’s fulfilling.”
Father Kirby points out, “I come from a family of mechanics. It was literally spirituality of the monkey wrench.” But today, he sees the contemporary world’s struggle with artificiality because it’s several steps removed from the sources of goods and services. People want their car fixed but can be turned off by the grease in the garage, and likewise with the dirt on the farmer or perspiration on the carpenter.
“Because we’re so far removed from that as a society, we tend to look at that type of work as less noble,” adds the priest. “Actually it’s that work, when done well, that builds solidarity in society and with God.”
He points out that St. Joseph was a carpenter while St. Paul supported his preaching ministry with a tent-making business.
Of course, not all work is honest and not every exertion honors God. It’s easy in the modern world to participate in efforts grounded in, or oriented toward, sin.
Durand cites as examples marketing that tempts people to indulge in their baser or most materialistic impulses and sales pitches that conceal the full truth about what’s being sold.
Work glorifies God when it helps us grow in virtue, he explains. Simply honoring the Ten Commandments in the workplace, moment by moment, can transform a “bad day at the office” into a saving and sanctifying experience.
“I know people who’ve been urged to fudge the truth and be comfortable about it, but they chose to stand up for what is right” says Durand, even when it meant being passed over for a promotion or risking termination.
The Catechism teaches that “Work united to Christ can be redemptive” (No. 2460). John Paul told us how: by “uniting work with prayer.” Some people use the traditional morning offering. Tom Spencer turns to Pope St. Pius X’s prayer to St. Joseph, and he continues a practice he learned in grade school — writing “JMJ” at the top of a paper, as a reminder of the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, throughout the day.
“Christ waits for us in our work,” reminds Father Kirby. “He walks with us and labors with us.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.