The sanctification of work            (E.J.Tyler)

1. Life and work   

When we look out on the universe we see constant activity with one thing acting on another causing it to change in some way. The inanimate world is caught up in activity of various kinds which by analogy could be called “work” - in the sense of one thing “working” on another and achieving various results. We look at the animal and insect kingdom and again there is constant activity, with living things engaged in activities that enable them to live and propagate and prosper. Their activity could by analogy with the activity of man be called their “work.” We do not say that an animal or an insect is “working for its living”, or “working” at some goal because the word “work” or “a work” includes the notion of a free activity ordered towards some freely chosen goal, service or project, whereas the animals and insects are engaged in their activity by instinct and compulsion. But man is free and so he truly engages in a work, his work. Moreover, the general sense of man is that his work is very important to his life and almost defines him. I remember asking a small girl what she would like to do in life. She thought for a moment and said that she would like to be a mother. Her answer was an excellent one, and it also implied that the term “work” conjures up in one’s mind and imagination something very important to human life. There is the sense that human life is very largely about life’s work, just as, indeed, the life of insects and animals is very largely about their activities.

2. God has revealed that he works 

   In the Book of Genesis at the beginning of the Bible God is portrayed as engaged in the work of creating the world. To stress that we ought regard it as real work God is shown as doing this over a working week, and then as resting on the Sabbath day. Putting it in these terms makes it very clear to the ordinary reader that God is very much at work. He achieves certain things on certain days. Moreover, at the end of every working project such as the creation of the moon and the stars, God is described in the inspired text as looking on what he had done and seeing it to be good - and in the case of man, he sees that his work is very good. God is shown in the Scriptures as having done good work. In the second chapter of the Book of Genesis, God is portrayed fashioning man from the clay of the earth, and then of creating the woman from the side of the man. Again, God is shown to be at work. So then, creation is God’s work, and because of its radical transience and dependency, it is an ongoing work of God. He continues his creative activity by sustaining everything in existence. So God wants us to look on him as always working. He is constantly working for our benefit, for he is a God of love.

    In the Gospel on one occasion our Lord was attacked by the scribes and Pharisees for healing on the Sabbath and his response was that inasmuch as his Father keeps on working he works too. Of course his work of healing was not a violation of the Sabbath rest, and our Lord declared that he had come not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it. So then, God is revealed in the Scriptures as one who works and all creation depends constantly on his work. That, surely, sets the pattern.

3. Man and creation reflect the Creator who works  

In that first chapter of the Book of Genesis, God is shown as making man in his own image and likeness. “Let us make man in our own image and likeness,” the text reads. That likeness of man to God is shown to include the fact that he works. God works, and when he creates man in his own image he sets him to work, and indeed gives him a great work to do. The work given to him is that of propagating his own kind and thus filling the earth. Man is also given the work of mastering the earth, which is to say of making it a fit home for himself and a place where he is able to live and flourish in the way God intends. Just as God looked on all he had made including man himself and saw that it was good, man in his turn is called to work on the world he has been placed in and then be able to look on the world that has been developed by his work and see that it is good. Man has the vocation to be like God in doing good work. Even the inanimate creation which develops, maintains and enriches itself by its constant activity reflects the Creator who is at work. As mentioned above, the animate world of insects, birds and animals are all engaged in activity and expenditure of energy which reflects and imitates the constant activity of the Creator. So does man, as I have pointed out.

4. Man needs to work    

Indeed, if man does not work he will not thrive nor flourish. He will deteriorate and die, and animals and insects will die too if they are not active about it. This is all a manifestation of the pattern of work which flows forth from the nature and action of God. So then, apart from human work being a reflection of the activity of the Creator, work is also an indispensable requirement for limited creatures with an inbuilt drive and need for perfection. We want to flourish, we want to improve, we want to be as good and as best we can. We want to make the best of it in life - at least that is our instinctive desire. Many sadly settle for a lazy mediocrity and give up the struggle to work at this perfection but that is not what we instinctively desire. People settle for these half-measures because of their laziness, or their disappointments, or  their undisciplined interests. But if we act on this instinctive desire for perfection, and discover what we ought be concentrating on in order to attain this perfection of our nature, then we will realize that it requires work. We shall have to work at it, and work at it hard. We must be prepared to endure monotony, discomfort and other forms of suffering and difficulty if we are to achieve the kind of perfection and do the good we have set our hearts on and are called to.

5. The work of personal sanctity    

If we do not take care, it is possible that what we have chosen to work at could be a waste of time. That is to say, we must work at trying to know in what lies the true perfection of our life and being. For this we have the teaching of Christ. He has told us that our true perfection is to be found in holiness, in a share in the holiness of Christ himself. On one occasion a young man came to our Lord and asked him what he had to do in order to get to heaven. Our Lord told him that he had to keep God’s commandments, and the ones our Lord specifically mentioned were those that had to do with our actions towards our neighbour, our spouse and our parents. The young man said that he had kept all those since his earliest days, and our Lord did not question that. In fact, he looked on him with love and proceeded to tell him what more he needed to do if he wished to be perfect. It was to go off and give his possessions to the poor, and then come back and follow him. But the rich young man went off sad, not wanting to forego the things he was attached to in order to gain the perfection our Lord laid out before him. The point here is that the perfection God plans for us and which we ought be working at involves the following of Christ with an undivided heart, a heart totally attached to him. Therein will lie our perfection and that, therefore is what we ought be working at. Our work in life lies there. In the person of Christ man finds his perfection.

    On another occasion our Lord said to the crowds he had just fed that they ought not be working simply for food that will not last. They ought be working for food which will last for ever, the food which he could give them. They asked him, what is the work that God wants us to be working at? Our Lord answered, this is the work of God: that you believe in the one he has sent. So they were called to be especially working at faith, at growing in this faith, and in faith at making him the centre of their life. I remember years ago speaking to the brother of a famous current affairs television personality of that time. I asked him whether his well-known brother practised his faith. He answered that his brother did not “work at it.” That was a good answer because it highlighted the fact that we are called on by God to work at our life of faith in our Lord. We are to work at our life in Christ, and at our growth in holiness. That is the fundamental work of life and even if much of our other work for various reasons does not go well, the one thing necessary is that the work of personal holiness in Jesus our Lord be done well. We are called to personal sanctity, and it requires daily and unremitting work. In fact, it is the toughest work, and it is by doing this work that we shall be able to sanctify the work for others that we  are engaged in daily.

6. Our daily professional work   

 It is our daily professional work that more usually receives the name of “work.” Whether or not people have heard the call to work at personal sanctity, at least they know that their daily professional activity is true work and very much their work in life. Our daily work is our work of service to others, the work whereby we earn our living, the work which God has placed in our hands, the work which constitutes our responsibilities. It could be our work as a spouse or as a parent, it could be work as a student, it could be in the office, the classroom, the home, or wherever. That work is the direct means whereby we contribute towards the development of others and of the world. By doing this we are collaborating with God in his sustaining work as the Creator. If we do it for him and for others in him, and do it with as much thoroughness as we can, we shall be making it something holy and like God’s work.  Of course this will only be possible if we are working at our spiritual life and especially at our life of daily prayer. By sanctifying our work and making it something good and done prayerfully and in partnership or union with God, we shall ourselves be sanctified by that holy activity, and of course we shall be sanctifying others by that sanctified work. We only have to think of what happens to a person who is not working at all. That person deteriorates in so many ways, in focus, in personal happiness, and also in his spiritual life. Even a retired person ought in some sense take up some work, even if it is not paid work. When she was entering her last sickness at the age of 33, St Bernadette Soubiroux said that she was beginning her last “job”. Sickness became a work for God, pervaded by her life of prayer. All this indicates that whatever be our work, no matter how humble and unacknowledged, that job is a very important means of personal sanctification and, in the divine plan, of serving God. Let us often think of the daily work of the Holy Family. It is a model for us. Everything they did was done in prayerful union with God.

7.  The significance of difficulty and suffering 

 I remember watching an interview with the famous filmmaker of wildlife documentaries, Sir David Attenborough. He was asked if the wonder of the animal and insect kingdoms deepened in his mind a conviction of the reality and greatness of the Creator. His answer was surprising because he said it did not. In fact, it caused a problem for him because he could not understand the cruelty that pervaded nature. Animals turned on one another and inflicted merciless harm and death for their own benefit. How could a good God arrange things this way? But there is another way of looking at this very cruelty. We see throughout the animal and insect kingdom the life of one animal being given up in the processes of nature for the sake of the life and welbeing of another. That is what is happening amid the “cruelty.” Is not this a remote reflection of love? Love gives of itself at its own cost, and the highest love is when one lays down one’s life for the sake of the other. The animal kingdom is incapable of love and acts on instinct, and of course we see closer reflections of love even in the animal kingdom, with animals going to defend their offspring at risk to themselves. But even the pattern of animals being destroyed and consumed by other animals is a dim reflection of the Love that is at the heart of the universe, the love that is the life of God. Nature, as it were, in a costly process gives up the life of one animal for the good of another. For when God became man to save the world from sin, his life was given over into the hands of unjust persons in order that we might live. That pattern of dying in order that others may live is the highest and noblest form of life and love, and we see reflections of this pattern of sacrifice and dying for the sake of others throughout reality, thus bearing the imprint of the Creator, and - viewed in the light of revelation - of the Trinity and its life of total self-giving. The structure and elan of nature dimly reflects the loving heart of reality.

8. The example of Christ   

Christ invites us to follow him in everything and our whole life ought be stamped with his likeness. Now, how does our Lord describe the imitation of him? He describes it in terms of difficulty and suffering. It is a life of bearing the cross, a life of dying that others may live. By dying he destroyed our death. This is to be the pattern of our work in life. Its difficulties and sufferings are part and parcel of the loving service that ought distinguish our work. If our work makes us suffer, if we seem to be spent for others as a result of our work, then this is simply what the imitation of God and Christ entails. If we want love to flourish in our life and make our life like that of God as he is revealed to us in the person of Jesus, then our work will have a crucial part to play. We shall have to aspire to work with love in imitation of our Lord, working for Christ and working for others in Christ, and precisely in our work bearing as his children the likeness of God our Father. If our work is difficult, that is the chance to be sanctified. If the prospect of working thoroughly and with love is a prospect that appears difficult and self-sacrificing, that is the chance to be true children of our working Father, and to live in imitation of Christ our brother and redeemer.

9. The sanctification of work   

It is often said that we work in order to live. It is also often pointed out that we ought not live in order to work. That statement is true when understood in a certain way. We ought not make a wrong kind of work the centre of our life, neglecting other basic work responsibilities such as our own spiritual life, our quest for holiness, our family life, our proper health, and in any case doing our work for the wrong reasons. The typical workaholic who lives for his work in a wrong way does not do it for God. He does not try to sanctify his work according to the mind of Christ, but works according to the mind of the world. Let us serve Jesus our Lord by our work and in this way collaborate with God in the development and redemption of the world.   .