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A Spirituality of Work

Talk given to Quaerens Veritate Club

April 29, 2009              

Deborah Savage, Ph.D.

I.        Introduction

Thank you for inviting me to speak here today on a topic that, as perhaps everyone knows, is quite central to my own life long project. And of course, as you may already know, as I am a scholar of the work of Karol Wojtyla/JPII, much of what I will have to say is derived from the thought of the Holy Father.  Now our topic here is the Spirituality of Work and we will come to that. But I want to begin with what at first might seem to you to be a somewhat unrelated aspect of John Paul’s work.

These days, the work of JPII usually surfaces around the topic of the theology of the body, and rightly so. It would be difficult to imagine a more profound theological anthropology than what he proposes in that body of work.  At its heart and perhaps definitive of the entire trajectory of his thought is the conviction that we become ourselves most fully and most authentically through making a sincere gift of ourselves. John Paul also refers to this gift of self as the Law of the Gift – he argues that it is built into the very nature of human persons and the human condition, a conviction that issues from his own reflections on the Gospel and the meaning we ascribe to the nature of the Trinity and ourselves as reflections of the image of God.  (This may be illuminated most significantly in the two passages he quoted most frequently in both his writing or speaking – two paragraphs from (#’s 22 and 24) from Gaudium et Spes, The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.)

He often affirms this understanding through frequent reference two passages from GS, #22 and #24 - which clarify that Jesus’ revelation that we are made in the image of a Triune God - who is in his very nature a relationship of three persons who eternally engage in a perpetual act of self-gift to each other - a Trinity of Persons who perfectly give and perfectly receive throughout eternity – illuminates the primordial reality of who we are – here quoting #24 from GS –: This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself

John Paul is very clear that the Law of the Gift is built into the human condition. This Law of the Gift is not just a quaint way of putting the marital act into modern moral terms; it is the antidote for the effects of original sin, made possible by the redemption achieved by Christ, its meaning revealed by his radical act of self-giving love. And it is not just for Christians or papal enthusiasts. It is a universal moral demand, arising from the dynamics of the human person –  a creature who is truly a person only in relationship.

 As John Paul puts it in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, the fundamental philosophical categories we find in Aquinas – being and existence – are really only abstractions in a way until they find their expression in persons. And there they are characterized by the encounter of the “I and the thou.” He states This I-thou relationship is a fundamental dimension of human existence: genuine human existence is always coexistence. The community of God’s people is rooted in it, in coexistence, and in communion with the eternal Thou that unites us, that makes us one, even when we fight or disagree.

Now why am I beginning here? Because as far as I have been able to determine, there is only one other place in John Paul’s entire body of work where he refers to something as a “fundamental dimension of human existence.” And the other place is in his 1981 encyclical – one of several he wrote on the social question – called “On Human Work” or Laborem exercens. In this encyclical he states, and I quote, that “work is a fundamental dimension of human existence.”

An accident? Just a favorite turn of phrase? I don’t think so.

For one thing, scholars of John Paul’s work unequivocally affirm that his thought is known to possess a consistency and coherence that characterizes his entire project. For another, as we shall see, he derives this understanding, once again, just as he does in the TOB – from a profoundly insightful interpretation of the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis. And again, just as in the TOB this is no superficial insight, merely of passing interest in theological circles. Because, with this as his point of departure, he goes on to make the arguably radical claim that work – human work, understood and engaged in a properly human way – is the key, maybe the essential key to the social question. 

Now this so-called social question has been a subject of debate and reflection by the Church and the larger society, really since people began living in community, but in its more modern form, since the Industrial Revolution. It can be stated as follows: what are the conditions that would allow human persons to live in peace secured by justice? It is a question being asked one way or another around the world right now on many levels, by many people, some in truly horrific conditions.  And JPII says that the essential key to that question is a deeper understanding of the meaning of work.  How can this be?

We will see that he is not suggesting the theological equivalent of a jobs program, that his argument has to do with the anthropological significance he attributes to human action in the world. In the thought of John Paul II, the key to the social question is found in the meaning of human personhood and to his understanding of what constitutes a specifically human act. And since work is truly a universal phenomenon, willed by God and a fundamental dimension of human existence, it holds a critical place in the effort to realize the Church’s social vision.

So, one of our tasks here today – within the context of the topic I have been given – the spirituality of work – is to come to some understanding of his insight and to grasp the connection between what John Paul argues are the two fundamental dimensions of human existence – the gift of self and human work.  That there is a link between John Paul’s idea of the gift of self and his own understanding of work as the key to the social teaching may not be surprising. But to my knowledge, no one has really made this particular connection yet, except for John Paul of course. So this is an exclusive; you can say you heard it here first.

Ok. Now, we are here to discuss the spirituality of work.  And we will. But I would suggest that a concern for the spirituality of work is a response to a question and that the question at the heart of that concern, one that I would pose for your reflection as we proceed, is first and fundamentally: what, if anything, has my work to do with my salvation, that is, with my hope in eternal life, my longing for final rest in full communion with God? Is that hope to be realized exclusively through our attendance at Mass and the other sacraments - or at prayer? In being charitable to our neighbor? Or might I consider the possibility that my work is also a means of coming to know God – and myself in relation to him? And, in particular, though we will not limit the meaning of work to this, what about my work in some kind of professional capacity? Is the workplace somewhere I, “in fear and trembling” work out my salvation? Or is it a place where I put that concern on hold or let it sort of fade into the background? In other words, is my work a separate sphere that has little to do with this save for the obligation to behave ethically i.e., to not lie, cheat or steal, to show up on time, to give a good days work for a fair wage?

In a sense, this is really a question of what place my daily activities around the home, on the job, in whatever capacity I find myself have to do with my final destination – and this is the proper domain of one’s inner life  - the recognition that my sanctification can, indeed needs to, include an awareness of the presence of God in the present moment, in the most ordinary everyday activities.

In his encyclical, John Paul does in fact answer this question, arguing quite explicitly that when properly understood, “work enters into the process of salvation along with all the other components of its texture.” My intent here today is to illuminate how he arrives at this conclusion. But before I do that, let me make a few preliminary remarks about what we mean by work. Then we will consider his arguments concerning work as a fundamental dimension of human existence. And then we will turn to the question of a proper spirituality of work – its practice and its meaning.

II.      What is work?

First then, what is work? Let’s begin with a more common sense definition. In physics, it is defined as any expenditure of energy in a specific direction – but for JPII work means not just what we do for pay, but anything we consider work: serving a meal, diapering a baby, mowing a lawn, as well as going to the office or factory or farm. It includes the labor of mothers, of fathers in the home – of volunteers serving soup to the homeless – of laborers in a factory – of restaurant workers – of students – of teachers. All of these are forms of work. But John Paul is pointing to something deeper, he is saying to us: there is something more essential here that you are not noticing, people - something that links all of them and encompasses in large measure almost all of human activity. Work is not to be the act of an automaton, a mere functionary but, at least potentially, in the language of our tradition, it is or can be an actus humanae – a reality JPII argues should be referred to as an actus personae – the act of a person – and as such it is a way – not only of doing, of activity, but, as we will see in a moment, an act of personal becoming.

So we are speaking here of work in all its forms and, in those terms, it is easy to see that everyone works.  You, your mother, your father, your professors, my daughter, Maddie…work is central to human life and human living. In what way this is so is our next topic: Work as a fundamental dimension of human existence

I.        Work as a fundamental dimension of human existence

John Paul’s arguments concerning work as a fundamental dimension of human existence begin in the Book of Genesis:

In Genesis 1: 28, God gives Adam and Eve the famous command to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.”  This command is usually associated with work – in this passage Adam and Eve are being told to get to work.  Here is a sort of trick question: does this command come before or after the fall?

Answer: Before.  In his encyclical, LE, JPII takes this fact and reveals its somewhat startling implications.  The call to work comes before the fall when, as he explores so beautifully in TOB, Adam and Eve are in the state of original innocence – they are without sin, fresh as a daisy. Here human nature is revealed in its fundamental, original design. Yet they are commanded to work. In fact, at Genesis 2:15, it is stated even more clearly for in that passage, Adam is put in the garden to “till it.” Again, before the fall.

Thus, work cannot be seen as a punishment for sin, though God tells both Adam and Eve that it will become more burdensome because of it. Both will have to struggle with creation now, rather than live in peaceful, painless harmony with it.  But, if Scripture is to be believed, we can most certainly say that since the call to work comes before the fall, we can understand it as a natural part of our human condition. In fact, John Paul tells us that the only conclusion we can draw from this account is that work is in fact a fundamental dimension of human existence; it is an integral part of the mystery of creation itself.  I like to tell people that if they were thinking that heaven is a place where we sit around in lawn chairs drinking our favorite adult beverage, to think again. It looks like there is work to be done in paradise.

The Holy Father goes on to say that we are called to work because we are made in the image of God who creates and, it is in working that we reflect that image and participate in the on-going process of creation. In fact, work is one of the characteristics that distinguish the human person from the rest of creation, for it is through work that our lives are sustained, communities are built, and our nature is realized. He states: “Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons.”

Now it should be mentioned that this interpretation is not original to JPII or found in his work alone.  But it definitely can be argued that he may be the first and only to spell out its implications fully. As I mentioned already, JPII states “that work is the key, maybe the essential key to the social question.”  To grasp his reasons for making this claim, we have to consider a fundamental distinction he makes between two dimensions of human work.

II.      The subjective and objective dimensions of work

The first, the objective dimension, is that which results from work in the external or material sense, either a product or a service, whether in the public or the private sphere.  This is the dimension we most associate with working. It is what the customer buys, it is what we may or may not get paid to produce; it is the paper you write, the pizza or the lecture we deliver, the meal that is served, the (reasonably) clean dorm room.


The second, the subjective dimension, and the primary concern of the encyclical and where we encounter the contours of a spirituality of work, refers to the person performing the work, that is, the “subject” of work, who, by virtue of his or her very humanity, is called to be a person in the fullest sense of that word.  The human person, made in the image of God, reflects God’s creative activity in the act of working and is as he states “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.”[i] 

The subjective dimension of human work is constituted by the fact that in working, the person not only creates some object – a meal, a widget, a paper – but also creates himself in the process.  He states: work “is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man’s dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it. If one wishes to define more clearly the ethical meaning of work, it is this truth that one must particularly keep in mind. Work is a good thing for man – a good thing for his humanity – because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed in a sense becomes ‘more a human being.’”

So – through our work we can become more of a human being, we become who we are through the work that we do and the actions we take in that regard “must serve to realize [our] humanity, to fulfill the calling to be a person that is [ours] by reason of [our] very humanity. The value and dignity of work is not a function of the kind of work being done but is to be attributed to the fact that the one who is doing it is a person.

Now I need to pause here and point just one thing out: if it is the subjective dimension of work that gives it its dignity, then we are obligated to question the bias that exists in our culture toward placing more importance on the objective value of work than on its subjective dimension.  This insight should do away with the differentiation of people into classes according to the kind of work they do. The working men and women who serve us in restaurants or collect the garbage lend as much dignity to their work as those who occupy the more prestigious jobs in our community. Public school teachers, insurance agents, are heroes equal to the Kevin Garnetts or the CEO’s in our culture. Closer to home, staff possess as much dignity as faculty or department chairs. I have heard it said that the most insidious ism in our culture is not racism or sexism but classism.  This does not mean we cannot rate or quantify the value of work in its objective aspect; it does mean we must remember that the primary basis of the value of work is man himself, who is its subject.

To return now to the passage in Genesis, only when the goal of work is man himself, only when he is reflecting his personhood as a conscious and free subject in making decisions about his work, can he be said to be master of it. It is only in this context that the biblical meaning of work is fulfilled, when throughout the process man manifests himself and confirms himself as the one who “dominates.”  This is what constitutes the ethical dimension of work – that the one who does it is a person, a conscious and free subject. The ethical value of work is linked to the fact that it is carried out by a person, that is, as JP says, “a subject that decides about himself.”[ii]

So - we become who we are through the work that we do and the actions we take in that regard (here paraphrasing) “must serve to realize [our] humanity, to fulfill the calling to be a person that is [ours] by reason of [our] very humanity. The value and dignity of work is not a function of the kind of work being done but is to be attributed to the fact that the one who is doing it is a person.  This is what constitutes the ethical dimension of work – that the one who does it is a person, a conscious and free subject. The ethical value of work is linked to the fact that it is carried out by 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.”[iii]

Thus, the fundamental argument in the encyclical is concerned with the anthropological significance attributed to human action in the world.  In the thought of John Paul II, the key to the social question is found in the meaning of human personhood.  And he is invoking a very specific meaning when he makes these statements. He argues that the dignity of the human person is, in part, reflected in his or her capacity for work and that work in its “subjective aspect is always an ‘actus personae,’” involving the “whole person, body and spirit.”[iv] 

III.    The Spirituality of Work

And here we come, finally, to the link between JP’s Law of the Gift and work - and to our reflections on a spirituality of work. When John Paul suggests that we become who we are through the work that we do, he does not mean that in the sense of having a great career or something – sort of the papal version of the Army commercial to “be all you can be.” In arguing that work is the key to the social question, he is not proposing a jobs program. He is pointing to a much deeper reality than that.  For one thing, when John Paul II says that work is an actus personae ­he is referring to the philosophical foundations laid by the philosopher Karol Wojtyla. And, without getting too technical on you, what he means by that is that before there can be an authentic development, one that is conditioned by my having chosen the authentically good, first I must govern myself, possess myself – only then is self-transcendence really possible.  In Wojtyla’s account, at the very center of the human person is the tendency toward self-realization in the act of self-transcendence – that is, in the act of self-gift. But the paradox is that it is through my gift of myself to another, which presupposes a certain degree of self-possession and self-governance – I cannot give what I do not possess - and which presumes a certain willingness to suffer and sacrifice – the gift I offer is to be divinized in some fashion - it is through my gift of myself to another that I come to know myself and possess myself.

Now here is the critical point.  As the Council Fathers stated in GS, Christ reveals that our supreme calling is to reflect the dynamics of the interrelational, intersubjective reality of the Holy Trinity – to find ourselves through a sincere gift of ourselves. John Paul II argues persuasively that we become ourselves, find ourselves through our work.  Both of these are – in his words – fundamental dimensions of human existence. What is the relationship between these two dimensions? It is simple really. 

Our work, like our interpersonal relationships, is also a locus of the Law of the Gift – but the Law of the Gift only has meaning when the exchange is between persons.  We cannot really make a gift of ourselves to a bottom line, a meal, a report, a paper – because there is no reciprocity.  The Law of the Gift points to a reciprocal relationship – a mutual self-giving.  And so our work can only have this meaning when it is embedded within the host of interpersonal relationships that govern our coexistence within the eternal relationship to the eternal Thou. We can and must work to earn money but we cannot make a gift of our very selves to that enterprise. For it only has human meaning when at the other end of the process is a person or persons to whom we make that gift – it could be our employees, our customers; it most certainly includes our current or future family, our friends, the poor.  But the Law of the Gift only works within the framework of authentic coexistence – and our work takes on the meaning it has in the eyes of God when – as he says in the encyclical, it is accompanied by an inner effort on the part of the human spirit, guided by faith, hope and charity, to remember that our work is a sharing in the activity of the creator – that when we work we participate in his life – and that in working we create not only external results but create ourselves as well. John Paul reminds us that for work to lead to a closer relationship to God and a deeper friendship with Christ, this awareness should permeate “even the most ordinary everyday activities” and that, in performing these necessary daily functions, men and women are “’contributing by their personal industry to the realization in history of the divine plan.’” [1] 

More concretely, the connection between the Law of the Gift and human work is found at the foot of the Cross. And it is John Paul’s reflection on human work in light of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ that constitutes the core of his spirituality of work.  For the work that Christ came to do and did obediently and willingly, was “the work of salvation that came about through suffering and death on a cross.  By enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, man in a way collaborates with the son of God for the redemption of humanity.  He shows himself a true disciple of Christ by carrying the cross in his turn every day in the activity that he is called upon to perform.”

To fully understand our work as God sees it, whether it is to provide for our families, to become “more a human being,” to pursue peace and justice, or contribute to the conditions that foster human development, we discover and accept “a small part of the cross of Christ.” When we enter willingly into this call we participate “in the same spirit of redemption in which Christ accepted his cross for us.”[2] 

To accept our cross at work and to suffer with Christ cannot be reduced to work seen as a kind of drudgery, for we have realized that work is a fundamental part of human existence. Human persons must make a sort of inner effort – not to be confused with any sort of Pelagian error – to recognize the meaning of our work and its potential to call us to new levels of self- transcendence.  Conversion at work means that as I try to approach my work virtuously, as my intentions are more and more cleansed, I move from what is only a potency to what is actual. My intellect seeks the truth more and more, my will is attracted more and more by the good the intellect reveals. I begin to see truly what is actually going around me, and I begin to be willing to suffer for the truth and for the good it requires me to do.

I am called to bring both the objective and subjective dimensions of work within my own sphere of life into correspondence with the good.  On the ground, it means accepting to see what is so, without bias, without refusal. It means seeing others for who they are, also children of God who may – at this very moment – be inhabited by the metaphysical indwelling of the divine substance, whose existence is held together by the continuous action of a God who loves them.  It means considering the fact that my work can serve what is beautiful – in a well-designed waste free manufacturing process, in a well-made bed, in a carefully crafted legal argument.  And then ordering my work and my being to that vision, accepting the suffering that comes with the effort to do something well or to reflect Christ to others, even when I don’t feel up to it.  To accept my cross willingly in solidarity with Our Lord.

And here, I would like to return to our original question and ask again does my work have anything to do with my salvation? Nowhere is the answer to this question more clear than in our understanding of what takes place at the Eucharist.  You hear almost every time you go to Mass during the preparation of the altar and the gifts – Blessed are you Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life. And next, through the priest, we offer the wine, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It becomes our spiritual drink.

A little bit of history will illuminate the meaning here. During the Middle Ages, the whole town was Catholic and the whole town came to Mass. Did you ever consider where they got the bread and wine – before the days when someone was in charge of manufacturing those little hosts? Tell the story.

It is harder to see now but what is offered at Mass is our work – in the form of bread and wine. It is our work that is transformed into the body and blood of Christ.  We bring the fruits of our labor – our monetary contribution – and that is added to the gifts that are offered at the altar.  But before that, in connection with that, it is our work that becomes the sacrifice.  What could be more clear? For this work is not just the money we make, nor the objects we produce – it is ourselves, our becoming, our own joining of ourselves to Christ on the Cross through the work that we do. 

Thank you for your kind attention.

[1] LE, 5.27.

[2] LE, 5.27.

[i] Laborem Exercens, 2.6.

[ii] Laborem Exercens, 2.6.

[iii] Laborem Exercens, 2.6.

[iv] Laborem Exercens,Laborem Exercens, Catholic Social Thought : The Documentary Heritage, ed. D.J. O’Brien and Thomas A. Shannon, (New York: Orbis Books, 1995)  5.24.

Copyright ©; Dr Deborah Savage 2009

Version: 14th April 2010

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