Fall is in the air! Well not actually in the air weather-wise – I wish! But despite Texas’ insistence outdoors that summer persists, this week kiddos are loading back into school buses, parents are cheering, teachers are groaning, and the boost of energy and activity seems to pervade many realms of economic and social life. It can be quite an effort to move against the pace of the long slow summer and get those gears grinding again – or perhaps you’re more so the type whose anxiety and energy ramps up automatically towards the end of August, and you’re rushing head-long into the business. Either way, there is something about these fall months that ramps up our activity and energy.
So we might be tempted right now to start recounting our summer vacations, longing again for the beach or the mountains or how we slept in on vacation. And that’s natural. Thinking of all the work that awaits us in these months ahead can make us want to go back to bed. But isn’t it also natural – and stick with me on this – to isn’t there something also natural – and enjoyable – about really working hard?
So if you’re still dreaming of beaches you may have stopped reading just then. But if you’re still with me, you identify with this. You know that there is something natural about our capacity to work, and that as much as we complain about work (homework, schoolwork, jobs, gradschool, the office, whatever it is) something about being active and working hard makes us happy.
Work Makes us Happy
Fr J Kentenich spoke about work and happiness on retreats to lay people in early 1930s Germany (where we can imagine the work and social conditions of the time!).
“Human nature craves happiness. Whatever we do or omit is influenced by this desire. We seek money and fortune, honor, esteem and pleasure, all because we wish to be happy. Whether we realized it or not, we love God and remain faithful to Him for the very same reasons! The sources of human happiness are numerous – from the pure and innocent to the tarnished and depraved. Labor is one of the pure sources of happiness. How often have we experienced this in our own case and seen it in others? When have we been happiest? Was it when we had no work to do or very little? When we were left entirely to our won thoughts and dreams? No! Doubtlessly at such a time our surroundings suffered much – we were a nuisance to everybody, dissatisfied with ourselves and bored in the company of others…Human society is happier and develops better when there is too much work rather than too little. Of course, the happy medium is a sound balance of work and recreation. Work is a source of real happiness and one that has no substitute.”*
Have we not often experienced that we are most productive and full of energy when we have lots to do? And that it’s when we have nothing to do that we can’t seem to be motivated to do even the littlest things? Of course, balance is necessary. But I have found that even when I feel like I have too much to get done, I feel more vitalized and creative and engaged with life than on those occasions when I don’t have enough work. This may just be an effect of my phase in life, a young adult eager to build her career – so please add comments with your own wisdom below!
But let’s take this thought further – work as a source of happiness. Fr Kentenich teaches that work had a place in paradise before the fall, it of course has a place on earth, and will have a place in heaven. Work is transcendent in that it is a participation in the creative life of God:
“[In Heaven] We will be permitted to share in a special manner in the very life of God. This life of God is knowledge and love – it is pure activity…When we desire eternal rest of our beloved, we mean freedom from the cares of life and hardships of work here on earth. We pray – may they rest in peace! According to St Augustine – peace is the tranquility of order. When applied to the blessed in heaven this means: Rest in view of the possession of God and a share in the knowledge and love of God. The happiness of heaven, therefore, consists of a special share in the creative and self-giving activity of Almighty God. What nobility work receives from this! It is activity similar to the knowledge and love of the blessed in heaven. But more! It is a share in the creative and self-giving activity of Almighty God.”
So work isn’t just a dignified way of earning our daily bread, but has its root and purpose in the active life of God, who gives all things meaning. We are especially invited, as we are made in His image, to participate in His life, which means, His love: “God, as Creator, is active everywhere through His creative, conserving, ruling activity. He also works and conserves the divine life in a soul adorned with sanctifying grace. Whatever He does, He does out of love. Love is the underlying principle of creation. God does everything out of love, through love and for love. Out of love, by giving us many proofs of His love, He leads man to a deep union of love with Himself.”
It’s easy to forgot these larger truths during the day – but when the rubber meets the road, these larger truths are where we get our grit. The grit that lets us get up early each day to get the kiddos ready for school and drive all over town. The grit that lets us face the office again, or get on another airplane for another work trip, and especially the grit to stay steady and faithful when work gets unpleasant or truly difficult. We believe the entirely of our life is drawn up into and comes from Eternal Love. And this love is not an idea (ideas can give us some grit, but unless the idea touches the heart, it won’t capture the whole person). This love is a Person, a reality incarnate, the living Christ, who in relationship with us, everyday.
But sometimes it’s difficult to connect with these greater truths during the grind of the day. Fr Kentenich’s often spoke about the “everyday saint” as precisely that modern Catholic person who was totally oriented towards connecting the supernatural world of God with the everyday natural life of this world (I’ve written about the everyday day saint before, see here and here). The pace and reality of life after the industrial revolution was something new to human soul, that for millennia had lived this organic attachment between God, life and labor.
“Unfortunately, today too many are forced to do purely mechanical labor in factories and offices. Few are able to freely choose their occupation and sphere of activity. It is only a saint who can overcome the dangers connected with the mechanization of labor. A well known writer says, “Saints are more important than steam engines. There must be machines, but it is souls who must govern them.” (Der Rembrandt Deutsche). This is a most pressing problem – not only for generous souls striving after holiness but a problem for educating a whole nation.”
We are called to give soul to our work! Those early 1900s saw the invention of the factory line (which of course are still a reality), and yet now also increasing the depersonalization of work, we have the office culture of cubicles, of fast food assembly lines and drive throughs, of business men and woman who are constantly uprooted and sleeping in hotels, and the reality of so much business being done through the tech interface instead of face to face. And let’s not forget the classroom and the great challenge our students face with being “taught to the test”, pressured to perform and give results rather than to engage and develop their original, God-given creativity!
As Christians, we are called to give soul to the modern world through our work. We can’t engage in the romanticism of turning back the clock: “If we do not succeed in again giving work its true meaning and through it awakening and deepening man’s powers of creation and self-expression – even where the work does not itself seem suitable – then all other reforms will hardly reach their goal. We cannot go back to the social conditions of the Middle Ages. We have to accept our modern conditions as they are and in small things try to strike the clear, refreshing water of life, love and joy from the “hard rock” of dissatisfying labor. There are enough ways and means of doing this. They are quite easy to understand theoretically, but their constant performance demands a serious desire and appreciation for a life of sacrifice.”
How is that possible? What are those ways and means of living a soul-full and joyful life of work, intimately bonded to the activity of God? I
was drawn to focus on two ways Kentenich mentions: through suffering, and through presence.
When Work Does Not Make us Happy
Work is not a de facto source of happiness. We often meet with stress and suffering daily. How do we understand those sufferings, and how can they be transformed into happiness? It’s all in our attitude- which is ours alone to choose. We can choose to allow God into our sufferings, and choose to open our daily difficulties to His grace. And if we’re lacking in our own motivation, we can choose to ask, to pray for the strength to choose a new attitude. This attitude can be based on the greater truth that God wastes nothing. Every tear, every wound, every frustration can be used by His grace to bring about good, if we offer it freely to Him through Christ.
“In addition to those natural helps, religion provides a supernatural means which can become very effective. It requires a high degree of love of God – as is expected from an everyday saint. He is deeply convinced of the truth that we are children of God and members of Christ’s Mystical Body…The everyday saint may be engaged in some very dull type of work – perhaps on an assembly line- yet in renouncing the enjoyment his nature likes, he uses and even seeks the opportunities of “making up in his own body what is wanting to the sufferings of Christ” and of spreading abroad the Kingdom of God, defending and deepening it. “I – once I am lifted up from earth – will draw all men to myself” Jn 12:32. In these words Our Lord prophesied the fruitfulness of His sufferings. For the everyday saint, as well as for others, unemployment and uncongenial work are a cross, a very heavy cross. When lifted up on this cross, his life then receives a higher value for, together with Our Lord, he brings the world to the Father. There is really no lack of opportunity of giving oneself and being creative. (p107)”
To say this is one thing -but to live it another! We know this. I invite you at the start of this new Fall 2015 to take a step towards living it. Offer that commute every day to Christ, that new project at school, that new conference at work, and that same grind that hasn’t changed at all. Each and every day is a unique and unrepeatable opportunity to participate in the life and activity of the Almighty God. And He is always with us!
Through Presence: How Near God is to Us
This is the second way – we can give soul to our work through contemplating God’s presence right in the middle of the grind. Again, it’s one thing to understand in our heads that “God is everywhere,” but it’s quite another to live that way. How did we say we live it? We make it a lived reality through our relationship with Christ, through constantly turning to Christ and opening our day to Him.
God is everywhere by His essence, His knowledge and His power. In every atom of the universe He is entirely present with all His being…He peers into the hearts of men…He upholds and guides everything by His sustaining and benevolent activity. God conserves and rules the world. We can do nothing, absolutely nothing, without His cooperation and assistance. He is active in us and with us – whether we eat, sleep, pray, work or do nothing whatsoever. We cannot conceive how near God is to us. St Paul teaches us, “He is really not far from any of one of us. In Him live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28). Indeed He loves us so much and so tenderly as to exhaust His omnipotence in seeking all ways of being with us…The work of the everyday saint – with God – rests on this solid foundation: God works continually with him, so what can he do but strive earnestly to work with God. God lives with him and in him; he lives in and with God.
He really is with each and every one of us! And He is constantly inviting us to greet Him in our hearts, all day long – “Whenever his work permits, he joyfully recalls God’s presence and love. As the sunflower turns towards the sun, so does his soul turn toward God.”
He only lack our “yes,” our attention and attentiveness – the fertile ground of all healthy relationships. Fr Kentenich continues: “Words like, “God, the presence of God, and “Love” must not remain empty formulae. There is sufficient grace at hand and, if they conscientiously cooperate with it, then a new world will gradually open up and, with the patriarch Jacob, they will admit, “Truly the Lord is in this spot, although I did not know it.”
I hope this reflection was useful to you! I’d like to close with inviting you to a jam session…this is one of those songs I like to turn up in my car when I need a pick-me-up reminder of God’s calling for me to give soul to my work, and to actively LIVE in the reality of constantly participating in the activity, life and LOVE of God!
“As far as possible the everyday saint exhausts the whole of reality. He believes that work is participation in the creative and self-giving activity of God. But, of necessity, everything that God creates and loves has, for its highest aim and final purpose, His own glory and honor. That is why the everyday saint wishes to do everything for God – that is, for His honor and glory.“
*Fr Joseph Kentenich, Everyday Sanctity. All excerpts taken from Book Two: Attachment to Work, page 95-124.