In praise of work- The Christian in the world.
If the title seems peculiar, particularly the correlation between praising work with the Christian in the world, by the end of this piece, I hope you’ll see the association between work and Christians living in the world.
“So Lin, what will you do when you retire?” My friend Steve, then an intensivist at the Texas Medical Center where we both worked, knew my answer. He just wanted to see what happened when I said what I always did: That I never wanted to retire in front of the group of burned out physicians and administrators we sat with. His eyes twinkled while he waited for me to begin speaking in praise of work.
Back in those hundred plus hour weeks I balanced a more than full-time job with finishing my doctoral dissertation. I knew that Steve had a point each time he would exhort, “No one wishes they had worked more as they lay dying.” My life was way out of balance and my personal life was unraveling.
But work was something I knew I needed. Forever…or at least until I was physically or mentally incapable. But I could not find the words to explain why. To him, or for that matter, to myself.
Most likely, a primary reason was seeing the effects of boredom—idleness, on my mother as I grew up. Once my two older sisters left and I was in junior high, Mom had way too much time on her hands, so she’d eat. Large bags of potato chips and huge chocolate bars and giggle when she was discovered. The weight piled on and never came off. Soon, she was diagnosed with hypertension which terrified and depressed her. From then it was a slowly accelerating decline toward the end.
Can such serious morbity and eventual death be attributed to bordeom, inactivity, and lack of purpose?
Well—yes. I believe it can…in fact, retirement can be dangerous.
We know this intuitively, don’t we?
- wired for work;
- idleness gets us into trouble,
- and mindless, even mundane tasks can be hugely fruitful.
Wired to work? Yes, it’s a fact, but acceptance of my premise requires some reflection.
Consider boredom for a moment…how it feels, how it looks. When you feel it. When you see it in others, your children, friends or just someone passing by, it’s instantly recognizable…and distasteful. Even repugnant.
Our minds, psyches and very being require stimulation: Learning, challenge, activity…physical and mental work…”eustress.” If deprived of it, we turn into lifeless, pale imitations of ourselves. Like this woman. St. Benedict takes it so seriously that he writes this: Idleness is the enemy of the soul. It is the first sentence of Chapter 48: On the Daily Manual Labor in the Rule of Benedict.
Along the lines of boredom but even more dangerous, too much time on our hands can lead to destructive behavior. Too much TV, too much food, alcohol…you get the drift. Surveys consistently reveal that we work less for the money than for the satisfaction of the work performed.
During my many years of atheism and agnosticism, sacred was an alien concept like all ideas contained in the vocabulary of faith. This, along with everything else changed upon conversion to Christian Catholicism. But I think that sense I had back in those days when God and religion were anathema, was that work is sacred. I just didn’t have the words to express it.
What kind of work?
What kind indeed?
Back in the nineties, an organizational theorist Charles Handy predicted a sea change in the work force of the twenty-first century.
Among Handy’s many prescient forecasts were that much of the work would change place from office to home and that many of the new careers would be entrepreneurial. Moreover, the concept of retirement would change: The average Westerner would change careers an average of three or four times during his or her working life; for many, the concept of retirement would be obsolete due to the choice to work far past the average age of retirement at 65.Is Retirement a Cancer of the Soul?
One of my favorite sections from my novel of Saul’s early life, is
the account of young Saul preparing for his son’s circumcison.
…this ritual marked the beginning of the eighth day—the day God taught us how to make light. While God Himself had begun creation with “Let there be light!” we celebrated the eighth day as the human contribution to the creation, marking our creative partnership with the Lord.
As the scripture informs us, Adam and Eve had sinned and were exiled from the Garden, but God’s mercy permitted them to spend an extra day there—shabbat—before their exile. As that day ended and they faced banishment into the darkness, the Lord showed them how to make light. For that reason, the Mishkan—God’s sanctuary—was created on the eighth day: a space of forty cubits containing the Creator of the Universe.
It was as if I could hear the whispers of my desert dwelling ancestors as they followed the Sanctuary and Moses, and“brought willing offerings to the Lord, every man and woman whose heart made them willing to bring for all manner of work which the Lord had commanded.”My Name is Saul
The account of Saul’s marriage and fatherhood is fictional, of course.
But the soaringly majestic prayers of the eighth day, its meaning and holiness among ancient and orthodox Jews are not. These are beautiful, wonderous prayers that thrilled my soul then and again now…bringing tears to my eyes as I read them again. It is that which makes work sacred: being co-creators with God.
We do this by exulting in whatever phase of our life He has placed us.
We’re able do this, I think, by developing habits.
Habits of the will that wrest us away from judgement, despondency and hopelessness.
“No! I know you love this person who is sinning against me and my country…I refuse to hate, instead I will pray for her soul.”
“No! I will not give in to hopelessness when I hear of greater and greater evils…I will trust in You!”
“I’ve never been so scared but I know You are here.”
And yet we remain paradoxically aware that our ability—even our desire to do this is pure grace. We can do nothing without Him.
Mindless, even mundane tasks can be
enormously fruitful. Once again, we need to do adjust our thinking to make it happen. But when we do decide that this, right now is His will for me, we can be co-creators with God. And the satisfaction can be surprising.
We’ve recently moved to a new home in the hill country of Texas. The landscaping and large lawns needed attention. We decided to bid out the work to three different landscaping companies. The estimates varied widely but each was four figures, one was five.
So, we decided to do it ourselves.
I smile at the memories of the weeding, the vastness of the mountain (it looked impossibly huge after it was dumped) of shredded cedar for mulching all the landscaped islands. We had help from the young sons of John and Michelle, the realtors who found and helped us close on this beautiful home.
Young Christian and I grinned at one another as we worked that first Saturday-“This is a better workout than the gym!”
Christian replied, “Sure is! Because it’s the whole body and I really needed the workout!”
But, of course, it’s our choice, isn’t it?
To decide that each moment of our lives here we can make sacred…or profane, merely by our will to make it so. Sometimes though, the decision takes everything we have and asks for more.
The Christian in the World.
Somewhere around the second century, a Christian wrote a letter to a man named Diognetus. Those of us praying the Liturgy of the hours found it this past Wednesday. The anonymous author speaks of us as indistinguishable from anyone else by nationality, speech, customs or dress. But then comments that there is something extraordinary about their lives. Any homeland can be theirs but they labor under the “disabilities of aliens.”
This is an America—increasingly, a world, where illegal aliens are more welcome than are Christians for whom the Commandments are Law. Powerful and plentiful are those who call themselves Christians but for whom the commandments are background noise. Hence we do indeed labor under the disabilities of aliens.
This is one of my favorite passages of the letter, it speaks of these days as accurately as those of 2000 years ago.
“To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.”
The anonymous author offers us twenty-first-century Christians both consolation and command.
…”It is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself. [italics mine.]
Who builds a boat with no clouds in sight
Who walks up to a giant and picks a fight
Who turns a lion’s den into a petting zoo
Who can have church in a fiery furnace
Well I’ll tell you who
Crazy people trusting Jesus
Following Him wherever He leads us
Walk by faith believers
Here’s the church
Here’s the steeple
Here’s to all God’s crazy people