Work and Holiness

The threefold saying "Sanctify yourself, sanctify your work, and sanctify others through your work" is probably the most common summary of the message of Opus Dei....

"God took the man," says Genesis 2:15, "and set him in the Garden of Eden, to cultivate and watch over it." Men and women need to work to feed and clothe themselves, to make shelter, and to survive in any way. Work is an absolute, inescapable duty. First of all, it is our obligation as creatures. But it is more. The Creator made us to work not only to secure our physical existence, but also to cultivate the earth. God himself is our employer. Work as such is neither a consequence of sin nor a punishment for it; it is the privilege God has granted to us of participating in his loving care for the world. True, this participation has been changed by the fall of Adam and Eve; it has suffered an alteration. "Accursed be the ground because of you!" says Yahweh. "Painfully will you get your food from it as long as you live. … By the sweat of your face shall you earn your food, until you return to the ground, as you were taken from it; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return" (Gn 3:17-19). The circumstances and means of work have thus changed from the serene, idyllic gardening that preceded the fall, just as we differ from our first parents in their original innocence. Nevertheless, work remains oriented toward God and is destined to play a part in our salvation.

Ever since sin made that initial and ineradicable inroad on the dynamics of human life, work has entailed exhaustion, sweat, and tribulation. This is not, however, why it has come to be considered a punishment and something to be disdained. What accounts for the widespread denigration of work is the way in which it has been integrated into the life of society, a way that distorts its essence. For long periods of history, work—especially manual labor—was connected with personal and social bondage: slavery, serfdom, child labor, penal servitude, and so forth. The brutal work in mines, quarries, and galleys was, in fact, real punishment.

Though our own century has set horrible new records for forced labor, political and social advances have brought substantial and far-reaching improvements. But new problems have arisen. There is, for example, the inbuilt drive of technology-oriented industries and factories to put severe restrictions on personal freedom at work, or even to eliminate it entirely. The relationship between work and justice is of vital importance, from both material and socio-psychological perspectives. There is often a gross disproportion between the work performed and the wage received. Exorbitant salaries coexist with pitifully insufficient wages. The hunger and misery of the worker (who sometimes suffers forced unemployment due to layoffs) exists side by side with the overindulgence and luxurious living of non-workers, possessors of inherited wealth, and those who live off the work of others.

This unjust situation has deep psychological and social roots. For centuries manual work was considered a degrading way to make a living; only wretches had to live off the work of their hands. Knights, noblemen, and clergy did not "work." It might, in fact, be hard work to manage a manor, factory, bank, or business; to command troops, fight battles, sail the seas; to rule a state, a diocese, a monastery. But neither these privileged classes nor society as a whole thought of these activities as work. The concept thus suffered a drastic diminution of content, until at last "work" came to represent simply a necessary evil for those who did not have other resources and who were not born for higher things. It seemed obvious that princes, scientists, artists, writers, and actors did not really work; work was something ignoble and restrictive, whereas these privileged people were ruling, researching, and creating. From this perspective it is easy to see why Adam Smith and Karl Marx were hailed as saviors—they raised "work" to the dignity of commercial assets and political power.

All genuine work has a purpose, but this purpose is not always apparent. A farmer plows the land, sows the seed, fights weeds and pests, harvests the crop, and turns up the earth for replanting. The harvest, in turn, must feed the farmer and others, so it is threshed, milled, shipped, and sold. In short, the farmer's land has been used for a purpose. Yet farmers do not harvest their crops and raise cattle just to feed themselves and others. They work to give substance to their vocation as farmers—complying, most explicitly if they are Christian, with the divine mandate to take care of the earth and one's neighbors for the sake of love. This holds true of all vocations and occupations. When the link between work and the meaning of existence is clear, this is easily perceived and accepted.

Difficulties arise when there seems to be a gap between work and the meaning of existence. Galley slaves, for example, certainly know they are rowing to propel the ship; but to recognize that this rowing can give meaning to their existence, they will have to delve into the Christian significance of suffering and expiation. In other words, they will have to understand their situation as an opportunity for identification with Christ. Otherwise, they will hate their work.

A similar difficulty arises when the fruit of one's labor (not the wage, but the product made) is completely removed from one's ken. Think of the typical assembly line—the endlessly repeated operations of the production process that erode the worker's sense of self, reducing one to a cog in a gigantic machine. The carpenter can say, "I built this table," and feel real pleasure and satisfaction. But an office worker in the shipping department of a large warehouse, or someone who has to stare at a control panel all day on the lookout for a malfunction signal, goes home with little feeling of accomplishment or success. Such lost-in-the-system workers will consciously or unconsciously become unhappy, and soon they will find themselves measuring their lives by vacations, "sick days," and approaching retirement. The emphasis of their existence will thus have been transferred from work to leisure. Meanwhile, the function of leisure has also become a pressing problem.

In the preaching of Escriva, work has a preeminent significance. This is natural, since work is the standard route to fulfillment of the Christian vocation: sanctity. Christians become, quite literally, fellow workers of Christ's, which means that their cooperative work with Christ is also a "way of the cross" and an apostolate. This co-redemptive nature of everyday work is what God revealed to Escriva as the heart of Opus Dei. "In a mighty inspiration, which God granted him on August 7, 1931," states the beatification proposal, "the Servant of God saw confirmed with even greater clarity that the Lord had wanted to found Opus Dei so that there would be men and women in all walks of life who, united with Christ on the cross, would sanctify the duties of every moment."

Concerning that same day, Escriva wrote: "Today this diocese celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ. While I recommended my intentions to God in the Mass, I reflected on the inner transformation that God had wrought in me during those years of residence in Madrid. This transformation occurred in spite of myself—I can truly say, without my cooperation. I believe that I renewed my intention of totally dedicating my life to the fulfillment of the divine will: the work of God (an intention I renew at this moment too, with my entire soul). The moment of the Consecration arrived. In the very act of elevating the sacred Host, without losing the necessary concentration, without being distracted (I mentally completed the sacrifice of merciful love), I felt the following passage of Scripture echoing in me with unprecedented strength and clarity: 'When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all things to myself.' As usual, I felt afraid of the supernatural; but then came the reassurance, 'Do not be afraid; it is I.' And I understood that it will be the men and women of God who will raise the cross and the teachings of Christ to the summit of every human activity. And I saw the Lord triumph, drawing everything to himself."

Work, understood both as activity and as product, is a fundamental part of human existence. In producing works of our own making, we resemble our Creator, and we should do so consciously and cooperatively. "In this way, work becomes supernatural, because its end is God and because it is done, with God in mind, as an act of obedience," said Escriva. On innumerable occasions, in print and in person, he insisted that honest work is a service to God. He elaborated on the criteria for honest work—industriousness, sound professional training, attention to detail, care for the quality of the work accomplished—and considered it inseparable from good personal behavior. A letter written in 1948 is especially interesting in this regard. Escriva wrote, "For you, work can never be a game, something to be taken lightly, a hobby for dilettantes. What do I care when people tell me that one of you is, for example, a bad teacher, but a good son of mine? If you are not a good teacher, of what use is that to me? Because, in fact, you are not a good son of mine if you have not used the means necessary to improve in your professional work. A man without zeal for professional excellence is of no use to me." Professional zeal and enthusiasm are two sides of the same coin. "In the Work," continued Escriva, "we cannot have loafers. If people were to come to Opus Dei and not work, if they did not fight any inclination to idleness, in a few days they would feel quite out of place. Our vocation demands that we apply to ourselves that phrase from the Gospel: 'To those who have, more shall be given' (Lk 19:26). To the one who already has work, more work will be given; whoever can do the work of ten must do the work of fifteen."

At times, Escriva's demands sound harsh. But looking back from this forty-five-year distance, we need to keep in mind that some of them were written to shock a society that scorned the wear and tear of daily work, that taxed it and tried to minimize it. It is in this light that we should read a passage like this: "I don't understand how a son of mine could be twiddling his thumbs, killing time. What a pity to kill time, which is a divine treasure! If a son or daughter of mine has time on their hands, they are not doing their duty. I always have to leave things for the next day.... We have to go to sleep loaded with things to do, like little donkeys of God."

From Opus Dei: Life & Work of Its Founder, Josemaria Escriva, by Peter Berglar 
German original ©1983 Otto Muller Verlag Salzburg
English edition ©1994 Scepter Publishers, Inc.

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