Dignity of Work

When we consider the beginning chapters of Genesis, most of us think of the creation stories, the fall, and banishment from the Garden, but how many of us consider a call to work? Yet, in the second chapter of Genesis, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (2:15). Here, God invites Adam to participate in his creative power, thereby elevating the man’s dignity. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches “human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another” (2427).

Recently on The Inner Life, Father Tom Wilson joined Josh Raymond for a discussion about the dignity of work. Father noted we often have a habit of, “relegating our spiritual life to Sunday…and not linking it closely to our everyday lives.” St. Benedict’s expression ‘ora et labora’ (prayer and work) is an antidote to this mentality. There’s a reason that prayer comes before work, though. “Prayer gives energy to our work” Father Wilson observed; work, in turn, “keeps us grounded to stay more connected with God.”

St. John Paul II understood the dignity of work. In his landmark 1981 encyclical, Laborem exercens, the pontiff reflects on the significance of work in our daily lives. “From the beginning,” he writes, “[man] is called to work. Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures, whose activity for sustaining their lives cannot be called work” (emphasis in original). According to St. John Paul II, we work, but animals don’t!  Through work, man, “achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being’” (LE, 9). Work, then, is a gift; through it, we’re formed into the men and women God wants us to be.

For many, though, work doesn’t seem like a gift; rather, it can involve long hours, low pay, frustrating bosses, and dangerous conditions. While work helps us put bread on the table, it involves, “tensions, conflicts and crises, which, in relationship with the reality of work, disturb the life of individual societies and also of all humanity (LE, 1).” The frustrations lead us to question where God is in work and how work relates to God’s plan for me. However, we need not separate our prayer and work.

St. Benedict’s ‘ora et labora’ unites what we might otherwise separate. “The whole idea of prayer and work invites us to make a very direct link between our spiritual life and the day-to-day tasks of our vocation,” Father Wilson said.  This link, though, isn’t always easy to see. When Father was the vocation director for The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, he would get phone calls from men who were dissatisfied with their jobs and didn’t think they were doing anything for God. Father Wilson would remind them, “every job that God calls us to do is going to be doing something for him.” If we believe that truth, it “allows us to give everything we have to daily life and the daily details that we’re called to do.”

Work is not only good for our spiritual lives, but it’s also good for our longevity. While it might seem counterintuitive, people who retire early have a shorter life expectancy. Josh said, “Work gives us purpose…God didn’t create us to play golf and drink lemonade!” And while it might seem tempting to live off a trust fund, “That attitude,” Father said, “comes from attaching our work simply to the material things that it can buy…it fails to appreciate the goodness in work itself.”

It’s incumbent upon us then, to create a society with a proper relationship to work, and like so many other societal questions, it begins with the family. Saint John Paul II argues that “work constitutes a foundation for the formation of family life” (LE, 10). Work sustains families, and families teach the value of work. Many families teach work’s value by being an active part of the community and having kids do chores during their formative years. While it may not always be easy, through the family, we can learn the dignity of work and transform the world.

Tune in to The Inner Life weekdays at 11am CT