Work is one of the experiences about which I have spoken the most in the thirty years that I have lived with you all. And in this contribution of mine today I will explain why.
The lesson has three parts: Creation and work, or, the creatural significance of work; Eucharist and Work, or, the relationship between work and baptism; priesthood and work, or, the place of work in the life of a priest.
Creation and work
It is not an accident that the first glimpse of man and woman found in the Book of Genesis includes the experience of work, in addition to that of maternity (cfr. Gen 1:28-30; 2:15). We see that one of the consequences of sin, which is the breaking of the unity of life, is the effort and toil that work begins to cost. This does not mean, however, that work should be considered as a condemnation. Rather, sin always acts upon a reality of human life that already exists, corrupting it, but without destroying it entirely. For this reason, work remains, before and after sin, a fundamental element of the life of man. And all of this so true that, when sin is defeated by grace, it redeems the relationship that man has with his work, and makes man an artifice of salvation, in collaboration with and in submission to God.
In the Book of Genesis, it is not just man who is presented as a worker, but, above all, God who is portrayed in this way (Gen 1:1-27). The biblical author, who presents us with a God who is intent on creating the universe, arrives to sustain that, at the end, God rested (Gen 2:2-3). We know very well that this “rest of God”is the anticipation of something that awaits us at the end, like it awaited the Creator at the end of his work; however, it is also the description of the daily life of God, who enters and permeates the reality of our everyday life. The time of rest reveals to us the life of God and reveals to us a possibility, for our present, to begin to live the life that awaits us. It reveals to us, therefore, the presence of the eternal in time, the presence of the future in the present, the presence of the eternal and unchanging God in the variegation of our human time. The reflection on the relationship between work and rest begins in this way, and it will be one of the supporting arches of classical reflection, both Greek and Latin. The Greco-Latin culture saw an unresolvable contradiction between work and repose and postulated a division of humankind into classes, one for those dedicated to heavy work, another for those who, thanks to their intellectual capacities or for choice or for the fortune of their birth, are destined to purely intellectual work. The biblical world, instead, that of the Jews first, and then that of Christians, does not see a contraposition nor a division between work and rest; instead, it educates to a com-penetration of the one in the other, like I hinted at above. Otium and negotium do not stand over against one another in the Judeo-Christian experience, as the Rule of St. Benedict, which is Christian culture’s highest expression of these two realities, shows very well.
But let’s return to what we were saying about work.
In what sense is work a dimension of the life of man? In a profound sense: a man without work, or better, a man who does not work, does not express a fundamental level of his being. He would not be himself, and he could not be realized, happy. He would be like a man who is incapable of loving, or incapable of knowing. In the same way as love and knowledge, work puts the person in relationship with reality and, above all, with the world of all that is human. Through his work, man can love and he has something to offer, something for which he can sacrifice himself and something that allows him to establish gratuitous relationships with others.
Work speaks to us of a common responsibility. It puts each man in relationship with the others and with all of Creation. Even when work is done in the most total solitude, it will always be the action of the spirit upon the material, and will always bear a fruit that modifies man’s reality and that is a gift for everyone. By its’ nature, therefore, work is an event of communion, and, again, by its’ nature, it can run the risk of being an element of division, of war, of contraposition, of rivalry, of hate, as we all know very well. This is the effect of sin. All that is profoundly elevated in man is also profoundly corruptible. Just as in the name of love and in the name of knowledge can arise aversions, divisions and rivalry, in the same way, in the name of work, wars and conflicts between men can arise.
I have been purposely using the term “work” in a general sense, as it can be anything from singing, to reading, to working on a car, to plowing the earth, and it can have many other expressions besides. Through this expression of himself, man becomes aware of who he is and of his potential, of his regality within Creation, of his possibility to intervene in the world and in the universe, a possibility that was entrusted to him by God. The universe is incomplete, not because we are able to bring it to completion with our capacities — this would be an act of pride — but because we can contribute to its’ growth. One can work so that the world might become more of a home for the others and an anticipation, even if in seed form, of the definitive home that awaits us.
In light of these considerations, one can see how laziness and sloth are a true and proper sickness of the spirit. They are illnesses of the soul that push one to renounce the impact that his work would have on the history of the world. What are the most profound causes of laziness and sloth? There are many, and much depends on each person’s history. At times it is because one thinks of himself as incapable, because he is fearful or tired; other times, one has had to suffer humiliations, contradictions, and wounds, and prefers to exit the theatre of the world and of life. I am speaking, evidently, of our houses, not outlining an abstract phenomenology.
We must note at this point that, even if, without a doubt, there is a time for rest in our life (and this is true for every season of our existence), substantially, life is time in which we are called to spend ourselves through work, to use our gifts and our energy for our good and that of the others. And only in this operosity can our heart find an authentic satisfaction.
There are many perversions of work, and they are frequent. Work can come to be idolized, made to be the scope of one’s existence, to which all other affective values are finalized, effectively burning them up, even one’s own faith in God. How many return late into the evening because they have so much to do! The home ceases to exist. I am thinking of families, but also of our houses. I have so much do, I have that person to meet, that community to work with, the homily to prepare. All of these things can be real necessities, but they can also become perversions of work. It is not at all infrequent to find such a distortion of work, in which it becomes the idol to which all is sacrificed. We know that every lie, as Chesterton would say, is a truth gone mad. In this case, that which should connect man to his destiny, to the others and to Creation, ends up dividing him from these realities. It is the work of the devil, of evil, that consists not so much in the creation of negative objects, or, in other words, in the evil that I do, but rather in the perversion of the authentic dimensions of man: the evil that in fact I realize thinking that I am loving and knowing, thinking that I am affirming the good of the other.
One of the fundamental aims of the common life, of family life, of social life, and of ecclesial life should be to educate persons to the taste for, the sense of and the necessity of work. I want to underline these three nouns: the taste, the sense, and the necessity of work. The taste for work calls into question our relationship with the Beautiful, the sense of work, with the True, and the necessity of work, with the Good.
Today we are witnesses, at least in our Western world, and above all in Europe and in Italy, to a grave loss of the sense of work. The culture of work seems dead. This culture, separated from the complex of meaning that must animate the life of man, becomes a frenzied variable of existence. We see those who work only to earn money, those who pretend to work but in reality do not, those who seek to get out of working, those who have three or four jobs in order to earn more and therefore who do them poorly, superficially, and become a weight on society besides being a corruptive phenomenon in and of themselves. One of the fundamental tasks of our communities should be helping people to rediscover an authentic sense of work, without which there is not harmonization, social life, the possibility of happiness for man, and neither a true ecclesial experience. I think of how many people have nothing to do and so they come to our communities because they have nowhere else to go. If we do not help these people to find their place in life, we make our communities into their ruin.
There are not lacking among us those who feel work as a weight. This can be for different reasons and I will not go into them now. I just want to underline how important it is that our houses be vigilant so that each person can see, in a clear, the positive and attractive value of work, so that each person be helped, in those situations in which exists only a negative and defeatist vision of life, to enter, even slowly, into a progressive rediscovery of the importance of sacrifice.
I purposely used this word because there cannot be work without sacrifice. We rediscover here the true sense of the words of Genesis. The hard work that Genesis speaks of is certainly every work. Learning something, expressing it through a lavorative experience, taking a risk on new ways of interpretation of reality, creating new objects, arriving to new scientific ways of thinking: all of these things imply risk, fatigue, compromise. In the same way, they implicate a great ideal that might sustain one’s efforts. It is the task of our houses to sustain this ideal, which can give people not just the strength to keep going in their own work, but also the desire to work, the taste of getting up in the morning able to participate in the creative work of God.
The Eucharist and Work
Every baptized person must ask himself how his work enters into the mystery of redemption. This is a question that has always fascinated me and which does not have a simple response, because the ways in which our work is saved and contributes to salvation are, for the most part, mysterious.
Our work is saved in the measure in which it is offered, the Letter to the Romans tells us. St. Paul, in fact, says that all of Creation groans and suffers as in the pangs of birth, awaiting the full manifestation of the salvation of the sons of God (Rm 8:19-23). Therefore, a relationship between the salvation of man and the salvation of the universe exists. Man’s work enters to constitute one of the aspects of his relationship. We must immediately note that work in and of itself does not have salvific, redemptive, or messianic force, as Marxism postulated; at the same time, however, work is privy of a role in the transformation of the world towards its completion. What role does it have? A hint is given by the prayers of the Offertory; it is there that I have always seen the most profound aid in understanding the weight of my work in the redemptive work of Christ. The prayer of the blessing of the gifts, a translation of the ancient Hebrew berakah, or blessing, says, “Accept, O Lord, these gifts, this bread, this wine, fruits of the earth, of the vine, and of the work of man, so that they may become the Body and the Blood of Christ.”
We can enter, therefore, through this prayer, but not without having remembered the other expressions of the New Testament that can help us in this direction. For example, the beginning of the twelfth chapter of Romans: Offer your bodies (all of your lives) as a living sacrifice to God (Rm 12:1).
Returning to the prayer of the Offertory, we have to ask ourselves: what happens during these prayers? We ask God that the bread and the wine become Body and Blood of Christ; however, in the prayers, there is contained these expressions: fruit of the earth, fruit of the vine and work of man. Therefore, both God and man enter into that bread and that wine. The earth and the vine are things that come from God. There is a seed placed in our existence; it is the famous talent of which the Gospel speaks: our intelligence, our freedom, our desires, our capacity of making a contribution to the life of the earth, small or great it doesn’t matter, through the generation of child, their education, through artistic, intellectual, and manual labor, and all of the other expressions of man. We contribute in this way to the interior and exterior transformation, sometimes for good and other times for ill, of our earth. What an immense transformation is operated by the work of man!
At the root of everything, therefore, lies God and his gifts. God has made us beings capable of thinking, of creating, of loving, desirous to intervene, to transform, to be entrepreneurial , taking off from what He has given us. Man participates in the work of God. This is another secret of work: it is born from the desire to participate in the work of God, not only as Creator, but also as Savior; participating in that work through which God creates the world and transforms it through the presence of His Son dead and resurrected, through the gift of the Spirit, through His Church that is not extraneous to the world, to the earth, but is immersed in this earth, even if its origin is Heaven. We are not, therefore, of the world, or from the world, but we are in the world and are active participants of its’ transformation.
I want to underline some words that can sum up at least the most important ways in which our work begins to be a part of the work of God. The first is the word sacrifice, which the prayer of the Offertory already invited us to recognize as the fundamental path so that our existence might become the Body and Blood of Christ. Sacrifice does not mean renunciation, nor does it mean death; rather, as don Giussani taught us, it means mortification, or, in other words, accepting that our life be spent not for our own glory, but for the glory of Christ on earth and in heaven. It means, therefore, accepting the vocation given to us by God, accepting the path he has put us on, as the privileged way that we can participate in the diffusion of His Kingdom in the world.
This consideration throws a particular light on our work, which is to be intended not anymore just as an expression of ourselves, but also as the way that the Son of God can be known in the world. How is it possible that others know the Son of God through our work? There is no one response to this question; it could be our words, the beauty of what we do, the patience with which we affront our tiredness or certain difficulties, the luminosity that shines through our face. Many are the ways that our work can speak of Christ, and it will be Christ himself to suggest them to us.
More than the word sacrifice, the word offering illuminates the reality of our labor. There is a secure connection with God, a certain usefulness of our work, whatever it might be, whatever fruit it might bear, whatever external change, great or small, it might produce in the lives of our fellow man. The word offering reveals all of this to us. The Jewish people knew this word well, as they saw their offering as strictly connected to their covenant with God and to the success of their mission in history.
Offering means recognizing that God is at the origin of each attempt of ours, of all of the work we do: it is He who guides it, and He who determines its fruit and decides its future. Only He knows the whole design of the history of the world and, therefore, only He can know what the place of our work, of our toil within our work and that of all men, will be.
Offering is the surest road towards the fecundity of our work. “Lord, I offer to you this hour of studying, I offer to you this morning in which I have to stay at my desk, I offer this day of work at the foundry, at the workshop; I offer my preparation of this lunch for my children and my husband; I offer you the silence and the hiddenness of my work, or else I offer to You its visibility; do not let me become depressed and do not let me become too exalted.”
“When you crown our fruits, in reality, you crown your merits,” wrote St. Augustine. We are called to know that even the fruit of our work is the work of God, because it is He that has put within us the capacity and gifts and he ardently desires that these be brought to bear fruit for the good of all. Only He knows the measure of the value of man’s work. Only He, who knows the work of those who have little capacity, who knows the word of those who express themselves poorly, who knows the thoughts of those without a voice. He welcomes everything, He valorizes everything. In his design everything acquires meaning and weight that we cannot know the value of.
I wish to underline another important word, communion, both in its eucharistic meaning and in its social meaning. With regard to the first: that which guides the world towards its completion is a white piece of bread, silent, hidden. We too are called to have this sentiment towards the history of man and to ask God to receive our work so that he can draw forth the utility that He desires. With regard to the second: the Eucharist as communion teaches us that our work is called to refashion the communion between men. It is not indifferent whether an artist writes something that exalts the heart, that enlarges it and dilates it, or that depresses it, that leads it towards good or towards evil. It is not indifferent if an architect constructs a city where one can live better, where one can learn to recognize the place of God and of men, or instead, for pure exaltation of himself and of his own glory, designs cities or houses in which it is more difficult to live and to recognize the sense of life. We could give a million examples.
Each of us knows that his own work can, in a small way or in a bigger way, contribute positively or negatively to the lives of others.
Priesthood and work
In this brief third part of my lesson I would like to draw, as I delineated above, some considerations for the priestly life.
Above all, I would like to remind you all that our life is a work. It has, therefore, the exalting and the tiring characteristics of all work, above all of those desired, welcomed, and realized as paths of vocation.
If we look at Jesus and at his life as it is recounted by the Gospels, we can note his tirelessness. And it certainly wasn’t an anxious tirelessness, or, worse yet, a starved one. His running from town to town was ordered by His desire to obey the Father. His tirelessness, therefore, was born from obedience, from an acute, profound sense of relation to the Father, from a profound sense of the hour, of the value of time when it is collocated in the eternal. At the same time his tirelessness was ordered because it was constellated by times of prayer and also of conversation and rest with his disciples and friends. The priestly life must be like this, determined by these two foci: the urgency of mission and the necessity of that dialogue with the Father and with the others, which alone permits our spirit rest and gives our mission the possibility to communicate Christ and not ourselves.
We understand then that priestly life receives life from that synthesis between otium and negotium, of which we have already spoken. The ora et labora of St. Benedict is not so much the description of the different parts of the day. It is, above all, the description of what every moment of our life should be. If the supreme work of life is prayer, it must be expressed in our responsibility towards the others, in our going towards them, in our concrete working with them and for them.
In no monastery have I found such a powerful synthesis of these two aspects of life than in Benedictine monasteries. In other forms of spirituality, in fact, work is often seen as something that allows one to live, to sustain oneself, or as something that one must do, rightly so, in order to fill the time between one moment of prayer and another. In the Benedictine synthesis it is not like this and I wish that for us it would never be like this. Our work, whether it be going to meet a family or preparing a catechism lesson, the celebration of the Mass or going to visit the sick, studying or any other type of work, is something that surges from our relationship with God and brings us back to it.
We can now understand how this unity between prayer and work is profoundly connected to the unity between the love for God and the love for neighbor. Only in Christianity does there exist such a profound com-penetration of these two commandments, such that obeying one is not possible without obeying the other. Or, better, they are almost one and the same commandment.
It is absolutely important, therefore, that we stay vigilant towards the life of prayer in our houses. Without prayer, there cannot be work, a healthy experience of work, and, at the same time, without work there cannot be a true experience of prayer.
We need to help our tired brothers, asking them not impossible tasks, but the work that they are able to do in that moment of their life. This means foreseeing the possibility or the necessity of accompanying these brothers in their work, just as we accompany them with our prayer.
I have often spoken with with you about the meaning of various moments of the Mass and I think that no theme like that of work shines a light of the importance of penetrating ever more deeply into the reality of the eucharistic celebration, in order to enter into the mystery of the universe and therefore into the mystery of work, of sacrifice, of effort. In the Mass, everything is gathered together, everything is offered, everything is brought to unity. Our priesthood, for this reason, always has a mystical significance and a social significance: these are inseparable and live together in us, showing us how great are our responsibilities.
The theme of work opens up before us a limitless and exciting horizon. We, with our life, can enter profoundly into the very mystery of God; we can collaborate with His work of Creation and of Salvation; we can build a bridge between heaven and earth; we can intercede so that, already in this time, the countenance of the heavenly Jerusalem, even if veiled, might begin to manifest itself; we can effectively accompany men in their daily lives and in the hard work required by the responsibilities asked of them, of the sacrifices that they must complete and of the heaviness, sometimes unimaginable for us, that certain jobs inflict upon them.
In this way, priestly life is collocated precisely at the center of the life of the world and of history and reveals the centrality of the person of Christ within the reality of the universe.