Daily work has as its aim not merely our purification from the guilt of sin, nor just atonement to God; it must also contribute in its own sphere to the formation of a certain knowledge, certain virtues in the soul, and certain values of the spiritual life. In a word, it is a question of a special asceticism of our daily work.
No external, physical, social, or educational work frees us from the need for spiritual work. The new duty, added to those that have gone before, cannot lessen the resources of our interior life.
The spiritual structure of our daily work is well illustrated in Christ’s parable of the vine and the branches. In every shoot certain changes can be seen: there is growth, development, and the bearing of fruit. However, these external phenomena are the consequence of an inner process that takes place in the vine. All life is an interior process.
Similarly every activity has its interior process. The fruit of work is tangible externally (for example, the branch bearing its grapes) but the interior life of our work, that which comes from “the abundance of our heart” (cf. Matt. 12:34; Luke 6:45), cannot be apprehended by the senses. Yet this process of interior activity must exist, for without it our work will not produce any results.
Thus inner activity has its own laws in relation to external work, and one cannot afford to lose sight of these laws. The first of them is as follows.
Interior life is the basis of exterior life
Interior life is the basis of exterior life and of all physical, educational, social, and scientific work. The starting point for every kind of work ought to be the interior life, just as the branch comes forth from the life of the vine itself.
And here indeed one has to combine all the truths that create the Christian outlook on work. They must all be experienced by us, not only in relation to their inner depth, but also in relation to the meaning they hold for our work.
Thus we ought to have in our work a consciousness of God’s sovereignty over every sort of work: of the fact that God is the beginning and the end of every action, and therefore also of external actions.
We ought to have Christ’s redemptive work before our eyes, that activity that raises our external acts (even those that are purely temporal) to a spiritual level and gives them a higher character and value. Otherwise daily work will be purely natural and pagan; the real strength that is to be found in all work done by a man who is living with God will not be in it.
From Christ’s redemptive work flows our whole knowledge of grace and of God’s share in man’s activity. It is necessary to keep it before the mind’s eye in every sort of work, if that work is to acquire depth and to have a sure foundation. In every kind of work there must be a drawing on Christ: “In Him is life” (cf. John 1:4). To manifest Him can be both our natural and our supernatural work. Without either one or the other there is no really fruitful work.
From this follows the second law.
Works of the spirit must come before other works
We have in mind the spirituality of our external work, the primacy of the spirit over action and over matter.
This is an extremely important command, especially today. Indeed, we talk a great deal about social-religious work and often forget that it is impossible to “help God” in the regeneration of the world without first calling on His help. For there is no shortage of people of good will, animated by the love of God and the Church and by concern for the kingdom of God on earth, who want to renew the world but are themselves old and dead in spirit.
There is no shortage of religious workers who feel Martha’s anxiety about the fate of God in the world, but who forget about the fate of God in their own souls. We can at times be struck down by this illness, this illusion, when we show great zeal over our everyday work, losing the consciousness that the “works of the spirit” ought to take precedence over the other means of action available to us.
For is it not a question of the whole spirituality of our exterior work, that it should not be understood in a wholly material sense? And especially that the work undertaken in the field of religion for the glory of God, should not be infected with the world? The danger of such infection threatens when we have used all the means available but have forgotten that we cannot help God without God’s own help, that we cannot conduct any activity unless there is a link with Him Who is the source of all strength.
“It is the spirit that quickens, the body adds nothing” (John 6:64). Every work must have some element of the spirit in it. The body is dead matter if the spirit does not breathe power into human muscles. “Only those who welcomed Him, He empowered to become the children of God, all those who believe in His name” (John 1:12).
And so in all our work, even our physical work, the Holy Spirit must reign, who will stimulate us to action and give to our work a new force and meaning. And only then shall we realize “that it was through Him that all things came into being, and without Him came nothing that has come to be” (John 1:3).
This is the “law of spirituality” of human work. The third law comes directly from it.
Work’s external fruits depend on interior life
Here, of course, we have in mind work that is Christian in the full meaning of that word: work, namely, that achieves all the goals appointed to human work by God.
In order to achieve them, we must have interior life. Otherwise what we do — particularly in the social, religious, or apostolic field — will be a caricature of work, and will be as much a waste of God’s energy as is the waste of badly used nourishment. For such work does not make use of all the values that God wants to get out of our work. Even temporal work, conducted on supernatural principles, demands the existence of interior life for its full fruitfulness. “Whoever lives in me and I in him, will yield much fruit” (John 15:5). Only such work can change us inwardly.
Any neglect in our interior life because of too much work is reflected in the quality of our work, for the lack of personal virtue becomes visible in it, and this lack can bring all our acts to nothing. The most attractive ideas will not help then; if the link between the interior life and the active disappears, the act being performed will fail, as so many acts have failed. The history of the various religious orders has plenty to teach us on this question.
On the other hand, the union of these two paths leading to one act forms in us — with the help of work — virtues that are very useful and fruitful in personal work, and all the more so in collective work.
In our usual daily business we sometimes recognize a springlike breath of joy in work that is suddenly going “like a house on fire.” What is happening? Maybe our prayers have gone better? Or maybe God has smiled on us more expressively and we were able to catch that smile: hence this joy and cheerfulness in our work, creating an atmosphere of readiness and ease of cooperation. It is certainly impossible not to appreciate the needs of human nature, which can express themselves in daily suffering. But there is always “the Spirit that quickens.”
From these laws it is easy to deduce the fourth.
Active work does not excuse neglect of the interior life
It sometimes happens that our spiritual activities suffer because of too much work dictated by the love of our neighbor. But this sad necessity must not become the rule. Every type of active work is a duty added to one that already exists, which ought to be preserved in its entirety.
Active work demands even more watchfulness and concentration on the interior life. This is the problem that presented itself to Cardinal Ferrari in his essentially social work; the numerous apostolic tasks that scattered the members of the Society of St. Paul seemed to multiply endlessly under his very eyes. He understood then that, if one is to fulfill one’s duties, one has to have the help of the Spirit of God, and that it is vital to rearrange one’s occupations in such a way that it is never necessary to drop prayer. And so the members of the Society filled all their wanderings through the streets and all their journeys by bus and train with prayer. In this way they strove to rescue their interior life from the avalanche of apostolic work.
“For the mouth speaks from the abundance of the heart” (Matt. 12:34; Luke 6:45). Active work must be the manifestation of the interior life and not vice versa. It is only what we have thought and prayed over that we can give to others.
These are the “laws” that must regulate our active life. Ordinary everyday work leads us to prayer, and to union with God. The more this work absorbs us, the closer to God it should be.
Social groups must balance interior life and exterior work
It is the same in social activity. A group of a social character, devoted to active work, is something more than a contemplative order. Greater demands are made on it. For although the contemplative order retains its precedence, the duties of the members of social groups are greater. While maintaining unity with God, they must also worship Him by serving their neighbors. This is a difficult problem but is, at the moment, particularly apposite.
The times are tough and demand the fulfillment of exceptional tasks: of warmer love of God and more active love of one’s neighbor. Once again the problem of interior life has to be solved. This is no longer the problem of “Martha or Mary” but the problem of “Mary in Martha.” We solve it in active daily work — “for the mouth speaks from the abundance of the heart.”
We solve it by fulfilling Christ’s command: “Let your light shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father” (Matt. 5:16).
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from Cardinal Wyszynski’s Sanctify Your Daily Life: How to Transform Work Into a Source of Strength, Holiness, and Joy, which is available form Sophia Institute Press.
image: Two monks working in the blacksmith shop at Mission Santa Barbara, ca.1900 By Pierce, C.C. (Charles C.), 1861-1946 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons