If anyone tried to tell us that there is spirituality to work, we might be tempted to laugh at him or her. We might be tempted to view our work with the eyes of the author of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3). Our work may sometimes seem futile, and it may even leave us exhausted, irritated, and discouraged. Yet Pope John Paul II was bold enough to say that there is spirituality to our work in his encyclical letter entitled Laborem Exercens (1981). Aside from the great contribution to Catholic social teaching made by John Paul II in this document, he also made it very clear that our work, as laity, is part of God’s divine plan for us and actually leads us closer to him. An exploration of the spirituality and theology of work described by John Paul II is worth pursuing, lest we become discouraged in our daily work.
John Paul II’s perspective on the spirituality of work must be situated within his understanding of the secular character of the lay faithful. In his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Christifideles Laici (1988), John Paul II points to the Second Vatican Council, which discussed the laity’s secular character. He writes, “The ‘world’ thus becomes the place and the means for the lay faithful to fulfill their Christian vocation because the world itself is destined to glorify God the Father in Christ” (CL, art. 15). This does not mean that the laity are meant to be worldly. As Christ prays to the Father at the Last Supper, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world…As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:16; 18). Thus, the lay faithful discover their path to sanctity by living in the world and engaging the secular culture. While a contemplative religious retreats from the world to contemplate the mystery of God more deeply and to pray for the world and Church, the laity live in the world and bring the Gospel to others through their example of Christian living.
Here is where John Paul II’s understanding of the spirituality of work becomes relevant. In Laborem Exercens, we read:
The word of God’s revelation is profoundly marked by the fundamental truth that man, created in the image of God, shares by his work in the activity of the Creator, and that, within the limits of his own human capabilities, man in a sense continues to develop that activity, and perfects it as he advances further and further in the discovery of the resources and values contained in the whole of creation (LE, art. 25).
(NB: It is true that a contemplative religious may also engage in some form of work, although that kind of work is beyond the scope of this article). Thus, man’s work is similar to God’s own creative act: man shares in God’s ability to create. God gave man the following command in the garden of Eden: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Because man was created to be a steward of the earth, this means that his work is a profound continuation of God’s own creation. Man, by working in the world, assists in bringing about God’s own plan for creation.
Because man imitates God through his act of work, it follows that he also imitates him in his act of rest. Thus, according to John Paul II, rest must occur not only on the seventh day (according to God’s command), but it must also “leave room for man to prepare himself in external action, by becoming more and more what in the will of God he ought to be” (Ibid). Man is meant to both work and rest in the Lord. “Our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee,” St. Augustine famously said. Man’s rest should not merely take on the form of a “vacation” from work. Rather, his rest should be a time of renewal for engaging in the Lord’s work, which, as John Paul II shows, is all work, not just work directly involving the Church. For, this “spirituality of work” ultimately recognizes that God himself is at work within man and history—God himself gives man the power to engage in work and rest (Ibid).
John Paul II then explains how this spirituality of work is present within Christ and his message, for he himself was a carpenter during most of his life on earth. As John Paul II explains, “He has appreciation and respect for human work. It can indeed be said that He looks with love upon human work and the different forms that it takes, seeing in each one of these forms a particular facet of man’s likeness with God, the Creator and Father” (LE, art. 26). To show how this is true, John Paul II cites various passages from the Gospels, pointing to Christ’s great love for work. There are many parables concerning the Kingdom of God that reference human work, including the following: “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45-46). Thus, the one who works is the one who is doing the will of the Father, as can further be attested to by St. Paul. In the Second Letter to the Thessalonians, we read, “We hear that some of you are walking in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their own work in quietness and to earn their own living” (2 Thessalonians 3:11-12). Doing work is part of the Lord’s command, and the one who remains idle does not fulfill God’s plan for creation.
Nevertheless, one might object that this “spirituality of work” sounds wonderful in theory but is next to impossible to put into practice. When our co-workers do not give us a prompt answer, when our instruments fail to do their job, when our bosses demand more than we can give—then work is difficult and hardly reminds us of a spiritual practice. John Paul II admits, “All work, whether manual or intellectual, is inevitably linked with toil” (LE 27). The curse of man’s sin has marred work with the toil lamented by the author of Ecclesiastes, as quoted in the introduction. Nevertheless, the toil of work is not the ultimate answer: “In a sense, the final word of the Gospel on this matter as on others is found in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ” (Ibid). As such, “By enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, man in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity. He shows himself a true disciple of Christ by carrying the cross in his turn every day in the activity that he is called to preform” (Ibid).
Not only does man participate in God’s creative act, but he also participates in his redeeming act through his own work. The toil that man experiences in his work—whether it is physical, mental, or spiritual toil—is meant to be united with the Cross. The Cross is the way to redemption, and therefore, man’s own work is a participation in that Cross. In terms of the New Evangelization, this is how we can show others that work is not merely about the toil or getting the job done. By patiently enduring the sufferings that come through work, we can lead others to understand that there is something different about Christians, for Christians know that everything has been redeemed in Christ. The victory of our toil has already been won—we complete our work as an act of love for the one who has redeemed us.
John Paul II continues: “In work, thanks to the light that penetrates us from the Resurrection of Christ, we always find a glimmer of new life, of the new good, as if it were an announcement of ‘the new heavens and the new earth’” (Ibid). The work that we endure here on earth points to the new earth “where justice dwells” (Ibid), thus fulfilling the kingly mission given to us by Christ (cf. Lumen gentium, art. 36), by which we are called to assist in restoring this fallen world to its original state of perfection in God. In such a way, man’s work has a place not only in “earthly progress but also in the development of the Kingdom of God, to which we are all called through the power of the Holy Spirit and through the word of the Gospel” (Ibid). This, then, is the “spirituality of work,” for our work is meant to bring the Kingdom of God to the present moment, and thus, we are meant to sanctify ourselves and the world through our work.