Fr. Herman Doerr, O.F.M.
(reprinted from The Cord, (1952) 146-151; used with the permission of the Franciscan Institute, St. Bonaventure University, St. Bonaventure, NY)
A few weeks ago, quite accidentally, I came across a little book by Josephine Drabek, entitled A Hymn to Work. It contains some strikingly inspiring observations about work which I should like to adapt to the religious life in this article. After all, work forms a great part of our daily life. An on it, to a very large extent, depends our perfection, and therefore our happiness, here on earth, and our reward later on in heaven. Hence, it will be of great profit to us to spend a few moments of reflection on this subject.
The first thing to remember about our daily work is that is part and parcel of human existence. Man is born to labor, and the bird to fly (Job 5:7). Now if this is true of human beings in general, how much more is it true of us religious? Without fear of contradiction, we can say that the Rule of every Religious Community imposes on its members a strict obligation to work diligently and faithfully. The religious life is not a sinecure to be enjoyed, but a cross to be borne. We become religious, not to take things easy, but to work and work hard, to burn ourselves out in the service of God. If we fail to measure up to this requirement of the religious life, we do not even earn the right to partake of the alms and charity of the faithful. If any man will not work, neither let him eat (2 Thes. 3:10). Apart from the prescribed recreations, therefore, we should keep ourselves busy with work assigned to us by obedience. It is true, not all can work equally hard, but all can and must keep themselves usefully occupied - each according to his capabilities, his strength, and his age.
But work is much more than a necessity for us. It is above all a signal blessing, the value of which we do not meditate upon enough. Its worth becomes immediately evident when we consider it in relation to God, to our fellow men, and to ourselves.
In relation to God, our work constitutes a distinct privilege for us and a source of praise to Him. Just to be able to work at all is something glorious. Is not God Himself the great Worker of all times? If we open the Bible, we shall find on its very first pages how God brought into being heaven and earth and adorned them with the vast array of creatures whose beauty, design, and order amaze us. And did not Christ proclaim to the Jews: My Father works even until now, and I work? (John 5:17). Therefore, when we apply ourselves to our work, we are imitating the Divine Worker, and that imitation is our glory.
And besides giving us a chance to imitate God, work likewise makes it possible for us to become God's collaborators. God has purposely left His work unfinished so that we might have the joy of working with Him and helping Him to perfect His creation. Think of all the necessary and useful things which man has produced down through the centuries. God did not need men to make these things, but that is the way He wanted it. In a very true sense we can say that these things would never have come into being without us. It's like the old violin maker who, fondly caressing one of his finished masterpieces, addresses it this: "God could never have made you had it not been for me." At first blush, that statement seems blasphemous. But, of course, its meaning is not that God was powerless to make that violin, but that he was unwilling to do so except by means of the skill of the craftsman. God's plan is to place in creation unlimited potentialities and to give us astounding abilities. Then He invites us to think about those potentialities and to work on them until, one by one , they begin to come into existence and to take the shape and form that will be of service to us. In this way, He accords us the sublime privilege of being His fellow workers in the completion of creation. He wants us to be more than mere spectators in the world; we are to be contributors to its splendor and usefulness by our work. Our contributions may be varied - anything from cooking a meal and making a habit to enlightening a mind and training a character. It makes no difference. Each represents the exercise of our God-given power to add a finishing touch in one way or another to the world around us; each makes us, in some slight degree, co-creators with God. What a gracious gift from God is this power to work. How like unto God it makes us.
When we view work in this light, it is easy to see how wrong we are when we fret about the type of work we may be asked to do. Every task, even the seemingly most insignificant one, brings with it the grand privilege, just described, of being God's collaborators. The Saints were quick to understand this, and that is why their ranks include slaves, shepherds, and common laborers as well as statesmen, brilliant educators, and kings. Hence, to feel elated because our work brings us into the limelight and wins for us the admiration of men, or to feel dejected because our work is hidden and unknown is to miss the point completely. The essential thing is to possess the "grace of working," as our Father Francis so discerningly styles it. The purely accidental part is to be scrubbing floors, or tilling the soil, or educating youth, or ruling a convent. The distinction between lowly and exalted forms of work, in so far as it implies lesser or greater worth, certainly never originated in heaven. For the Son of God Himself engaged in both types, and who would dare to say that His work in the carpenter shop was less acceptable to His Heavenly Father than was His preaching of the kingdom of God? No, such a distinction is a survival of pagan times when certain kinds of work were considered beneath the dignity of man. It is a distinction that bespeaks attachment to one's personal gratification and satisfaction. In a drama of the Passion some years ago, a character was needed who could imitate the crowing of a rooster when Peter denied his Master. Most of the cast side-stepped this role. It was too insignificant for them; they wanted to be out on the stage where everyone could see them. One humble soul, however, volunteered to take the part and made such a good job of it that, when the actors were taking their curtain calls, he received the most enthusiastic acclaim on the part of the audience. And who knows - perhaps heaven's heartiest applause often goes to the soul doing a so-called lowly task in some obscure corner rather than of one doing brilliant things in the eyes of the world.
Work, however, not only constitutes one of our highest privileges, but it also offers us a wonderful opportunity of fulfilling the great purpose of our creation, namely, glorifying God. Think of the rubrics and ceremonies connected with some sacred church functions - the folded hands, the bows, the genuflections, and the like. They are not something extraneous to the function itself but actually help to make it sacred. They are prayers in action. It can be the very same with our daily work. If we take the viewpoint of faith and are convinced that our daily tasks form an integral part of our religious life, of our service to God, then our every action takes on the character of a sacred rite and ceremony, and assumes the nature of an inner elevation of our mind and heart to God, which is nothing else but prayer. And thus is fulfilled the behest of Holy Scripture: Whatever you do in word or work, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him (Col. 3:7). Hence, the statement of St. Augustine: "Thou dost give praise when thou workest."
Let us recall to our minds the builders of the great medieval cathedrals. How conscious they were at all times that their labors were a sacred service! They were working for God first and foremost. Every detail of that work, therefore, had to be perfect, whether it would be in full display on the elaborate facade, or whether it would be hidden from view in some remote corner. Even the best was not good enough for their Lord. Perhaps those men did not say a great number of prayers in so many words while they toiled away, but the sound of their hammers and chisels echoed the sentiments of their hearts, and was wafted up to the throne of God in a sweet harmony of praise. And such also can be the result of our work. No matter how ordinary may be the tasks we perform, provided we do them in the spirit of devotion, provided we offer them joyously and freely to God, and accomplish them for Him to the best of our ability, they are, without doubt, a beautiful hymn of praise in His honor.
Next, with regard to our fellow men, work becomes an expression of our love for them. Saint John, the Apostle of love, tells us: My dear children, let us love not in word, neither with the tongue, but in deed and in truth (1 John 3:18). There is perhaps no surer nor more practical way of observing this exhortation than by working for others. What is it that endears a mother to her children? Is it not the many steps she takes for them, the countless ways in which she serves them? The toilworn hands of a devoted mother tell better than words could ever do how much she loves her children. For love, genuine love, entails the gift of oneself. But when we work for others we are offering to them our strength, our time, our attention, our convenience, our talents; in a word, our very selves.
Another way to view this truth is to look upon our work as the actual performance of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. From this angle, we can see that preparing the meals is nothing else than feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty; that teaching is instructing the ignorant and counseling the doubtful; that caring for the house is in reality giving a home to the homeless; that being infirmarians gives us a chance to visit the sick and comfort the sorrowful. And thus our work affords us a golden opportunity of showing that love which Christ Himself stated would be the factor deciding our eternal fate on the day of judgment.
Moreover, when we work conscientiously for others it is an indication of our high regard for them. Why go to all that trouble, why take such pains, why sacrifice ourselves to such an extent unless we consider the ones for whom we are working worth all the effort? Indeed, to be willing to work for others is to pay them a gracious compliment. For it means that we realize their worth, that we recognize them, according to the teaching the mystical Body, to be other Christs, for whom no sacrifice is too great, no task is too exacting . What a powerful motivation is contained in that thought for doing our work cheerfully and faithfully.
Finally, when we consider work in its bearing on our own lives, we discover that it is both a molder and a mirror of our character. How does work serve to mold our characters? Every job that we are given to do brings with it a definite challenge insofar as it demands energy, patience, careful attention, resourcefulness, and perseverance. If we measure up to that challenge by manifesting the qualities just mentioned, we not only do something splendid in the task performed, but the task also does something splendid to us. It deepens our maturity and increases our sense of responsibility, thereby making us more complete men and women. Therefore, each piece of work well done means a further growth in character. As one writer puts it: " If the work you do at your little job is always the best you can, whenever it grows to be a bigger job, it will find you a bigger man." And that is precisely the meaning of our Lord's words: He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in that which is greater (Luke 16:10)
But if work, because of its self-disciplinary quality, can help us to mold our character, it can also, by the same token, be a very revealing mirror of our character. To find out what kind of men and women we are, all we need do is examine the kind of work we consistently turn out. Is it neat or slovenly? Is it performed enthusiastically or halfheartedly? Is it precise or haphazard? The answers to these questions will, relentlessly, tell the story of our character. Towards the end of the last century, a secular priest, who had been prominent in church circles, applied for admission in the Franciscan Order. When he entered the novitiate, no exceptions were made in his regard, and the good priest expected none. One day a former associate of his was surprised to see him sweeping the novitiate corridor, and made the remark: "Why, Father, do you have to do such work? Don't you consider that beneath your dignity?" The Reverend Novice replied: "No, not at all. But if I did not do this work well, I would consider that beneath my dignity." There was a man who had the right concept of work, who saw in it an accurate index of character. His answer points to the ideal attitude which we should always take towards our daily tasks.
This reflection had as its theme our daily work. We saw, first of all that such work is a necessity for us. And then we considered how we can make a beautiful virtue out of this necessity by bearing in mind the advantages which our work offers to us with regard to God, our neighbor, and ourselves. If our constant endeavor is to make the most of these advantages, then our work will be an endless source of blessing to us. Even in this life it will fill our souls with an abiding peace and contentment that will make the cross of work seem light and sweet. And as to the next life, heaven - well, let us just remember the little incident related in the life of our holy Father Francis. When he had turned his back on the world and had begun to serve God exclusively, he worked very hard repairing neglected and dilapidated churches. Many of his former friends, seeing the change that had taken place in him, thought him foolish and ridiculed him.. Among the revilers was Saint Francis's own brother, Angelo. One morning, when he saw Francis kneeling in prayer, he said to his companion, in a mocking tone loud enough for Francis to hear: " Go and ask Francis to sell you a penny's work of sweat." Francis mildly answered: "You're too late, my dear brother; I have already sold it at good price to my Lord and Savior." What a consolation there is for us in these words! We, too, have - so to say - made a bargain with God. We promise to do our work faithfully during the short span of this life and God promises to give us in return everlasting bliss in heaven. Behold, I come quickly, He says, and my reward is with me, to render to each one according to his works (Apoc. 22:12). In very truth, we have sold our efforts, our fatigue, our sweat for a very good price!