Toward a Spirituality of Work

Article excerpt

Many Americans spend more than half their days and their lives working. Many more may feel as if they spend their whole lives working - except for a few hours of sleep, television or fishing.

People experience work differently. For some it is a way to make a living - whether this means barely surviving or surrounding oneself with all the luxuries money can buy. For others it is a career that entails professional advancement, expanding competency and social standing. And for some few, work is seen as a calling, a valued and integral part of life that contributes to the public good.(1)

A Blessing and a Curse

Work is seen as both a blessing and a curse. Often the church has fought for and supported the dignity of work and the worker. The social encyclicals embody a long history of concern for the plight of the. worker, and in the United States the Catholic Church has been a prominent defender of trade unions.(2) But it is also fair to say that the Catholic community can do a great deal more to respond to the concerns of workers in the post-Vatican II church. In addition to defending the worker, how can the church assist Christians to experience work as an integral part of their spiritual life?(3)

How much do we really know about the work life of parishioners, colleagues, friends? What are the joys and problems associated with work? As workers, we ask ourselves: How do we balance home life and work life? How do we maintain a sense of dignity and self-respect on the job? How do we resist the temptation to callousness, selfishness, cynicism, despair? How do we hold to moral and religious values in the face of all sorts of challenges at work? What happens to people emotionally and spiritually when they compromise with certain important principles?

We need to ask about how our own work can become an integral part of our spirituality and also about how we can struggle so that everyone's right to meaningful work can be honored.(4) Along with all the other aspects of everyday living, the experience of work has the potential to become a significant locus for the revelation of God. How can work - whether uplifting or boring - be an integral part of one's journey toward holiness?

Work as Dark Night

For many people, work is a necessary evil, serving neither God nor the community, nor that which is noble in the human person.(5) In his book, Working, Studs Terkel says,

This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence - to the spirit as well as to the body ... It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book.(6)

The workers in Working do not find work pleasurable or satisfying on its own merits. They discover, rather, that work often fails to measure up to their own stature and hopes. One can quickly imagine their response to the idea of a spirituality of work: "I just need to figure out how to get through the day." "Why should I worry about having a spirituality of work when I just got laid off?"

The most frequent complaints against work are: lack of recognition; the nature of the job itself; being spied upon.(7) Often the elements that make work satisfying are absent: an intimate connection between the process of work and the finished product; a sense of control by the worker; opportunities for growth and development; integration of work with culture, leisure and the worker's entire mode of living.

The Christian tradition is not without resources when it comes to the situation of those who hate their work, who find themselves trapped in difficult, demeaning and life-draining work situations, who are underemployed or unemployed. …