Set Apart for the Work We Have Been Given

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While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”

Acts 13: 2

For many of us, work is only the means of survival. The Book of Genesis tells us that as a result of the fall we are to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow. The very fact, however, that this description is given as of the place of work in our fallen state evokes the possibility of a different sense of work “before the fall.” There is, of course, no description of work in paradise, perhaps because Adam and Eve before the fall were willing to receive all from the hand of God. Yet it seems unlikely that Adam and Eve merely lounged around in that garden. It seems possible that the outward activity of fallen and pre-fallen humanity looks very much the same. The difference may lie in the source of that expression.

In market and consumer driven societies, the human worker is a commodity like any other, something to be bought and paid for. The worker sells her or his services for pay and often the employer purchases not only the worker’s services but the worker herself. The poor and uneducated worker has little or no choice available but must take on the “job” however disagreeable or dissonant. For those with greater wealth and more education, there may be more choice. But even for these persons, the societal valuing of “expendable income” tends to make them slaves to the highest bidder. In the stage of unrestrained capitalism, in which we now find ourselves in the West, there is little to no widespread sense, in anything but monetary terms, of the value and dignity of work.

Yet, there remains in the great wisdom traditions a very different sense of human work and activity. As his life approaches its close, Jesus prays to his Father: “I have finished the work you gave me to do” (Jn 17: 4). Today, on the Feast of St. Barnabas, we hear from Acts that the Spirit says to the gathered community: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” In the scriptural sense, especially in the Christian scriptures, lies an understanding of work as that for which each of us is “set apart.” For many their jobs and their “work” in this vocational sense will never perfectly coincide. Perhaps in time we are able to dignify our job with the uniqueness of our life call to some degree or other. It may be a very difficult fit, to express the work for which we have been set apart and to which we have been called into the daily workplace. Yet, we know that there are people, whatever their mode of employment, that do so, and others, in the very same mode, who do not.

Some years ago I was speaking with a woman who worked as a toll taker on an interstate highway. She told me of how she tried to make personal contact with each person who passed through her booth. For her, it was important to humanize and to recognize the mystery of human persons in this potentially most impersonal of jobs. While there are professional people who seem to reduce their work to the most impersonal and mechanical levels, there are those who work at the most menial of tasks with whom an encounter is a reminder of human grace and nobility. Often in a hotel stay I find myself to be more moved to a smile and a sense of human presence by a person who works in housekeeping than by the management staff.

For all of us the question is “How is it possible to live out our unique call to care for the world in our daily works and tasks?”  If it is not, then our work is merely a commodity by which we hope to get the most remuneration for the least expenditure of effort. As incarnate spirit, each of our actions and all of our works can be sourced from that place where we have been “set apart” as a unique form of Christ in the world. To be distinctively human is to work and to act out of our deepest capacity to be an expression in the world of the love of God that is continually calling us into being.

Action itself is momentum. You cannot separate the two, because action puts you right in the middle of momentum. When you are right in the middle of that momentum, you can see many things coming up from the depth of existence. From moment to moment all things in the phenomenal world come up—the whole universe comes up. That is practice in action. 

If you practice and penetrate this very moment, you are absorbed into the flow of that undefiled, clear, and pure activity. Then when you do something, you feel something wonderful. You cannot explain it, but this is creativity in life. It’s beautiful! Everything is there, melted into your form and clear like a jewel. If you become a sportsman or artist, you can do this in a certain area of life. But in spiritual life, it must be done in every area of life. You have to create this every day, in every daily routine. That’s pretty hard. But through this form of practice your life becomes mature and you can live your life smoothly in peace and harmony.

Dainin Katagiri, Each Moment is the Universe: Zen and the Way of Being Time, Chapter 8

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