To Work

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Courage, all you people of the country!—it is Yahweh who speaks. To work!  I am with you—it is  Yahweh Sabbaoth who speaks—and my spirit remains among you. Do not be afraid!

Haggai 2: 4-5

Today we read the exhortation of the Prophet Haggai to the leaders and to all the people of the country to keep working with courage. When I was an adolescent, developing the arrogance that can come with more formal education than those around me, I often thought disparagingly of the lives of my parents and extended family members. How “bourgeois” their lives seemed to me and how petty their daily concerns. As I merely began to become aware of a world well beyond the borders of what seemed like my small and cramped environment, I dreamt of living a life and doing a work that transcended their petty concerns and what I saw as tedious lives. Because I had ideas but little real experience, I couldn’t recognize the courage and nobility in the dedication and constancy of the work they did and the lives they led.

Last evening, after leading the Vesper Service for the clergy and religious in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Pope Francis went out to meet and encounter the workers who were responsible for the renovations to the Cathedral. He did so after, in his remarks, he had called the clergy and religious to commit themselves even more fully to the work to which they were called, and he cautioned them not to let laziness and lack of courage weary them in their call.

As I enter the later and declining years of my work life, I know so much better the courage of my own parents and family, of those laborers with whom Pope Francis met last evening, of the refugees and migrants who flee hostile environments in order to work hard for their families and the societies of which they long to become a part. I am aware that as a young person I disparaged what in fact is the very measure of courage and hope:  day to day, moment to moment, to dedicate oneself to the work that God has given one to do, and to commit oneself to the effort with all one’s heart, and soul, and mind, and strength.

The act of courage, faith, hope, and love is to keep working, to give oneself to the service of others even, as we hear in the gospel from Luke, to one’s death. By the end of the Vesper Service last evening, it was clear how tired Pope Francis was from a day that began by addressing the Congress of the United States, through lunch with the homeless in Washington, to the travel to New York City. And yet, there was time and energy to encounter, to thank, to be with the workers who had spent their life energy to rebuild the Church of St. Patrick. Pope Francis has taken as his patron, Francis of Assisi, who received the call from God to “rebuild My  Church.”  it is clear that Pope Francis will spend all he is and has on that work of rebuilding the Church, even unto death.

The Pope also clearly understands that the deepest human work is one whose value can never be measured and whose completion can never accomplished. Haggai reminds us that God is faithful and will bless the work of our hands. That blessing, however, may not be something that we shall ever recognize and experience. It takes the greatest of courage, in the face of the passion and cross which we all must bear, to keep giving our lives and doing our work in the faith, hope, and love that God is with us and that God, in God’s own mysterious providence, will somehow bring our work to completion.

In his address to the Congress of the United States, Pope Francis spoke of the way that such a view of work should manifest in the lives of political leaders. He said to them: “A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.”  Often our work requires us “to initiate processes” the results of which we shall never see in our own lives. Knowing our true place in humility is to realize the very small part we play in the unfolding of God’s plan, but also the significance of our part, which requires of us that we give all we have to the work we have been given.

 A constant tension exists between fullness and limitation. Fullness evokes the desire for complete possession, while limitation is a wall set before us. Broadly speaking, “time” has to do with fullness as an expression of the horizon which constantly opens before us, while each individual moment has to do with limitation as an expression of enclosure. People live poised between each individual moment and the greater, brighter horizon of the utopian future as the final cause which draws us to itself. Here we see a first principle for progress in building a people: time is greater than space.

This principle enables us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results. It helps us patiently to endure difficult and adverse situations, or inevitable changes in our plans. It invites us to accept the tension between fullness and limitation, and to give a priority to time. One of the faults which we occasionally observe in sociopolitical activity is that spaces and power are preferred to time and processes. Giving priority to space means madly attempting to keep everything together in the present, trying to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion; it is to crystallize processes and presume to hold them back. Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces. Time governs spaces, illumines them and makes them links in a constantly expanding chain, with no possibility of return. What we need, then, is to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events. Without anxiety, but with clear convictions and tenacity.

Sometimes I wonder if there are people in today’s world who are really concerned about generating processes of people-building, as opposed to obtaining immediate results which yield easy, quick short-term political gains, but do not enhance human fullness. History will perhaps judge the latter with the criterion set forth by Romano Guardini: “The only measure for properly evaluating an age is to ask to what extent it fosters the development and attainment of a full and authentically meaningful human existence, in accordance with the peculiar character and the capacities of that age”.

Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 222-224

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