Work and Spirit

You don’t say “Thanks” to a slave, do you, for doing what was commanded? The case is the same with you  When you have done everything that has been commanded you, say, “We are useless slaves!  We have done what we were supposed to do!”

Luke 17: 9-10

At the heart of American political campaigns is the recurrent theme of “jobs, jobs, jobs.” It is a taken for granted assumption that the measure of political success will be an economy that produces enough jobs for everyone who needs and wants one. Without contesting the importance of adequate employment to allow persons and families the means to sustain themselves, one can’t help but wonder if, in our society, citizens have any greater sense of identity than that of worker. That we are seen, at least politically speaking, as first of all workers is quite the paradox, given that our system supposedly has proven itself superior to that of a communism whose core vision of the human person was that of worker. Is there, perhaps, not that much difference between a social system that sees its citizens as workers for the sake of the state or that which sees its citizens as workers in service of greater corporate wealth?

In today’s gospel from Luke, we are invited to reflect on the deeper sense of our life of work. Why do we do what we do in the world? Work, in this sense, is far beyond our job. It is our expression of the unique call that is our life. It is our expression of who we are, of our life’s mission, in the world. It is the sharing of our very life with the world of which we are a part and the contribution we make to that world through the expression, the becoming flesh, of the unique word of God that we are. When our political discourse is totally economic in content, it reflects that the “system” sees persons as mere cogs in the wheel of production and wealth enhancement. Even education is seen as a means of enhancing our economic competitiveness in the world. When we live in what Joseph Pieper calls “a world of total work,” we can lose the sense of what is distinctively human in us. We no longer realize that the strength of a culture and society lies in the quality of life of its inhabitants. It is not our entire life that is valued, but only that very small aspect of it that enhances production and increases the affluence of the powerful.

The deeper sense of our value lies in discovering anew the meaning and significance of our life as call, of our re-appropriating a sense of “work” as the unique call and task for the sake of the world that is the life of each and every human person. Jesus tells his disciples that we are not to work in order to receive something in return, for the sake of reward. We are rather, to work because it is what is ours to do. As Meister Eckhart puts it, “I work so that I may work.” Eckhart says that we are not to work “from without” but rather to work “out of one’s own ground.” We are called not to work or to live for any external reason, but rather because it is who we are. Our work, in the deepest sense, is to make manifest our life in and for the world.

In a footnote to verse 10, Luke Timothy Johnson quotes from the Pirke Aboth 1:3:  “Be not like servants who serve the master for condition of receiving a gift, but be like servants who serve the master not on condition of receiving a gift. And let the fear of heaven be upon you.” In the truly human sense, to work, to act in any way, is to do what is ours to be done. As a high school and undergraduate student, I saw most of my studies as assignments to be completed. I wanted to perform well, or at least adequately enough, to be seen as a good student, but I rarely experienced study as my call, as my work. It was not until graduate school that I began to study, at least at times, for the love of it, to engage fully in it because it was what was mine to do. On the other hand, from the moment I began teaching, I experienced being more myself in the classroom than anywhere else. Not that I never experienced the preparation and correcting as laborious, but once engaged in the work itself, I experienced the absence of a self-consciousness that had been my life-long companion. At least at times in teaching, there was nothing that came between who I was and what I was doing.

Something similar is true in what we call the practice of the spiritual life. The purpose of every practice or discipline is that the discipline, practice, or technique may disappear. Adrian van Kaam would often say that “Formation is sheer work.” What he meant, I think, was that to reform our lives and to make ourselves available to the ways that God would transform us requires discipline and dedication. We can live mindlessly and reactively, or we can live reflectively, learning from every moment and every experience of how we are being called to receive and give form to our lives and to the world. Yet, the discipline and dedication is for the sake of our true and deepest life. The effort is to discover and remove the obstacles to the emergence of life out of our “own ground and own source.” The “spiritual life” is our life. It is not a separate compartment of life that we are called to create. It is the removal of those obstacles that keep our life and work from being manifest. It is the reformation of those habits and dispositions that stifle and conceal our true life that is longing to show itself, to live out of our own ground and our own source. it is the work to make available to the world the work through which each human person is called to serve the world, a service done for no reason whatever but simply because it is our work to be done.

A non-transcendent culture measures its greatness in how much production and wealth it can create. it does not become religious, let alone spiritual, by adding on a certain ethical and religiously behavioral superstructure. A transcendent culture would be one that serves the unfolding of the unique call of its citizens. It would be one that understands that its strength and vitality lies in the fostering of the distinctively human capacities of its population, in which a space is created for the true work of each person to be offered. it would be a society in which the spiritual formation of each person would be central, trusting that its own becoming is dependent on each one’s ability to serve in accordance with his or her unique call. Instead of seeing itself as the means of producing the engineers and financiers the economy requires, it would be the goal of education to serve the formation of its students, to serve in each person the discovery and realization of the work that she or he is called to do — for no reason other than it is his or her work.

In the human world there will always be compromise. At times we shall need to work at things that are not congenial for us. Yet, the more we live out of our own ground, the more we are able to make our own even the necessary and tedious tasks of everyday life. We can do those tasks in a way that is uniquely ours. We can come to realize their potential as a means of offering love and service to the world. The tedium and the effortful can become, in that way, inspired. But this can only happen to the degree that “remaining within” we can discover the God “who in ways is hidden.” Many of the tasks in which we are employed are being taken over by robots. The robots can produce the products, but the robots cannot express spirit through how they produce. How we give shape to the world, the unique way that we serve it, is our unique work and call. The life and strength of a human culture is not measured merely by the quantity it produces but rather by the quality of the life and work of is members. Today we are reminded not to reduce the meaning of work or service to our own limited ends. The work of each of us is a gift of God to the world. It is in doing the work we are each given to do that God’s will is done.

I say truly: So long as you perform your works for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, or for God’s sake, or for the sake of your eternal blessedness, and you work them from without, you are going completely astray. You may well be tolerated, but it is not the best. Because truly, when people think that they are acquiring more of God in inwardness, in devotion, in sweetness and in various approaches than they do by the fireside or in the stable, you are acting just as if you took God and muffled his head up in a cloak and pushed him under a bench. Whoever is seeking God by ways is finding ways and losing God, who in ways is hidden. But whoever seeks for God without ways will find God as God is in himself, and that person will live with the Son, and be life itself. If anyone went on for a thousand years asking of life: “Why are you living?” life, if it could answer, it would say: “I live so that I may live.” That is because life lives out of its own ground and springs from its own source, and so it lives without asking why it is itself living. If anyone asked a truthful person who works out of one’s own ground: “Why are you performing your works?” and if that person were to give a straight answer, that person would only say, “I work so that I may work.”

Meister Eckhart, Sermon 5b, In hoc apparuit charitas dei in nobis

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