Working God’s Works

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If anyone wishes to come after me, let that one deny one’s self and take up one’s cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save one’s life will lose it. But whoever loses one’s life for my sake will find it. For what does it profit one if one gains the whole world but forfeits one’s life. Of what will a person give in exchange of one’s life? For the Son of Man is to come in the glory of the Father with his angels, and then he will repay to each according to his activity.

Matthew 16: 24-7

Some fifty years ago when I was a first year Novice, some Brothers in our Connecticut community were involved in a terrible auto accident. One of the Brothers, a young man in his mid twenties, was critically, and ultimately fatally, injured. Before our work period, the visibly shaken Master of Novices called us into the classroom and, with an unprecedentedly quavering voice, informed us of the accident. He then said, in words that have remained with me ever since, “Let us offer our work period today for Brother Celestine, who has always been such a good worker.”

We are taught and formed more by experience than by theory. I learned at that moment that there is a profound connection between what I do from moment to moment and the will of God and the life of others. As I swept the stairs and mopped the corridor on that day, I thought about a suffering Brother who was roughly a contemporary but whom I did not know, and I worked, probably a bit more diligently than usual, for him and for whatever he was undergoing at that moment.

In truth, we are, from the global and historical perspective, but a speck of dust. Yet, the love that moves all also moves our will. The little that we do is somehow a part of the great Whole. What I do and why and how I do it is my part in responding to the prayer that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” To the degree that I give my whole heart to the work I have been given to do, I “find”, in that self-forgetful action, my life, its goal, and its meaning.

The obvious love of my Novice Master for a person I did not know had evoked in me a love and dedication toward my menial task that my work so often lacked. As a result, my work that day was not for my own ends, or to be resented as an intrusion on my own life of desire, it was rather an expression of a shared love and care – for a single person, but also for God and for the world. For that single moment in time at the age of 18, I had lost my life for another’s sake and as a result had a profound experience of finding it.

Occasionally, by the grace of God, this has continued to happen at times throughout life when I have displaced, in the words of Rowan Williams, “the self’s longing for dominion and satisfaction” with the loving desire to “work God’s work” in my small task of the moment. The profound spiritual insight of the young Therese of Lisieux was that “to pick up a pin out of love can convert a soul.” What would it mean if at any given moment in human history each person was to perform the task before them out of such a love? And, though that is no doubt impossible, I can at any moment do my part. I can make a choice in my motivation to die to the self who longs “for dominion and satisfaction” and choose to give all I have for the sake of love.

. . . [For Meister Eckhart] union with God is a reality effecting the whole of experience, not merely its religious moments. The foundation upon which all else rests is the displacement of the self’s longing for dominion and satisfaction; when this occurs, in or out of prayer or religious practice, the self enters into God’s life and “works God’s works.” What matters is not “ecstasy” in the common sense of abnormal spiritual experience but the ecstasy of understanding, the transition of subject into object, the setting aside of self in order to let the observed and understood reality act without impediment. The self when made naked and poor is free to go forward to God and be welcomed into God. . . . If the understanding is to leave behind all forms and pictures, all that is less than God, it must abandon the notion that God is bound to particular kinds of experience. If the will is rightly directed, if the self is receptive, God is to be met everywhere. This certainly does not mean, for Eckhart, that the enterprise of contemplative prayer is superfluous, since it is in the “inactivity” of such prayer that we most clearly and fully grasp what it is to meet God-in-act. Contemplation is the source from which flow “living works,” the transformation of motivation; it is what makes possible the grace of encountering God everywhere. The contemplative life, for Eckhart, is by no means an uninterrupted absorption in prayer; like God’s own life, it is both rest and overflowing abundance in activity, a life in which prayer provides the central purifying and directing reality that will save outward works from sterility.

Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge, pp. 145-6

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