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Every Day Catholic - April 2010

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The Spirituality of Work
By: Kathy Coffey

Monday is the most dreaded day of the week. After the weekend, a collective sigh wafts across the world: “Ugh—back to work.”

Understandable. The drill can be tedious, the routine exhausting and the boss stupid. But when 6.9 million jobs were eliminated during the recession of 2007-2009, those who were still employed gained new appreciation for their work. Work may appear to be a grubby girl cleaning the sooty fireplace, but beneath the ragged camouflage hides the beautiful Cinderella.

As the classical philosopher Marcus Aurelius said, “The color of one’s thought dyes one’s world.” How can we learn to see work as a productive outlet, a means of support and God’s gift?

The problem may come from compartmentalizing our prayer and our work. Is Sunday the tidy hour given to God, separate from anything else we do? Or does our faith permeate every minute of every day, especially endless hours spent working?

To resolve this dilemma, like every other, let’s look at our model, Jesus. He was surrounded by people who worked: fisherfolk, farmers, tax collectors, shepherds and soldiers. He drew his images from a woman baking, a farmer pruning vines. He himself worked hard. Author Carol Perry points out that his contemporaries called him not rabbi, but carpenter.

Jesus’ first followers continued along that path. Paul the tentmaker wrote: “You know for yourselves that I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions. In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak” (Acts 20:34-35). The Benedictine abbeys of the Middle Ages were founded on two cornerstones: ora et labora, prayer and work. The Franciscan missions in California were beehives of activity: Crops were grown, grain milled, wine made, furniture carved, cloth woven, paintings and sculptures created. St. Thérèse of Lisieux fell asleep during formal prayer, but she found God in routine, daily occupations—her “little way.”

Nineteenth-century Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins observed, “It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work. Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, white-washing a wall, driving horses, sweeping, scouring....To go to Communion worthily gives God great glory, but to take food in thankfulness and temperance gives [God] glory too. To lift the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dungfork in his hand, a woman with a sloppail, give [God] glory too. [God] is so great that all things give [God] glory if you mean they should.” To update his words, we might substitute a bulldozer for the dungfork and a laptop for the sloppail, but his idea that work praises God transcends time and culture.

Golda Meir, a former prime minister of Israel, once visited the Vatican. She was welcomed by the Swiss Guard, colorful banners, music and procession. In awe, she asked, “All this for the daughter of a carpenter?” The response came quickly, “Around here, we think pretty highly of carpenters.”

These examples from our tradition show that we’ve always respected work, considering it essential to a full life. Our language reflects that belief. After an illness, we gauge health by return to work: “She’s feeling better. She’s back to drywalling!”

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A subtle pecking order undercuts this respect, distinguishing “loftier” work (done with clean hands) from “lower” work (grubbier). But healthy folks relax those distinctions. An “earthy” pastor drew protests when he pitched in to wash dishes after a potluck dinner. He pleaded with those who tried to take over, “Please let me finish. It’s the only tangible thing I’ve accomplished all day.”

Parishioners were embarrassed when the same priest tried to fix an overflowing toilet in the church. But he knew that, on a Sunday, a plumber was hard to find, and the need was urgent.

A local physician delights in her garden. Mucking in the dirt relieves her stress. Like many whose work is primarily mental, she finds that a physical process helps her feel whole.

More dangerous than the hierarchy of work is the suggestion that somehow we taint our spirituality with drudgery. The teaching of Jesus about the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:28-29) prompts criticism of overwork and consumerism. We need to understand that the paycheck fills legitimate needs: providing education, shelter and medical care for ourselves and our children. Furthermore, work provides a creativity, a social dimension and a step beyond the self that’s necessary to a gospel outlook.

Simply telling others we love them may seem phony if emotion isn’t translated into deeds. How many children eating Mom’s enchiladas or Dad’s lasagna have known they’re cherished? How many spouses have appreciated their mate’s overtime that bought a car or remodeled the kitchen? Sometimes people decide to work less and sacrifice the plasma TV in order to spend more time with family.

Anyone who’s ever questioned work’s importance to the human spirit should watch preschoolers at play. Many pretend to be firefighters, parents, doctors, engineers or truck drivers, modeling mysterious adult responsibility. In Montessori schools, children wash dishes that aren’t dirty for the sensuous joy of the task: clean scent, warm water, popping bubbles.

We may have lost that first fascination with work through numbing repetition. But many recapture it through hobbies: Working on a toy railroad or a pottery wheel seems more fun if it’s not for a deadline or a paycheck.

Our outlook thus colors our work. Seeing the potential to meet God at every turn of the page or pour of the coffeepot enlivens repetitive processes. Another exciting possibility is that our efforts will be blessed by God’s cooperation. Mark’s Gospel compares this surprise to farming: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how” (4:26-27).

We may never see the fruits of our labors. We won’t know how a word or a kindness affects another person, even another generation. But if we plant the first seed, then God can pour forth abundant harvest.

Permission to Publish received for this article, “The Spirituality of Work,” by Kathy Coffey, from Rev. Joseph R. Binzer, Vicar General, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 11-24-2009.


Making Connections

■ What is your attitude about work?

■ Do you compartmentalize your prayer and your work? How can you give God glory through your work?

■ What will you do to invite God into your work—whatever and wherever it may be? What will you use as a reminder to do this?

Movie Moments

Sunshine Cleaning
By: Frank Frost

The Church has always championed the dignity of work, although it used to be easier to make the case when the majority of people worked with their hands and could see what they accomplished. One thing seems to stay the same: the stratification of work and the degree to which society assigns human value to occupations. This brings Sunshine Cleaning to mind, a dark comedy with a punch.

At the beginning of the movie, Rose works for a housecleaning service. She was a popular cheerleader in high school, but now struggles as a single mother and is involved in a demeaning relationship with a married man. Her sister, Norah, has made even less of her life. To make more money, they begin a biohazard removal service, cleaning up the blood, body fluids and mayhem left in the wake of deaths, usually violent deaths or suicides. They unexpectedly find themselves getting involved in the lives of the decedents and their families, leading them to reexamine their own lives.

In one pivotal scene, Rose sits with a woman whose husband has committed suicide, wordlessly holding her hand until a relative arrives. Later, when she attends a high school reunion—mostly with women who do not work—she defends what she does: “We come into people’s lives when they have experienced something profound and sad.” She finds herself believing it when she adds, “In some small way, we help.”

Doing work she can be proud of transforms her own life and that of her sister. They come to terms with their mother’s suicide of years before and establish a new relationship with their father. Finding value in work that’s not respected by the world at large brings spiritual growth to the whole family.

Next time you watch Sunshine Cleaning, ASK YOURSELF:

■ All of the major characters in Sunshine Cleaning are in some way broken. What role does work play in making each of them whole?

■ What cues do the filmmakers give us in characterizing the human value of different kinds of work? How do I judge others by the work they do? How do I judge myself?

Putting Shoes on the Gospel

Greg Pierce
By: Joan McKamey

"People should know us as Christians not just because we come to work with ashes on our foreheads once a year, but also because we operate differently. Everyone can make his or her workplace better. Christians should lead the way,” says Greg Pierce.

Greg, husband of Kathy and father of three young adults, is president and co-publisher of ACTA Publications in Chicago, Illinois. His first “job” was helping his grandmother make two tons of potato salad for his dad’s deli the summer he was 10. He says, “At 13, I was working at my dad’s store. At 15, I ran the store when Dad wasn’t there. In college, I wiped down cars at a carwash. After college, I was a community organizer. I became a publisher at 37.

“Then life got complicated,” Greg tells Every Day Catholic. “My wife presented me with twins on my 40th birthday and another baby 20 months later. I’d had a late start at parenting and was suddenly immersed in it—at the same time that I was buying my publishing business. I felt my spiritual life was being squeezed out. There was no time for the traditional spirituality which I’d thought involved getting away from the world. I wondered if there was another way.

“Vatican II emphasized that the special role of the laity is out in the world, that the laity have a unique spirituality. I got involved in a movement of the National Center for the Laity that addressed the lay role in and to the world. I eventually became president of the group and began writing and giving talks.

“I developed an e-mail group, Faith and Work in Cyberspace, of about 1,000 people and asked how they combine spirituality and work. In my first book, Spirituality @ Work (Loyola Press, 2001), I asked: What is spirituality? Is it limited to contemplative spirituality? Through reading, praying and talking, I determined that spirituality involves disciplines that raise our awareness of God’s presence—through contemplative practices and in the workplace hustle and bustle. It’s a very Catholic idea, believing that God is everywhere. True awareness of God’s presence changes how we act.

“Work isn’t just paid employment. It’s work to raise kids, and there’s no pay involved. Practicing the spirituality of work with my kids changes how I deal with them.

“You can’t not work and be happy. To the unemployed, I say, ‘Your work now is looking for work, finding work, even if it doesn’t involve getting paid. Look for God’s presence in your job search. This will change you—make you more optimistic, persevering.’ To retirees, I say, ‘Retiring may mean no longer getting paid for work but not an end of work. Christians have a job to do—it doesn’t stop.’”

Greg’s latest book is The World As It Should Be: Living Authentically in the Here-and-Now Kingdom of God (Loyola Press, 2010). He says, “Followers of Jesus work to make the world a better place. The Kingdom of God—it begins now. We must look at what Jesus said and did and do the same.”

Passing On the Faith

Dreams Delayed
By: Jeanne Hunt


Maureen completed her Ph.D. two years ago. She had dreams of a teaching job at the university, but as the economy sank, so did her dreams of academia. She feels guilty about her job prospects and the sacrifices her family made in order for her to pursue her dream degree. What should she do with all this education and no job?

Her friend Julia sees this struggle and offers Maureen a job as a receptionist in her medical practice. Every day that Maureen goes to the pediatrician’s office, she feels resentful and angry about her lost dreams.

A Response

These days, out of economic necessity, many talented and educated people are settling for jobs that are far beneath their skills and education. For many, the job is not even related to their training. It’s a matter of survival, and any job is better than none.

But what do we do with our negative feelings? First, we need to recognize that we’re disappointed and invite God into those feelings. Standing outside the embrace of God’s care in difficult times is always a mistake. God wants to hold us up and comfort us. Praying daily and journaling may help us name the experience.

Next, it’s important to accept our situations as temporary. “All things are passing,” says St. Teresa of Avila. While we do work we consider beneath our skills or education, we should be devoted to looking for new opportunities in our fields. Even the exercise of the hunt gives hope. As a wise counselor once said to me, “Your new job is to find a job.” Every day we must do something to open doors in the direction of our dreams.

Finally, we need to see our situations as places where the Divine Teacher comes with lessons. When we are humble enough to allow God to teach us, we may just discover treasures that change and encourage our spirits.

Maureen is in her sixth month as a receptionist at the medical practice. Her relationship with Dr. Julia has become a source of inspiration and encouragement. She has started teaching a night class at the local community college. As she looks back on her darkest days, Maureen realizes that God wants her in her current job to season and prepare her for a future full of hope. She has surrendered to God’s will and finds consolation and a blessed paycheck in this hiatus from her dream.


Here I Am, Lord
By: Jeanne Hunt

(for praying alone or with others)

Preparation: Place a basket of grapes (separated into small clusters), a Bible, a lighted candle, paper and pens on a prayer table.


“Here I Am, Lord” (or similar hymn)


Divine Teacher, open our minds and hearts to see our work as your work. Give us the grace to realize that you send us into your vineyard to work in ways beyond our vision, yet clearly within yours. Give us trusting hearts to perform our labor with devotion and commitment. Let us believe that all work is a gift we give to you. Amen.


Matthew 20:1-16


You are invited to write down the names of the places where you work. Reflect on the places you work for pay, your volunteer work and the work of your home. Think about each place as a holy place, where you are a laborer in service of the Kingdom. What can you do to bring a greater awareness of God’s presence and will to these settings? (Pause.)

As you each come forward and read your lists, we will all respond together, “Here I am, Lord. I have come to do your will.”

Then place your list beside the basket of grapes, take a cluster of grapes and return to your seat.

(Play quiet, reflective music as people come forward.)


May God bless the work of our hands, minds and spirits. May our simple gifts of time and talent reap abundant fruit for God’s Kingdom, and may God bless us in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. (Invite participants to eat their grapes.)

John of Capistrano: It has been said the Christian saints are the world’s greatest optimists. Not blind to the existence and consequences of evil, they base their confidence on the power of Christ’s redemption. The power of conversion through Christ extends not only to sinful people but also to calamitous events. 
<p>Imagine being born in the 14th century. One-third of the population and nearly 40 percent of the clergy were wiped out by the bubonic plague. The Western Schism split the Church with two or three claimants to the Holy See at one time. England and France were at war. The city-states of Italy were constantly in conflict. No wonder that gloom dominated the spirit of the culture and the times. </p><p>John Capistrano was born in 1386. His education was thorough. His talents and success were great. When he was 26 he was made governor of Perugia. Imprisoned after a battle against the Malatestas, he resolved to change his way of life completely. At the age of 30 he entered the Franciscan novitiate and was ordained a priest four years later. </p><p>His preaching attracted great throngs at a time of religious apathy and confusion. He and 12 Franciscan brethren were received in the countries of central Europe as angels of God. They were instrumental in reviving a dying faith and devotion. </p><p>The Franciscan Order itself was in turmoil over the interpretation and observance of the Rule of St. Francis. Through John’s tireless efforts and his expertise in law, the heretical Fraticelli were suppressed and the "Spirituals" were freed from interference in their stricter observance. </p><p>He helped bring about a reunion with the Greek and Armenian Churches, unfortunately only a brief arrangement. </p><p>When the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, he was commissioned to preach a crusade for the defense of Europe. Gaining little response in Bavaria and Austria, he decided to concentrate his efforts in Hungary. He led the army to Belgrade. Under the great General John Hunyadi, they gained an overwhelming victory, and the siege of Belgrade was lifted. Worn out by his superhuman efforts, Capistrano was an easy prey to an infection after the battle. He died October 23, 1456.</p> American Catholic Blog When we are linked by the power of prayer, we as it were, hold each other’s hand as we walk side by side along a slippery path; and thus by the bounteous disposition of charity, it comes about that the harder each one leans on the other, the more firmly we are riveted together in brotherly love. —St. Gregory the Great

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