Work should be a gift of human dignity, not a burden

    St. Benedict of Nursia said, “He who labors as he prays lifts his heart to God with his hands.” The word “labor” has been a part of my prayer and reflection since the beginning of September when we celebrated Labor Day as a country.
    Labor Day is a unique secular holiday with profound Christian potential. On this day, we are invited to examine how we view our own labor in the light of what the Church proclaims about the dignity of all human work.
    We live in an age that has unfortunately lost sight of the true dignity of work. Men and women are often reduced to mere instruments in a society that emphasizes “productivity” over the dignity of the human person. Work today is legitimized by success. Lacking an objective standard that defines success, success simply becomes whatever others call it – whether that be money, prestige, etc. This also leads some into the habit of becoming “workaholics,” in a sense idolizing their occupations.
    Work for many is often accompanied by a certain unpleasantness. Work can seem like pure drudgery. It takes so much of our energy that it seems no free space remains for family or personal time and growth. For most of us, work means stress and exhaustion. The answer to the question “What is all this for?” has been lost somewhere along the way.
    St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, has been considered one of the most influential teachers in the spirituality of work. His mission was to spread the message that work and the circumstances of everyday life are occasions for growing closer to God. For Escriva, working was not just a matter of blindly doing something like a beast of burden; it was the very means of our sanctification.
    A Catholic vision of work, such as St. Escriva’s, views it in light of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. All too frequently we forget that Christ actually worked like the rest of us for most of his human life. The Son of God worked. As a child, he learned from Joseph the carpenter and worked with his holy hands. Certainly he sweat, got dirty, and likely even experienced boredom at times – but because he was in communion with his heavenly Father, all of his work was joined to the Father’s work.
    Doctor of the Church Gregory Nazianzus tells us that whatever was not assumed by Christ was not healed. This insight is profound and has the potential to revolutionize the way we view our own work because Jesus assumed the entirety of our human experience, including our labor. No matter what form our human work takes, it was transformed by Christ the worker!
    Certainly, Jesus, who knew no sin, was not suffering its punishment when he engaged in manual labor. Though there is biblical support that the drudgery or “sweat” of work is connected to the entrance of sin into the world, work itself was not the punishment for sin.
    Work has existed since man was created. It was always a part of God’s plan for us. Even before the Fall “the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till and keep it” (Gen 2:15). Adam and Eve worked in the garden, and it brought them great joy. Work was a duty, yet more than that it was a great gift intended to unite us with God and keep us holy.
    By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, we collaborate with the Son of God in his redemptive work. We can show ourselves to be disciples daily in the work we are called to accomplish. St. Josemaria Escriva also said, “Let us work a lot and work well,” and he showed us that love is what makes all the difference.
    Love should ideally be a part of our work. When work is done with love, it becomes more than work. It becomes a prayer of thanksgiving expressed not in words but in deed. Thus, the worker makes his activity into a sacred offering to the almighty, sanctifying it and also sanctifying himself. St. Escriva affirmed for us that “anything done out of love is important however small it might appear.”
    The vast majority of the members of the work force are lay people, “ordinary” Christians. The sanctification of ordinary work is the hinge of true spirituality for people who have decided to come close to God while being at the same time fully involved in temporal affairs.
    Our work changes the world, both within us and around us. If the goal of our work becomes mere “success” or naked self-realization, it will certainly be pointless. The need today is to humanize our work, connecting it to the union that gives meaning to life. The goal of work should be, as in all things, to give glory to God and to do so with joy.
    Let us go about our duties for love’s sake. We must do everything for the sake of love, and precisely because we are in love. We should “not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).
    Let us renew our minds and rise up to the challenge of striving for holiness in the routine of our everyday lives. There is no necessity in leaving behind our little corner of the world in order to be made into saints, as we are sometimes tempted to think. We are already full-time missionaries. Our mission is in our work, here and now. Sanctifying one’s work is no spectacular dream but the mission of every Christian – yours and mine.
    Rachel Varisco can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .