Working for God
Many people begin, but few finish. And we, who are trying to behave as God's children, have to be among those few. Remember that only work that is well done and lovingly completed deserves the praise of the Lord which is to be found in Holy Scripture: 'better is the end of a task than its beginning'.
You may already have heard me tell this story on other occasions; but even so, I would like to bring it up again because it contains a very striking lesson. I was once looking through the Roman Ritual in search of the prayers for blessing the last stone of a building, obviously the most important stone, since it symbolically represents the hard and enterprising work of many people, who have persevered in the task throughout the long years of construction. To my surprise, I found that no such prayers existed, and I had to be satisfied with a benedictio ad omnia, that is, an all-purpose blessing. I must say that at first I just couldn't believe that there was such an omission in the Ritual, and I spent quite a while going over the index without finding what I wanted.
Many Christians are no longer convinced that the fullness of Life that God rightly expects from his children means that they have to have a careful concern for the quality of their everyday work, because it is this work, even in its most minor aspects, which they have to sanctify.
It is no good offering to God something that is less perfect than our poor human limitations permit. The work that we offer must be without blemish and it must be done as carefully as possible, even in its smallest details, for God will not accept shoddy workmanship. 'Thou shalt not offer anything that is faulty,' Holy Scripture warns us, 'because it would not be worthy of him.' For that reason, the work of each one of us, the activities that take up our time and energy, must be an offering worthy of our Creator. It must be operatio Dei, a work of God that is done for God: in short, a task that is complete and faultless.
If you consider the many compliments paid to Jesus by those who witnessed his life, you will find one which in a way embraces all of them. I am thinking of the spontaneous exclamation of wonder and enthusiasm which arose from the crowd at the astonishing sight of his miracles: bene omnia fecit, he has done everything exceedingly well: not only the great miracles, but also the little everyday things that didn't dazzle anyone, but which Christ performed with the accomplishment of one who is perfectus Deus, perfectus homo, perfect God and perfect man.
Our Lord's whole life fills me with love for him, but I have a special weakness for his thirty hidden years spent in Bethlehem, Egypt and Nazareth. That period, so long in comparison with his public life and which the Gospels hardly mention, might seem empty of any special meaning to a person who views it superficially. And yet, I have always maintained that this silence about Our Lord's early life speaks eloquently for itself, and contains a wonderful lesson for us Christians. They were years of intense work and prayer, years during which Jesus led an ordinary life, a life like ours, we might say, which was both divine and human at the same time. In his simple workshop, unnoticed, he did everything to perfection, just as he was later to do before the multitudes.
From the beginning of creation man has had to work. This is not something that I have invented. It is enough to turn to the opening pages of the Bible. There you can read that, before sin entered the world, and in its wake death, punishment and misery, God made Adam from the clay of the earth, and created for him and his descendants this beautiful world we live in, ut operaretur et custodiret illum, so that we might cultivate it and look after it.
We must be convinced therefore that work is a magnificent reality, and that it has been imposed on us as an inexorable law which, one way or another, binds everyone, even though some may try to seek exemption from it. Make no mistake about it. Man's duty to work is not a consequence of original sin, nor is it just a discovery of modern times. It is an indispensable means which God has entrusted to us here on this earth. It is meant to fill out our days and make us sharers in God's creative power. It enables us to earn our living and, at the same time, to reap 'the fruits of eternal life', for 'man is born to work as the birds are born to fly'.
To this you might reply that many centuries have gone by and very few people think along these lines; that most people, when they work, do so for very different reasons: some for money, some to support their families, others to get on in society, to develop their capabilities, or perhaps to give free play to their disordered desires, or to contribute to social progress. In other words, most people regard their work as something that has to be done and cannot be avoided.
This is a stunted, selfish and earthbound outlook, which neither you nor I can accept. For we have to remember and remind people around us that we are children of God, who have received the same invitation from our Father as the two brothers in the parable: 'Son, go and work in my vineyard.' I give you my word that if we make a daily effort to see our personal duties in this light, that is, as a divine summons, we will learn to carry them through to completion with the greatest human and supernatural perfection of which we are capable. Occasionally we may rebel, like the elder of the two sons, who replied to his father, 'I will not,' but we will learn how to turn back repentant and will redouble our efforts to do our duty.
'If the mere presence of an important person who is worthy of respect is enough to improve the behaviour of the people before him, how is it that the continual presence of God, which reaches out to every corner and is acknowledged by our faculties and gratefully loved, does not increasingly better us in our speech, actions and feelings?' Indeed, if the fact that God sees us were fully impressed on our consciences, and if we realised that all our work, absolutely all of it is done in his presence — for nothing escapes his eyes — how carefully we would finish things and how differently we would react! This is the secret of the holiness which I have now been preaching for so many years. God has called on all of us to imitate him. He has called you and me so that, living as we do in the midst of the world — and continuing to be ordinary everyday people! — we may put Christ at the top of all honest human activities.
Now you will understand even better that if anyone among you didn't love work, his own particular job; if he didn't feel sincerely committed to some noble occupation in this world so as to sanctify it, or if he were to lack a professional vocation, then that person would never be able to understand the supernatural substance of what this priest is saying to you, for the very good reason that he would be lacking an indispensable condition for doing so: that of being a worker.
I should tell you (and I don't think I am being presumptuous in saying this) that I realise immediately when I am speaking with someone if my words are going in one ear and out the other or making no impression. Let me open my heart to you so that you can help me give thanks to God. When I saw in 1928 what Our Lord wanted of me, I immediately set to work. At the time (thank you, my God, for there was much to suffer and much to love!) I was taken for a madman. Some people indeed, in an excess of understanding, called me a dreamer, but a dreamer of impossible dreams. In spite of all this and of my own shortcomings, I went ahead without getting discouraged. And since the project was not of my doing it found its way through the difficulties. Today it is a reality spread throughout the world from pole to pole, and it seems so natural to most people, because Our Lord made sure that it was recognised as something of his own doing.
I was saying that I only need exchange a couple of words with someone and I can tell whether or not he understands me. I am not like the hen who was sitting on her nest when an unknown hand slipped a duck's egg under her. The days passed and it wasn't until the chickens hatched and she saw the fluffy creature waddling about awkwardly, one leg this way, the other that way, that she realised that it wasn't one of hers and that it would never learn to chirp no matter how hard it tried. I have never ill treated anyone who turned his back on me, not even when my offer of help was repaid with insolence. That is why, back in 1939, my attention was arrested by an inscription on a building where I was preaching a retreat to some university students. It read: 'Let each wayfarer follow his own way.' It was very useful advice.
Forgive this digression and, though we haven't really gone off the track, let us return to the central idea. Be convinced that our professional vocation is an essential and inseparable part of our condition as Christians. Our Lord wants you to be holy in the place where you are, in the job you have chosen for whatever reason. To me, every job that is not opposed to the divine law is good and noble, and capable of being raised to the supernatural plane, that is, inserted into the constant flow of Love which defines the life of a child of God.
I cannot avoid getting a little uneasy when someone, in speaking about his job, plays the role of a victim. He talks about how his work takes up so many hours each day, when the truth is that he isn't doing half as much as many of his professional colleagues are and they quite likely are only driven by selfish or, at best, by merely human motives. All of us who are here engaged in a personal dialogue with Jesus have very definite occupations: doctors, lawyers, economists… Think a moment about those of your colleagues who are outstanding for their professional prestige, their integrity or their spirit of service and self-sacrifice. Isn't it true that they devote many hours of the day, and even of the night, to their jobs? Isn't there anything we can learn from them?
While I speak, I too am examining the way I have behaved and I confess that, in putting the question to myself, I feel a little ashamed and wish immediately to ask God's forgiveness, thinking how weak my response has been and how far short it has fallen of the mission that God has given us to carry out in the world. One of the Fathers of the Church writes: 'Christ has appointed us to be like lamps, so as to be teachers to others; to act as leaven; to live like angels among men, like adults among children, like spiritual beings among the merely rational; to be seed and to yield fruit. There would be no need of speaking if our lives shone in this way. Words would be superfluous if we had deeds to show for them. There would not be a single pagan left if we were truly Christian.'
We must avoid the error of thinking we can reduce the apostolate to the performance of a few pious practices. You and I are Christians but at the same time, and without any break in continuity, we are citizens and workers with clear obligations, which we have to fulfil in an exemplary manner if we really want to become saints. Jesus himself is urging us: 'You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Neither do men light a lamp and put it under a measure, but upon the lampstand, so as to give light to all in the house. Even so, let your light shine before men, in order that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.'
Professional work, whatever it is, becomes a lamp to enlighten your colleagues and friends. That is why I usually tell those who become members of Opus Dei, and the same applies to all of you now listening to me: 'What use is it telling me that so and so is a good son of mine — a good Christian — but a bad shoemaker?' If he doesn't try to learn his trade well, or doesn't give his full attention to it, he won't be able to sanctify it or offer it to Our Lord. The sanctification of ordinary work is, as it were, the hinge of true spirituality for people who, like us, have decided to come close to God while being at the same time fully involved in temporal affairs.
You must fight against the tendency to be too lenient with yourselves. Everyone has this difficulty. Be demanding with yourselves! Sometimes we worry too much about our health, or about getting enough rest. Certainly it is necessary to rest, because we have to tackle our work each day with renewed vigour. But, as I wrote many years ago, 'to rest is not to do nothing. It is to turn our attention to other activities that require less effort.'
At other times, relying on flimsy excuses, we become too easygoing and forget about the marvellous responsibility that rests upon our shoulders. We are content with doing just enough to get by. We let ourselves get carried away by false rationalisations and waste our time, whereas Satan and his allies never take a holiday. Listen carefully to St Paul and reflect on what he said to those Christians who were slaves. He urged them to obey their masters, 'not serving to the eye as pleasers of men, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart, giving your service with good will as to the Lord and not to men'. What good advice for you and me to follow!
Let us ask Our Lord Jesus for light, and beg him to help us discover, at every moment, the divine meaning which transforms our professional work into the hinge on which our calling to sanctity rests and turns. In the Gospel you will find that Jesus was known as faber, filius Mariae, the workman, the son of Mary. Well, we too, with a holy pride, have to prove with deeds that we are workers, men and women who really work!
Since we should behave at all times as God's envoys, we must be very much aware that we are not serving him loyally if we leave a job unfinished; if we don't put as much effort and self-sacrifice as others do into the fulfilment of professional commitments; if we can be called careless, unreliable, frivolous, disorganised, lazy or useless… Because people who neglect obligations that seem less important will hardly succeed in other obligations that pertain to the spiritual life and are undoubtedly harder to fulfil. 'He who is faithful in very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in very little is dishonest also in much.'
I am not speaking of imaginary ideals. I confine myself to a very definite reality which is of paramount importance, and which is capable of transforming an environment that is utterly pagan and hostile to God's designs, as indeed happened at the beginning of the era of our salvation. Savour these words of an anonymous author of those times, who sums up the grandeur of our vocation as follows: Christians, he writes, 'are to the world what the soul is to the body. They live in the world but are not worldly, as the soul is in the body but is not corporeal. They live in every town and city, as the soul is in every part of the body. They work from within and pass unnoticed, as the soul does of its essence… They live as pilgrims among perishable things with their eyes set on the immortality of heaven, as the immortal soul now dwells in a perishable house. Their numbers increase daily amid persecutions, as the soul is made beautiful through mortifications… And Christians have no right to abandon their mission in the world, in the same way that the soul may not voluntarily separate itself from the body.'
We would therefore be on the wrong path if we were to disregard temporal affairs, for Our Lord awaits us there as well. You can be sure that it is through the circumstances of ordinary life, ordained or permitted by the infinite wisdom of divine Providence, that we come close to God. But we shall not attain our goal if we do not strive to finish our work well; if we do not sustain the effort we put in when we began our work with human and supernatural zeal; if we do not carry out our work as well as the best do and, if possible, even better than the best. And I think that if you and I really want to, we will work better than the best, because we will use all the honest human means as well as the supernatural ones which are required in order to offer Our Lord a perfect job of work, finished like filigree and pleasing in every way.
I have often said that we must not allow these periods of conversation with Jesus, who sees us and hears us from the Tabernacle, to degenerate into an impersonal type of prayer. If we want our meditation to develop right away into a personal dialogue with Our Lord (for which the sound of words is not necessary), we must shed the cloak of anonymity and put ourselves in his presence, just as we are. We must avoid hiding ourselves in the crowd that fills the church, or diluting our prayer into a meaningless patter that does not come from the heart and is little better than a reflex habit, empty of any real content.
To this I now add that your work too must become a personal prayer, that it must become a real conversation with Our Father in heaven. If you seek sanctity in and through your work, you will necessarily have to strive to turn it into personal prayer. You cannot allow your cares and concerns to become impersonal and routine, because if you were to do so, the divine incentive that inspires your daily tasks will straightaway wither and die.
As I say these things, my memory goes back to the journeys I made to the battle fronts during the Spanish civil war. I had no material resources but I went wherever there was anyone who needed my services as a priest. In the very special circumstances we were in, which might well have given a number of people cause to justify their moral negligence and slackness, I did not limit myself to giving purely ascetical advice. I was concerned then, as now, with the one thing which I would like Our Lord to awaken in each one of you. I was interested in the welfare of their souls, and also in their happiness here on earth. I encouraged them to make good use of their time by doing something worthwhile, and not to look upon the war as something of a closed parenthesis in their lives. I asked them not to give in to laziness, but to do all they could to avoid letting their trenches and sentry posts become like the station waiting-rooms of the period where people killed time waiting for trains that seemed never to arrive…
I suggested specific occupations (for example, study or learning a language), occupations that were compatible with their military duties. I advised them never to cease being men of God, and to try turning everything they did into operatio Dei, God's work. I was greatly moved when I saw how wonderfully those boys responded, for their situation was far from easy. The solidity of their interior spirit was remarkable.
I also remember my stay in Burgos around that time. A lot of young men on leave, as well as many who were stationed in the city, came to spend a few days with me. The living quarters that I shared with a few of my sons consisted of a single room in a dilapidated hotel and, though we lacked even the most basic amenities, we organised things in such a way that the men who came — there were hundreds of them — had whatever they needed to rest and recover their strength.
We used to go for walks along the banks of the River Arlanzon. There we would talk and, while they opened their hearts, I tried to guide them with suitable advice to confirm their decisions or open up new horizons in their interior lives. And always, with God's help, I would do all I could to encourage them and stir up in their hearts the desire to live genuinely Christian lives. Our walks would sometimes take us as far as the monastery of Las Huelgas. On other occasions we would find our way to the cathedral.
I used to enjoy climbing up the cathedral towers to get a close view of the ornamentation at the top, a veritable lacework of stone that must have been the result of very patient and laborious craftsmanship. As I chatted with the young men who accompanied me I used to point out that none of the beauty of this work could be seen from below. To give them a material lesson in what I had been previously explaining to them, I would say: 'This is God's work, this is working for God! To finish your personal work perfectly, with all the beauty and exquisite refinement of this tracery stonework.' Seeing it, my companions would understand that all the work we had seen was a prayer, a loving dialogue with God. The men who spent their energies there were quite aware that no one at street level could appreciate their efforts. Their work was for God alone. Now do you see how our professional work can bring us close to Our Lord? Do your job as those medieval stonemasons did theirs, and your work too will be operatio Dei, a human work with a divine substance and finish.
'Since we are convinced that God is to be found everywhere, we plough our fields praising the Lord, we sail the seas and ply all our other trades singing his mercies.' Doing things this way we are united to God at every moment. Even when you find yourselves isolated and away from your normal surroundings, like those boys in the trenches, you will be living in Our Lord by means of your continual hard work, which you will have learned to turn into prayer, because you will have started it and finished it in the presence of God the Father, of God the Son and of God the Holy Spirit.
But don't forget that you are also in the presence of men, and that they expect from you, from you personally, a Christian witness. Thus, as regards the human aspect of our job, we must work in such a way that we will not feel ashamed when those who know us and love us see us at our work, nor give them cause to feel embarrassed. If you work in the spirit that I am trying to teach you, you will not embarrass those who rely on you, nor will you have any cause to blush. You will not be like the man in the parable who set out to build a tower: 'When he had laid the foundations and was unable to finish, all who beheld him began to mock him, saying, This man began to build and was not able to finish.'
Believe me. If you don't lose your supernatural outlook, you will crown your work. You will finish your cathedral to the very last stone.
Possumus! With God's help, we too can be victorious in this battle. Rest assured that it is not difficult to convert work into a prayerful dialogue. As soon as you offer it up and then set to work, God is already listening and giving encouragement. We acquire the style of contemplative souls, in the midst of our daily work! Because we become certain that he is watching us, while he asks us to conquer ourselves anew: a little sacrifice here, a smile there for someone who bothers us, beginning the least pleasant but most urgent job first, carefulness in little details of order, perseverance in the fulfilment of our duty when it would be so easy to abandon it, not leaving for tomorrow what should be finished today: and all this, to please him, Our Father God! On your desk or in some inconspicuous place that nobody notices, you perhaps place your crucifix to awaken in you a contemplative spirit and to act as a textbook for your mind and soul where you learn the lessons of service.
If you make up your mind to follow these ways of contemplation, in the midst of your ordinary work, without doing anything odd or withdrawing from the world, you will immediately feel that you are a friend of the Master, with the God-given task of opening up the divine ways of the earth to the whole of mankind. Yes. With your work you will help to spread Christ's kingdom in every continent. You will offer up hour after hour of work for far-off lands which are being born to the faith, for the peoples of the East who are being cruelly forbidden to profess their faith, and for the traditionally Christian nations where it seems that the light of the Gospel has grown dim and souls are struggling in the obscurity of ignorance… Then, how valuable your hour of work becomes as you persevere with the same effort a little longer, a few minutes more, until the job is finished! In a simple and practical way you are converting contemplation into apostolate, seeing it as an imperative necessity of your heart, which beats in unison with the most sweet and merciful Heart of Jesus, Our Lord.
How shall I manage, you seem to ask, to act always in a spirit that leads me to finish all my professional work perfectly? The answer comes not from me, but from St Paul: 'Work courageously, be strong. And let everything you do be done in a spirit of charity.' Do everything for Love's sake and do it freely. Never give way to fear or routine. Serve God Our Father.
Having put them very much to the test, I am very fond of repeating these artless but very expressive verses:
My life consists in loving,
And if with loving I'm familiar,
'Tis because I've sorrowed much;
For there's no finer lover,
Than one who's suffered much.*
Go about your professional duties for Love's sake. Do everything for the sake of Love and (precisely because you are in love, even though you may taste the bitterness of misunderstanding, of injustice, of ingratitude and even of failure in men's eyes) you will see the result in the wonders that your work produces — rich, abundant fruit, the promise of eternity!
It happens, however, that some people (who are good, or should we rather say 'goodish') pay lip service to the beautiful ideal of spreading our faith, but in practice they make do with a superficial and careless professional output. They seem scatterbrained. If we happen to come across such Christians, we should do our best to help them, affectionately but uncompromisingly, having recourse where necessary to the gospel remedy of fraternal correction: 'Brethren, if a man is found guilty of some fault, you who are spiritually minded ought to show a spirit of gentleness in correcting him. Have an eye upon thyself, lest thou too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens and so you will be fulfilling the law of Christ.' If besides the fact that they claim to be Catholics there are other factors involved, because, for instance, those at fault are older, or have more experience or responsibility, then there is all the more reason to talk to them. We should try to get them to react, helping them take their work more seriously, trying to guide them, like a good parent does or a teacher, but without humiliating them.
It is very moving to pause and meditate on the way St Paul behaved. 'You know well enough what you have to do to imitate us. We were no vagabonds among you. We would not even be indebted to you for our daily bread, but we worked night and day in labour and toil, so that we might not burden any of you… The charge we gave you on our visit was this: if any man will not work, neither let him eat.'
For the love of God, for the love of souls, and to live up to our Christian vocation, we must give good example. So as not to give scandal, or to provoke even the faintest suspicion that the children of God are soft and useless, so as not to disedify…, you must strive to show an example of balanced justice, to behave properly as responsible men. The farmer who ploughs his field while constantly raising his heart to God, just as much as the carpenter, the blacksmith, the office worker, the academic — all Christians in fact — have to be an example for their colleagues at work. And this without conceit, since we realise very clearly in our hearts that only with God's help can we secure the victory, for by ourselves alone we could not even lift a piece of straw from the ground. Therefore, everyone, in his job, in whatever place he has in society, must feel obliged to make his work God's work, sowing everywhere the peace and joy of the Lord. 'The perfect Christian is always a bearer of peace and joy. Peace, because he realises he is in the presence of God; joy, because he sees himself surrounded by God's blessings. Such a Christian is truly a royal personage, a holy priest of God.'
To achieve this goal, we must act like souls urged on by Love and never as people under punishment or a curse. 'Whatever you do, in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.' Thus we shall complete our tasks perfectly, using our time to the full, for we shall be instruments who are in love with God. We shall be conscious of all the responsibility and trust that God has placed on our shoulders in spite of our own weaknesses. In every one of your actions, because you are relying on God's strength, you must behave as one motivated solely by Love.
But let's not close our eyes to reality and content ourselves with a naive and superficial outlook that could lead us to think that the road ahead is an easy one, and that to follow it we only need to make a few sincere resolutions and have an ardent desire to serve God. Make no mistake about it. As the years go by, you will have to face (perhaps sooner than you think) situations that are especially difficult and which will call for a great spirit of sacrifice and an even greater forgetfulness of self. Foster then the virtue of hope and boldly make your own that cry of the Apostle: 'For I reckon that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come that will be revealed in us.' Reflect in peace and security on what it will be like to have the infinite Love of God poured out on this poor creature that we are. The time has come, amid your ordinary occupations, to exercise your faith, awaken your hope and revive your love; that is, to activate the three theological virtues, which help us to banish immediately (without dissimulation, deceit or evasion) any ambiguities in our professional conduct or in our interior life.
Again we hear the voice of St Paul: 'Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast and immovable in your resolve, doing your full share continually in the Lord's work, since you know that your labour in the Lord's service cannot be spent in vain.' Don't you see? A complete range of virtues is called into play when we set about our work with the purpose of sanctifying it: fortitude, to persevere in our work despite the difficulties that naturally arise and to ensure that we never let ourselves be overwhelmed by anxiety; temperance, in order to spend ourselves unsparingly and to overcome our love of comfort and our selfishness; justice, so as to fulfil our duties towards God, society, our family and our fellow workers; prudence, to know in each case what course to take, and then to set about it without hesitation… And all this, I emphasise, is for the sake of Love, with a keen and immediate sense of responsibility for the results of our work and its apostolic impact.
'Love is deeds, not sweet words', says the proverb, and I don't think there is anything else to add.
Lord, give us your grace. Open the door to the workshop in Nazareth so that we may learn to contemplate you, together with your holy Mother Mary and the holy Patriarch St Joseph, whom I love and revere so dearly, the three of you dedicated to a life of work made holy. Then, Lord, our poor hearts will be enkindled, we shall seek you and find you in our daily work, which you want us to convert into a work of God, a labour of Love.