This week we celebrate the work of lay people in the congregation and the wider society takes a pause to celebrate labor and its beneficial effects on our lives. Work is not always meaningful, the tasks we do are sometimes onerous and sometimes our motivation for working is more to care for our families and others than it is for our own benefit. Sometimes the relationship between what we do for work and our spiritual lives is unclear to us. I would suggest that this is one area where most of us need to reflect and to pray, because our work is likely to become a proxy for our identity if we are not careful, and sometimes our calling from Jesus has little to do with what we are doing for paid work. Like the disciples Jesus called from their nets, Christians have been thinking about the relationship of their work to their spiritual lives and making choices since the beginning of our faith tradition.
Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun who has written a commentary on the rule of Benedict, captures the relationship between work and the spiritual life well when she writes: “The function of the spiritual life is not to escape into the next world; it is to live well in this one. The monastic engages in creative work as a way to be responsible for the upbuilding of community.” (The Rule of Benedict, p. 211) I would say that even if one is not a monastic, and even if one’s work does not always feel creative, the function of work is the upbuilding of community and the provision of means to live life well. As we reflect on our work this week and relax a bit from our labors, my prayer for all of you is that in some way your professional work is a means to live well, and that if it is not, you are finding ways to be supported in your circumstances and find other ways to do the sacred work of God.
The experience of the disciple Andrew leaving his nets reminds us that our identities in Christ do not depend on what we do for work, but that our calling as followers of Christ is to find out how we best do his work in our time on earth. The disciples are depicted as returning to fishing from time to time in the Gospels, but it’s clear that they spent quite a bit of their time with Jesus. Benedict and other monastics knew that their work and their identity in Christ were connected and yet the boundaries between work and other activities needed to be clear in order for them to maintain a life centered on God. Henri Nouwen offers a consoling word for those who find themselves either doing work that is unfulfilling or too worried about their work as a proxy for their lives. In his reflection on the parable of the prodigal son, he came to the powerful conclusion that God’s forgiveness offers us infinite ways out of work that is not building us up. He says: “We are not what we do, we are not what we have, we are not what others think of us. Coming home is claiming the truth. I am the beloved child of a loving creator.” (Nouwen, Home Tonight: Further Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son) Whatever you are doing for work, do something with your life that reflects your status as the “beloved child of a loving creator.”