Job 7:1-4, 6-7
1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23
Part of the genius of Saint Benedict of Nursia was his emphasis on a balance of work and prayer. Saint Benedict, who founded 12 monasteries in Italy in the 6th century, brought together the wisdom of generations of monks before him but re-shaped those teachings in the light of his own understanding of the human psyche. This is part of the reason that the way of life he established remains a vital part of the Church today.
In his Rule for Monasteries, Benedict urges his monks to spend dedicated amounts of time each day working to support the monastery: “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brothers should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading” (48:1). In another place, he wrote, “When they live by the labor of their hands, as our holy fathers did, then they are truly monks” (48:8).
Saint Benedict understood that work was necessary for life … but he did not see it as a necessary evil. Work, for Benedict, was a way of giving glory to God, just like the monks’ daily rounds of prayer.
For too many people in our world today, the work that they have to do robs them of their basic human dignity without even providing them with the means of supporting themselves or their families. Migrant and farm laborers, minimum-wage workers, and too many others can find themselves in work situations which can often be dangerous and degrading, while the big businesses that employ so many sometimes refuse to provide adequate pay and opportunities for healthcare or compensation when accidents and injuries occur. The frustration and fatigue of those who find themselves working in these circumstances echo the words of Job that we hear in this Sunday’s First Reading (7:1-3, 6-7):
Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? / Are not his days those of hirelings? / He is a slave who longs for the shade, a hireling who waits for his wages. / So I have been assigned months of misery, / and troubled nights have been allotted to me … My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, / they come to an end without hope. / Remember that my life is like the wind; / I shall not see happiness again.
During the Industrial Revolution (at the end of the 18th century), prophetic voices began to challenge Christians to reflect on the purpose of human labor and to defend the rights and dignity of workers. Whether we think of Pope Leo XIII’s game-changing encyclical Rerum Novarum, the social criticisms found in the novels of Charles Dickens, or social reformers like Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden, and Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, we have inherited a perspective on the meaning of human labor and workers’ rights that we have to be willing to put into play. Today, these values are enshrined in our Church’s teachings on social justice.
In Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis reminded us of the consequences of failing to live out this commitment:
Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: Without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape. (§ 53)
Like the reading from Job, the Second Reading and the Gospel for this Sunday’s liturgy also have something to say to us about our work: when done with and for God, our work here and now helps builds up the Kingdom of God. When we keep this in mind, we realize that our title or position aren’t really important. What matters is how we use our gifts and abilities to promote the Gospel and the common good, making sure that no one is left behind.
As we begin to look toward Lent, take some time to think about how your work is an opportunity to give glory to God—like the work and prayer of Saint Benedict’s monks—and of how you can lift up those people who struggle to find meaningful work to provide for themselves and their families.
Br. Silas Henderson, S.D.S.
O God, who through human labor
never cease to perfect and govern the vast work of creation,
listen to the supplications of your people
and grant that all men and women
may find work that befits their dignity,
joins them more closely to one another
and enables them to serve their neighbor.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
—(from the Roman Missal: Mass “For the Sanctification of Human Labor”)