One of the elders said: “I never wanted work which was useful to me but a loss to others. For I have this expectation, that what helps the other is fruitful for me.”
And Abba Theodore of Pherme said, “In these days many take their rest before God gives it to them.”
IN THIS SOCIETY, work has become the way we make money the way we enable ourselves to do what we would really prefer to do if we didn’t need to work. No other approach to life, perhaps, explains so clearly what has really happened to the quality of the world around us than this. If there is anything that measures spiritual depth in a work-oriented society, it is surely the work we do, and why we do it or, conversely, the work we won’t do and why we won’t do it.
Work is the contemplative’s response to contemplative insight. In fact, it is everybody’s answer to the profundity — or the shallowness— of their ideas about creation. To know the presence of God in all things has serious implications for the way a person lives the rest of life. What we know determines what we do. When I float in a sea of God, there is nothing not sacred. “Treat all things” — the buckets and the plants and the spades and the land — “as vessels of the altar,” the Rule of Benedict instructs. It is a profoundly contemplative statement.
In the sacredness of the universe the contemplative sees the face of God. To do anything that defiles that face in the name of anything unworthy of the God who created it — profit, greed, leisure, progress, industry, “defense” — is blasphemy.
One of the most demanding, but often overlooked, dimensions of the creation story is that when creation was finished, it wasn’t really finished at all. Instead, God committed the rest of the process to us. What humans do on this earth either continues creation or obstructs it. It all depends on the way we look at life, the way we see our role in the ongoing creation of the world.
Work is our contribution to creation. It relates us to the rest of the world. It fulfills our responsibility to the future. God left us a world intact, a world with enough for everyone. The contemplative question of the time is what kind of world we are leaving to those who come after us. The contemplative sets out to shape the world in the image of God. Order, cleanliness, care of the environment bring the Glory of God into the stuff of the moment, the character of the little piece of the planet for which we are responsible.
The ideal state, the contemplative knows, is not to avoid work. The first thing Genesis requires of Adam and Eve is that they “till the garden and keep it.” They are, then, commanded to work long before they sin. Work is not, in Judaeo-Christian tradition, punishment for sin. Work is the mark of the conscientiously human. We do not live to outgrow work. We live to work well, to work with purpose, to work with honesty and quality and artistry. The floors the contemplative mops have never been better mopped. The potatoes the contemplative grows do not damage the soil they grow in under the pretense of developing it. The machines a contemplative designs and builds are not created to destroy life but to make it more possible for everyone. The people the contemplative serves get all the care that God has given us.
The contemplative is overcome by the notion of “tilling the garden and keeping it.” Work does not distract us from God. It brings the reign of God closer than it was before we came. Work doesn’t take us away from God. It continues the work of God through us. Work is the priesthood of the human race. It turns the ordinary into the grandeur of God.
To be a real contemplative and no shaman of the airy-fairy, I must work as if the preservation of the world depends on what I am doing in this small, otherwise insignificant space I call my life.
~Adapted from Joan Chittister, Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light