Contemplatives in the Midst of the World
by Bishop Robert W. Finn
In late 2005, the Bishops of the United States issued a booklet entitled Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord: A Resource for Guiding the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry. In the introductory section, the bishops affirm the universal call to holiness announced with urgency by the Second Vatican Council. They briefly describe the secular character of this call, proper to the laity, and imparted through the sacraments of initiation: "All of the baptized are called to work toward the transformation of the world. Most do this by working in the secular realm; some do this by working in the Church and focusing on the building of ecclesial communion, which has among its purposes the transformation of the world."
Because the stated purpose of Co- Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord is to offer a guide to the formation of Lay Ecclesial Ministers-to provide something for "some" - it understandably doesn’t spend so much time on what pertains to "most."
What is it that most are called to do to transform the world, particularly if they don’t take up a Church function? How can the baptized meaningfully live out the universal call to holiness in their everyday lives, in everyday work that has a secular character? Is this notion of holiness through "work" limited to a person’s job?
Thirty-five years before the Second Vatican Council, a Spanish diocesan priest, Josemaría Escrivá, saw and understood the meaning of daily work in the context of this vocation to be holy, to become a saint. The founder of Opus Dei, which means "Work of God," read the command of God to man in Genesis-to cultivate and care for the earth (Gen. 2:15)- as a participation in God’s own creative and transforming work. From the beginning, work was noble and not a punishment for sin. The saintly Msgr. Escrivá, canonized by Pope John Paul II in October of 2002, came to believe that it was possible for us to become saints, not despite our daily work, but precisely through it, whatever it happened to be. From engineers to construction workers, from doctors to teachers, from students to cooks to homemakers, he spoke to whoever would listen about the "sanctification of daily work," which also includes all the ordinary tasks that are not part of our "job."
Our Offering to God
So, what does it mean? And how do we reach holiness in work? This idea of the sanctification of work has several dimensions.
First, work itself can become holy, particularly when we offer it to God; it is transformed when we make it an act of love. Escrivá insists that we should be filled with joy at the prospect that the very things we love-our "home, family, and country"- are the "raw material" which we must sanctify. He points out that Jesus Christ took up His hidden work at Nazareth as something both "redeemed and redeeming." Similarly, this kind of work in our lives becomes "a means, a way of holiness, a specific task which sanctifies and can be sanctified." It is also worth noting that everything St. Josemaría preached concerning the sanctification of our work (our jobs), he also meant to be applied in some way to the many activities that come, by the will of God, into our day: getting up, eating, driving, even sleeping!
In intentionally giving our work and other activities to God, we strive to do these things - whatever task we are engaged in-as best we can. Escrivá cautions, "You can’t sanctify work which humanly speaking is slapdash, for we must not offer to God badly-done jobs."
A Path to Holiness
A second dimension of the sanctification of daily work is that, to the extent that we make it a means of offering ourselves completely to God, work can make us holy. At God’s invitation, we are truly sharing His work; consciously allowing Him to use us. God perfects and elevates our humanity through each task, no matter how humble.
For St. Josemaría Escrivá, there is an underlying element here that is essential if our work is to make us holy. He says we must be "contemplatives in the midst of the world," in the middle of our work: "We have to be contemplative souls in the midst of the world, who try to convert their work into prayer." He urges his readers to "work with cheerfulness, with peace, with presence of God." He says we should have a "constant conversation with God, going spiritually to the tabernacle and offering the work that is in our hands."
During a meeting between a group of French-speaking prelates and Escrivá during the Second Vatican Council, a bishop remarked that it is the role of the laity to infuse the structures of the temporal order with a Christian spirit in order to transform them. "If they have a contemplative soul, Your Excellency," Msgr. Escrivá responded with a smile. "Otherwise they won’t transform anything. Rather, they will be transformed, and instead of Christianizing the world, the Christians will become worldly."
The simple and profound truth that St. Josemaría maintained was irreplaceably at the center of this spirituality of work is "divine filiation," the fact that we are-by the divine adoption of Baptism-sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father. This is the driving force that allows the followers of Christ to have a contemplative spirit in the midst of the wide scope of human activities. According to Escrivá, this spirit of contemplation, founded on a sense of our divine filiation, makes possible "a way of sanctification in our daily work and in the fulfillment of the Christian’s ordinary duties." Without this realization, work would disintegrate into function, and the simplest daily tasks could become drudgery.
Transforming the World
A final dimension of the sanctification of daily work is that our work can make others holy. When we have offered our work to God, and we have done it prayerfully, cheerfully, and well, then our work becomes a vehicle of grace. We consciously direct our efforts, which now have a supernatural efficacy (if they are carried out in the state of grace and out of a motive of love of God), to begin little by little to change the culture.
Keep in mind that this is not so much a formula to be studied and applied, but a Gospel truth to be believed. By offering our work, which is sanctified and sanctifying, redeemed and redeeming, we become what Christ says we are meant to be: light, salt, and leaven that sanctifies and transforms the world.
Underlying this notion of the sanctification of work, of course, is the Catholic doctrine of grace and merit. Grace is our participation in God’s life: a fruit of the Divine adoption as His sons and daughters at Baptism. Baptism infuses the Holy Spirit into the soul to heal us from sin and make us holy. When we keep sanctifying grace alive in our soul, and act out of a motive of love of God, we can merit for ourselves and for others the graces we need to attain eternal life (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 2025-2027). Everything we offer to God in this way can become a vehicle of grace, if we are in the state of grace. St. Thérèse of Lisieux insisted, "To pick up a pin for love of God can save a soul!"
What is clear is that whatever we "merit" by our acts of love stems from the life of God, which He extends gratuitously to us (Catechism, no. 2025). In the mystery of His plan, God has wanted to make us live with His own life. He has decided to make us participants or collaborators in the work that has been accomplished once for all by Jesus Christ. St. Paul goes so far as to say that through the sufferings we endure, "we fill up in our own bodies what is lacking in the suffering of Christ" (Col. 1:24).
St. Josemaría often writes that we are "co-redeemers" by reason of this grace-filled work. We are, he says, not only "alter Christus," meaning "other Christs"; but by God’s design, we are "Ipse Christus," that is, "Christ Himself."
Living the Lay Vocation
After the Second Vatican Council, the broadening of "lay ministries," mostly in areas of ecclesiastical functions, became the focus of many adult formation programs. Long before this, St. Josemaría expressed with urgency the legitimacy of a truly secular lay apostolate. In 1932 he wrote, "We have to reject the prejudice that the ordinary faithful must limit themselves to helping the clergy in ecclesiastical apostolates. There is no reason why the apostolate of the laity has to be simply a participation in the hierarchy’s apostolate. They themselves have a duty to do apostolate . . . and this is not because they receive a canonical mission, but because they are part of the Church."
While some will need to be engaged in what the bishops have called "lay ecclesial ministry," most will find their path through the instrument of their daily work. With the right intention and the gift of grace, all can find holiness through these avenues, as well as the everyday circumstances and simple events of life.
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Bishop Robert W. Finn
is an author, conservative commentator, and syndicated columnist. This article reproduced with permission from Crisis Magazine.
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