Most people have mixed feelings about work. When speaking of their jobs, it’s not uncommon for them to grouse about “the rat race” and “the grind.” Yet many people — often, the very same ones — also take great satisfaction from their work.

Both of those things, satisfaction and frustration, are linked to a fundamental fact. For better or worse, most of us draw much of our self-identity from work.

Notice how often new acquaintances, introducing themselves, start by naming their jobs: “I’m a computer programmer,” “… an accountant,” “… a teacher,” “… a housewife.” In many cases, it seems, identity equals work. Which is why, incidentally, the high unemployment rate of recent years, along with hurting people in the pocketbook, has for many been a blow to their self-image.

A kind of prayer

Less obvious perhaps, but no less important, work also occupies an important place in our spiritual lives.

Ora et labora — “pray and work” — is a famous monastic motto. It’s a beautiful thought, of course, but also somewhat questionable to the extent it’s taken as suggesting a sharp distinction, a split, between prayer and work. In the life of virtue, the two things go together and merge into one, so that work itself is a kind of prayer.

In a broad sense, everyone has work to do. “Work” isn’t just paid employment, a job. It includes volunteer work, housework, schoolwork, baby-sitting for family and friends, helping out around the parish — the 1,001 useful things that people do to be of service, build a better world and give glory to God.

A number of individual good habits — virtues, that is — are obviously relevant and important in regard to work. Those that come immediately to mind include honesty, punctuality and perseverance. Underlying them are basic beliefs and attitudes pertaining to work and forming a kind of matrix within which the virtues can take hold and operate.

Longtime bond

But before looking at all that, let’s pause briefly to reflect on the fact that historically the Catholic Church, for the most part, has managed to take a practical, down-to-earth approach to the question of work. A crucial episode in the history of American Catholicism in the latter years of the 19th century involving Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore and the Knights of Labor illustrates the point.

Cardinal Gibbons, the leading American Catholic churchman of his day, was archbishop of the primatial see of Baltimore from 1877 all the way until his death in 1921. The Knights of Labor was the first mass labor organization in the United States. Its president and many of its members were Catholics.

There was a problem, though. Viewing the situation in the United States from far away, the Vatican had come to fear that the Knights of Labor was one more secret society hostile to the Church. A papal document condemning the group and forbidding Catholics to join was in preparation.

Then Cardinal Gibbons stepped in. He persuaded Pope Leo XIII that condemning the Knights would be a serious mistake that would drive many Catholic working men away from the Church. The papal document was never published. The cardinal’s intervention helped forge a bond between the Church and workers that long endured.

The same approach of affirming work and workers was reflected in Pope Leo’s landmark 1891 social encyclical Rerum Novarum (“On the Condition of Workers”). Here the Church can be seen — somewhat belatedly, alas — confronting the consequences of the Industrial Revolution by setting out a body of social teaching in response to the challenges of modern times. Since then, many other encyclicals and teaching documents have been published with the same aim in view by later pontiffs, including Popes Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI and Benedict XVI.

Spiritual dimension

But special attention undoubtedly should go to Pope St. John Paul II.

Previous treatments of work by the papal magisterium dealt with work largely as a socioeconomic reality. Pope John Paul brought something new into the discussion. In 1981, he published an encyclical called Laborem Exercens (“On Work”) that reflects upon what might be called the existential dimension of work.

Perhaps reflecting the pope’s own experiences as a working man during the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War II, the encyclical speaks of two meanings or purposes of work when considered from a spiritual point of view.

First, work is co-creative — a form of human participation in the creative activity of God himself in building up the world. Second, considered especially in its painful and unpleasant aspects, work is co-redemptive — a way to cooperate with Christ in redeeming the world and its human inhabitants.

A Christian engaged in work, said the pope, finds there “a small part of the Cross of Christ and accepts it in the same spirit of redemption in which Christ accepted his Cross for us” (No. 27).

In no way does this view of work downplay or belittle reasons for working like earning a living to support yourself and your family, achieving a measure of success and recognition, and simply doing something worthwhile with of your time. These are sound reasons that readily lend themselves to working virtuously. Still, to comprehend the specifically Christian meaning of work, we need to bear in mind those two purposes identified by Pope St. John Paul: co-creation and co-redemption.

In that regard, it’s helpful to be aware not only that Jesus worked but that his work had the same two purposes at its core.

During his public life, he worked as a kind of rabbi or traveling teacher. Before beginning his public life, he worked as a carpenter. And it wasn’t just the work that he did during the public life, climaxed as it was by his death and resurrection, that had creative and redemptive value. Those meanings were present in his work throughout his life, including during the years spent working at the carpenter’s trade in Nazareth.

One lesson that has for us is that the kind of work you do doesn’t matter nearly as much as your intention in doing it. St. Josemaría Escrivá put it like this: “Before God, no occupation in itself is great or small. Everything gains the value of the love with which it is done.”

Vocational component

It’s also extremely important that people understand their work as a way of living out their vocations. Priests and sisters aren’t the only ones with vocations — laypeople have them too. And a central component of anyone’s vocation is his or her work.

Here let me turn it over to a woman who took a course I gave on the role of the laity. I’ve told this story before, but I tell it again here because it illustrates the point so well. This is what she said in an email to me:

“Last week I gave a lecture to a group of women, and as an opening exercise I asked them to write on one side of the page all the everyday things they do in the course of a day or two. Then I asked them to write on the other side all the things they do in the same time frame that they consider to be holy.

“Without exception, they made up two entirely different lists — on the one hand, daily chores and activities, and on the other hand things associated with what they consider to be ‘ministry’ — serving as minister of Communion or lector, attending Mass, things like that.

“Many had only one or two items in that second column. No one simply drew an arrow from the daily activities to the list of ‘holy’ things.

“My lecture was about the apostolate of the laity. If nothing else, I wanted the women to come away from it with a sense of the dignity of our mission as laypeople. That includes understanding that everyday activities really are holy when we do them as faithful Christians … .

“When the women took a second look at their lists and reflected on their everyday work as a vehicle for spreading the Gospel and acting as Christ’s missionaries and apostles, they began to personalize what apostolate meant for them.”

What could I add to that? Only that those women had begun to understand the full virtuous potential of their work.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor. This is the ninth part of a monthly Year of Faith series on virtues that originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor.