A Work Week Theology

There are more of us than there are of them. More laity than religious, that is. Throughout history, the great saints have gifted the Church with unique charisms and rules for religious life. But what does that mean for those who live and work in the world—the other 7.2 billion of us?

We are reminded in Lumen Gentium (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) that we live in the world, and each and every one of the world’s occupations and callings and in the ordinary circumstance of social and family life which, as it were, form the context of our existence. We are called by God to contribute to the sanctification of the world from within, like leaven, in the spirit of the Gospel, by fulfilling our own particular duties.

We live in the world. But how are we to live—which really is to say how are we to fulfill our “particular duties” and live an authentically Christian life? Much of what we know about the spiritual nature of work is rooted in a classic disagreement between two sisters: Martha and Mary.

A Day in the Life.

Through the 2014 General Social Survey (GSS), conducted every two years by the University of Chicago, we learn that 72% of the US population self-identifies as being Christian. The interesting question is what is it that this population of people is doing that makes it uniquely Christian? Social science researchers say that they understand religiosity in two primary ways: self-identification and the actions of daily life.

Within our Catholic tradition, we learn from the GSS, that Mass attendance in 2014 is less frequent than in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s—but is similar to the 2000s. Roughly a quarter of the survey respondents say they attend Mass at least once a week, and approximately one in five go less than weekly– but at least once a month. So, where does that leave everyone else? About 28% are “Christmas and Easter” Catholics, 10% “rarely go to Mass,” and 17% of the 2014 self-identified American Catholics never go to Mass.

In the 2014 GSS, we also learn about our most important Christian behavior– prayer, our personal conversation with God. Approximately 60% of Catholics surveyed say that they pray daily, which is roughly the same percentage since the early 1980s. Those praying at least once a week totals nearly 20%, with those praying less than once a week equating to an additional 12%. What is left then is nearly 10% of those professing to be Catholic not praying at all.

This is our daily American Catholic life, which is to say nothing of our non-Catholic Christian brothers and sisters.

The US Census Bureau’s American Time Use Survey confirms what most understand to be the norm. Americans average of 8.7 hours working or in work-related activities, 7.7 hours sleeping, 2.5 hours doing leisure and sports activities, and 1.3 hours caring for others, including children.

We are working. And if we are busy working, how do we find God? Here is where we meet the sisters: Martha and Mary.

Who Are Martha and Mary?

In the Gospel of Luke 10: 38-42, we read the story of Jesus’ visit to the home of his friends: Martha, Mary and Lazarus of Bethany. As Jesus enters into the village, Martha welcomes him into their home. Martha sets about serving Jesus, while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus listening to all he has to say. Martha, annoyed by her sister’s behavior, presses Jesus to rebuke Mary for not assisting her in hospitality. But Jesus patiently and gently rebukes Martha and tells her that Mary will not be denied as she has chosen the better.

Arguably, Martha and Mary are all of us—those who struggle with the balance of prayer life and work in the world. But in the Gospel of Luke we meet them as two sisters in contrast and conflict. Mary is the sister immersed in the Word, and Martha the sister who is immersed in service to the Word.

Throughout the centuries, theologians have sought to understand the full meaning of this story and its implications for Christian spirituality. There have been theologians such as Origen, John Chrysostom, Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great who have favored the interpretation that Mary represents the “contemplative life” which is deemed superior to the “active” life. On the contrary, religious thinkers such as John Calvin and Dominican theologian Meister Eckhart take the approach that Martha’s active life is deemed more superior. A third approach is integrative and is favored by such spiritual giants as Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, and Teresa of Avila.

An Integration of Faith and Service.

In the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas discusses the division of life into active and contemplative dimensions and discusses the relationship between the two. Although Aquinas upholds the traditional understanding that the contemplative life is better than the active one, he makes the extraordinary assertion that a “mixed” life has supremacy. Aquinas explains that the “active life” is the servant of the contemplative life for it “prescribes certain works of the active life as dispositions to the contemplative life; which it accordingly serves rather than commands.”

Aquinas explains that the work of a mixed life this way: “One proceeds from the fullness of contemplation such as teaching and preaching… and this work is more excellent than simple contemplation.” However, “[f]or even as it is better to enlighten than merely to shine, so is it better to give to others the fruits of one’s contemplation than merely to contemplate.”

Although Aquinas was contemplating these issues in the context of religious orders and their work, the implication for the lives of the laity is clearly that prayer and action are not only seen in terms of good and better (Martha vs. Mary), but in reference to the fruitfulness of sharing the fruits of prayer with others in loving action.

So, how do we do this while living and working in the world?

Living and Working in the World.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola, 16th century founder of the Jesuits, left the world a great treasure in his Spiritual Exercises. The inner dynamism of the Exercises is to “find God in all things.” This process is evolutionary in three progressions: (1) the call to make all choices in life in relations to the “end” for which we are created; (2) the process of the discernment of spirits to guide the interpretation of the movement of our hearts within the dynamics of choice; and (3) the understanding of the unity in all things.

Centuries later the same construct still holds true. It was Mother Teresa in the slums of India that said: “I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him. I serve because I love Jesus.”

In ways like Mother Teresa, we can see Jesus and serve him right where we are by simply choosing to serve others with a generous heart. We do this in the work that we do: in all that the work that we do. It is a radical way of thinking, but it makes all the difference, especially in situations that are difficult. Imagine seeing the “face of Jesus” in a difficult co-worker, in a demanding client, or in an impatient patron. It takes great strength of spirit, a deliberate view of life, and a toolbox of virtues—but it is our call.

Our Challenge.

It was Teresa of Avila that reminded us that “Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion for the world is to look out; yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good; and yours are the hands with which He is to bless us now.” Lumen Gentium opened the door to understanding our challenge in living and working in the world. We are challenged to find God right where we are and in all things. Our work in the world gives us a community with whom to share our gifts in service.

As we learn from Martha, there is virtue in service. And as we learn from Mary, there is great spiritual wealth in contemplation. Together there is a richness that fulfills God’s plan for all of us. Let us enjoy the work week as it leads us to remember the significance of the Sabbath as both the commemoration of creation and as the commemoration of our freedom from the slavery of sin. On Sunday we will rest from our work and contemplate our blessings and the opportunities to be of service in the next week