by Jessica Hickey (c.) 2010

Wednesday, 2 March 2010

“You live in an age when you must show your desires by your works. Look around you: Where is the Divine Majesty honored, where is his greatness venerated, where is his most holy will obeyed? . . . . What need there is to prepare yourselves for all manner of work and struggle to make yourselves efficient instruments of Divine Grace for such a work! Especially when there are so few loyal workers ‘who do not seek their own advantage, but that of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 2:21).”
(Ignatius of Loyola, in a letter to the Jesuit students at Coimbra, May 7, 1547)
“I felt that I would have laid down a thousand lives to save a single one of the souls being lost. And seeing that I was a woman and a sinner , and incapable of doing all that I should like in the Lord’s service, and as my whole yearning was and still is that, as He has so many enemies and so few friends, these last should be trusty ones, I determined to do the little that was in me.”
(Teresa of Avila, to her nuns, in The Way of Perfection)

“Labor as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” (2 Timothy 2:3)
Typically, the idea of a “work ethic” has been associated more with Protestant thinking than with Catholic. It is true, particularly in the stream of thought which originated with Calvin, that a person’s external busyness with good works and virtuous behaviors was important because it provided the proof of his righteousness, the proof that he was among the “saved.” In its early centuries, the Church dealt with a separate error, but one which nonetheless overlapped with Calvin’s in practical ways, in the heresy of Pelagianism, which argued, essentially, that we win heaven by our own efforts--in other words, we work our way in.

We know of course, that both these ways of thinking are false. We can bring to mind the image of Jesus in the home of Mary, Martha, & Lazarus. Mary, kneeling at the feet of the Lord in contemplation, chose the better part over Martha, who busied herself with the work of the home. Work, strictly speaking, is neither the cause nor the guarantor of salvation. Some individuals are called to a life spent primarily in contemplation. And all, including those who are not meant to pass into that sanctuary beyond the cloister’s wall, are called to give pride of place to the interior life, to remain united to the True Vine from which our life and purpose flow. We have all heard Pope John Paul’s declaration that, even for the Pope, the first duty is prayer.

What, then, becomes of work? It is not the highest calling, and it does not save us. Would it not be better to spend our time creating for ourselves and our friends places of peace and comfort, enjoying nature, a variety of games, hobbies, books, arts and leisure activities which will enrich our lives, making us more well-rounded, better socialized and cultured and in short, more fun? Should not the enjoyment of good things trump our “works”?

I suggest the above as a sort of subtle temptation we may face. I do not think I need argue seriously with any good Catholic about the value of all the abovementioned things, or the fact that we will--and in fact in many instances, ought to--do them. My question is “What else ought we to be doing?” Lent is a good time to consider this, since one of the fruits of self-denial is a better sense of moderation and also a better sense of justice--the virtue of allotting each thing its due--which comes more fully into play in the proper ordering of our time and energies once we have weeded out some of our temporal attachments.

I propose that work--and in this instance I refer specifically to work in the service of Christ and the Church--is essential to every Christian life. Each vocation in the Church is an expression of this, and that is why our works may truly be called labors of love. Yet such work is not embraced as it should be. There are plenty of Christians, but “so few loyal workers,” as the saints quoted above observed. Many enjoy the benefits of the Faith, but fewer bear the costs.

It is easy, speaking for myself, to remember that we are in the Church of Chesterton & Belloc, those hearty souls who represent to us piety, fun and enjoyment. Sometimes I may just want to stop my imaginings there, in that cozy scene with the cracking fire, the bread and cheese and beer, and the songs and laughter. But, while I would not give up the spirit of Chesterton and Belloc for worlds, I know that we cannot forget the others.

Beside those good men also stand the stalwart Paul, ragged and crusted with salt spray from his sea voyages; the zealous Francis Xavier practicing diligently the languages of the Asians and Indians by lamplight; the passionate and practical Teresa of Avila who went briskly from the kitchen, to her desk, to her kneeler; Damien of Molo’kai, with his books and bandages and a hat to shield him from the tropical sun; Teresa of Calcutta with her compassionate face and work-worn hands; the frail John Paul, boarding and de-planing over and over but always with the same smile and hands extended to the children of God. With one voice, they tell us with fervor and a sense of urgency that God is not known and loved as He deserves, that souls are being lost, that we must resolve to do our part. Labor for Christ, Paul adjured us, for this work, like prayer, is holy.

Some of you may be familiar with Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Masque of the Red Death.” In it, the wealthy Prince Prospero gathers about him all his good friends and retires with them to his palace for months, planning fanciful celebrations. He devises gorgeous rooms throughout his palace, each glowing in a different jewel-colored light. It was a scene of laughter, flowers, music & dancing:

“Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. . . . . The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within.”

Yet the setting is also a macabre one, for the reader knows that outside the locked doors of the amply-provisioned palace, a plague is raging, and the afflicted, weak and starving, are left to fend for themselves. In the end, however, by a higher justice, Prospero and his companions are held accountable, and they too perish by the same fate.

We know that once there was a princess--a historical person this time, not a fictional one like Prospero--who had a life of beauty, and many pastimes and comforts to enjoy. We know that sometimes, she gathered up what she had into an apron, against the wishes of some of her family, and went outside to share it with those who had not. Elizabeth’s labors demonstrate the Christian way, the way of the apostle and the saint. Love does not remain bottled up in enjoyments, but spills over into the rest of life. It finds the starving and feeds them. It manifests itself in deeds, and often, in sacrifices. It does not, as was said of Emperor Nero, concentrate on its own sweet music while the city burns.

“What good is it, my brothers,” wrote St. James, “ if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2: 14-17)

If we are to be called apostles, then we must be committed to the tasks proper to an apostle, to apostolic work. The forms of service are many, corresponding to our various gifts and abilities, and task set for us should be discerned and then firmly pursued without fear of the risk, as Venerable Cardinal Newman teaches:

“If then faith be the essence of a Christian life . . . it follows that our duty lies in risking upon Christ's word what we have, for what we have not; and doing so in a noble, generous way, not indeed rashly or lightly, still without knowing accurately what we are doing, not knowing either what we give up, nor again what we shall gain; uncertain about our reward, uncertain about our extent of sacrifice, in all respects leaning, waiting upon Him, trusting in Him to fulfil[sic] His promise, trusting in Him to enable us to fulfil our own vows, and so in all respects proceeding without carefulness or anxiety about the future. . . . . Now I dare say that what I have said as yet seems plain and unexceptionable to most of those who hear me; yet surely, when I proceed to draw the practical inference which immediately follows, there are those who in their secret hearts, if not in open avowal, will draw back. Men allow us Ministers of Christ to proceed in our preaching, while we confine ourselves to general truths, until they see that they themselves are implicated in them, and have to act upon them; and then they suddenly come to a stand; they collect themselves and draw back, and . . . . are sure to say we carry things too far, when we carry them home to themselves. . . . Alas! that we, my brethren, have not more of this high and unearthly spirit [of the Apostles]! How is it that we are so contented with things as they are,—that we are so willing to be let alone, and to enjoy this life,—that we make such excuses, if any one presses on us the necessity of something higher, the duty of bearing the Cross, if we would earn the Crown, of the Lord Jesus Christ?” (From Plain & Parochial Sermons 4, Sermon 20: “The Ventures of Faith”)

Newman echoes the questions of Ignatius and Teresa: Why so few? Why so half-hearted? What will you risk? Like Teresa, we must each resolve, “I will do the little that is in me.” The effects of Teresa’s “little” effort are still felt today, spanning centuries and continents. The students of Ignatius, prepared for all kinds of work and to be “efficient instruments of divine grace,” were the central missionaries of the counter-reformation and the age of discovery. Some of them have perished on our own soil, sanctifying it and planting the seeds for a future Church.

No, our work does not save us, but the One Who saved us wills that it be done. It is necessary because it is the means of carrying that salvation to others, and to safeguarding the common good. Who can meditate on the Way of the Cross without seeing in each footstep of Christ a labor of love? Our loyalty to Him demands that we share His work, each of us according to our capacities; our charity for others requires that we serve them: “Such as My love has been for you, so must your love be for each other. This is how all will know you for My disciples: by your love for one another." (John 13)

Thus, it seems to me that to prevail in the Christian life, we require a three-pronged weapon, like the powerful tridents of the ancients. If each prong is made rightly, with attentiveness and care, as a response to the grace we have been given, we will possess something formidable.

In the first instance, we must be willing to enter the ascent of prayer and practice devotion as fully as we might. This central prong, which directs the others, is greater and reaches further. Secondly, we should see and embrace all that is good, true and beautiful, living a life of genuine joy, which ultimately means a life without sin. And finally, we must work, laboring humbly and sacrificially in God’s vineyard, that the harvest might be as great as He desires.
“Dearest Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labor and not to seek reward,
save that of knowing that I do your will. “
(St. Ignatius Loyola)



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