THE SPIRITUAL MEANING OF WORK
The modern cult of work is founded on the one hand on the fact that work is a necessity for the majority of men, and on the other hand on the human tendency to make a virtue of an unavoidable constraint. The Bible, however, presents work as a sort of punishment: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread"; prior to the original sin and the Fall, the first human pair knew no work.
There have always and everywhere been contemplative saints who — without thereby being lazy — have not worked, and all the traditional worlds afford — or did afford — the sight of beggars to whom alms are given without anything being asked of them, except perhaps prayers; no Hindu would dream of blaming a Ramakrishna or a Ramana Maharshi for the fact that he did not engage in any profession. It is generalized impiety, the suppression of the sacred in public life and the constraints of industrialism that have had the effect of making work a "categorical imperative" outside which — it is believed — there is only culpable laziness and corruption.
Be that as it may, there is work and then there is work: there has always been noble agriculture as well as crafts plied at home or in the workshops of the former guilds; and then, since the nineteenth century, there has been industrial servitude in factories; a servitude all the more brutalizing, if not degrading, in that its object is the machine, and that most of the time it offers no properly human satisfaction to the workman.
Nevertheless, even this work — in general more quantitative than qualitative — can subjectively have a sacred or sanctifying character thanks to the spiritual attitude of the worker if, knowing that he cannot change the world and that he must earn a living for himself and his family, he strives, according to the possibilities available to him, to combine his work with consciousness of our final ends and the "remembrance of God"; ora et labora.
This having been said, it should be added that freedom consists much more in satisfaction with our particular situation than in the total absence of constraints, an absence scarcely realizable in the here-below, and which moreover is not always a guarantee of happiness.
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The great spiritual methods, even those which insist the most expressly on the excellence of the eremitical life, have never excluded the possibility of following a path in the midst of the occupations of life in the world; the example of the Third Orders is proof of this. The question we propose to answer here is that of knowing how it is possible to reconcile an intense spiritual life with the obligations of outward life, and even to integrate those obligations into the inward life; for if one's daily work — whether one's profession or housework — does not constitute an obstacle to the spiritual path, this implies that it should play the role of a positive element in it, or more precisely the role of a secondary support for the realization of the Divine within us. Such an integration of work into spirituality depends on three fundamental conditions which we shall designate respectively by the terms "necessity," "sanctification" and "perfection."
The first of these conditions implies that the activity to be spiritualized correspond to a necessity and not to a mere whim: one can sanctify — or offer to God — any normal activity necessitated by the requirements of life itself, but not just any pastime lacking a sufficient reason or having a reprehensible character. This amounts to saying that any necessary activity possesses a character that predisposes it to conveying the spirit; all necessary activities in fact have a certain universality which renders them eminently symbolic.
The second of the three conditions implies that the activity thus defined be actually offered to God, which is to say that it be done through love of God and without rebelling against destiny; this is the meaning of the prayers by which — in most if not all traditional forms — work is consecrated, and thus ritualized, meaning that it becomes a "natural sacrament," a kind of shadow or secondary counterpart of the "supernatural sacrament" that is the rite properly speaking.
Finally, the third condition implies the logical perfection of the work, for it is evident that one cannot offer an imperfect thing to God, nor consecrate a base object to Him; moreover, the perfection of the act is as self-evident as that of existence itself, in the sense that every act is supposed to retrace the Divine Act and at the same time a modality of it. This perfection of action comprises three aspects, which refer respectively to the activity as such, then to the means and finally to the purpose; in other words, the activity as such ought to be objectively and subjectively perfect, which implies that it be conformable or proportionate to the end to be attained; the means should also be conformable and proportionate to the goal envisioned, which implies that the instrument of the work be well chosen, then wielded with skill, which is to say in perfect conformity with the nature of the work; finally, the result of the work has to be perfect, and must answer exactly to the need from which it has arisen.
If these conditions, which constitute what could be called the internal and external "logic" of the activity, are properly fulfilled, the work not only will no longer be an obstacle to the inward path, it will - 4 - even be a help. Conversely, work poorly done will always be an impediment to the path, because it does not correspond to any Divine Possibility; God is Perfection, and man — in order to approach God — must be perfect in action as well as in non-active contemplation.
[in The transfiguration of Man, World Wisdom]