The Love that Converts Work into Prayer | On the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker
“Let us work. Let us work a lot and work well, without forgetting that prayer is our best weapon. That is why I will never tire of repeating that we have to be contemplative souls in the middle of the world, who try to convert their work into prayer .”
St. Josemaria Escriva
Furrow, no. 497
The Gospel reading for the feast of St Joseph the Worker (Mt 13:54-58), presents us with a couple of pointed questions about Jesus: “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son?” The townspeople of Nazareth take for granted that work and wisdom, work and holiness, do not mix. People in general almost instinctively drive a wedge between religion and ordinary life. Outwardly, they do seem very far removed from each other: Religion typically expresses itself in quiet and restraint, work in busyness and activity.
We who are disciples of the “carpenter’s son” claim to know how to make both go together. Our baptismal rebirth changes how we see and approach everyone and everything. Although, “man is born to work as the birds are born to fly” (cf. Job 5:7), yet the Christian is reborn to do all things, including work, with a profoundly changed motivation (cf. Friends of God: “Working for God,” 57). If we are faithful to grace, we can follow the example of Jesus of Nazareth by working hiddenly, diligently, and yet prayerfully, with an inner desire to glorify our heavenly Father.
Since we are reborn as children of God, we are more than servants in His eyes: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 Jn 3:1). Once reborn, we can’t go back to a life of “forced labor,” where our attitude toward work is one of a necessary evil. To work as children means that we work for love, seeking the glory of God, “for I always do what is pleasing to him” (Jn 8:29).
St Josemaria says succinctly how this happens: “We have to be contemplative souls in the middle of the world, who try to convert their work into prayer” (Furrow 497). That ‘conversion’ is both the means to the sanctification of work and the challenge that work presents to our sanctification. Converting work into prayer means that we have to get beneath the surface of our outward activity to see its Divine worth. Only grace can open our eyes and hearts to see this.
I once heard a story from an older religious who said that when he was a novice, he and his fellow novices were washing windows as a part of their manual labor. After a while, one novice threw down his sponge and said, “I entered religious life to contemplate God, not to wash windows!”
From time to time all of us feel tempted to throw down the sponge—that is, to reject manual or intellectual labor as something that leads us away from God. Whatever tools or apparatus we work with can become a target of frustration, from a shovel to a computer screen. We have the same impulse as that novice: This is not what I am here for! There is a true intuition here, but it might be mixed up with mistaken ideas about prayer, perfection, and work.
Is there an opposition between work and union with God, action and contemplation, activity and sanctity? It seems that the citizens of Nazareth thought so; perhaps sometimes we think so. We have to admit that there is at least some kind of tension.
Some, even among strictly contemplative religious, might admit that they have never succeeded in working in a “contemplative” way. When they work, they think only about work, or about themselves, or about being finished, or about their supervisor. Sincere Christians, trying to convert work into prayer, begin to wonder if they’re missing something—some elusive link that unites work and contemplation.
St Teresa of Jesus, a great friend of St Joseph the Worker, is quick to provide her fellow Carmelites with that link: “The highest perfection obviously does not consist in interior delights … great raptures … [or] visions … but in having our will in conformity with God’s will.” She continues, “If love is perfect, we forget about pleasing ourselves in order to please the one whom we love.”
Our apparent failure to work in a “contemplative” way does not mean that there is any failure in love. If love is perfect, we forget about pleasing ourselves in order to please the one whom we love. We even forget about the interior pleasure that we want to experience in working prayerfully—the feeling of complete mental freedom, to be without distractions, etc. We begin to see that our interior satisfaction is really not the point. That love converts our work into prayer is the liberating truth that we have to learn from St Joseph.
Instead of burdening ourselves with a distorted idea of what it means to be contemplatives in the middle of the world, we must go deeper into God’s purposes for ourselves and our labor. We might initially imagine that to work prayerfully means working slowly, speaking little, with our minds absolutely free and uncompromised by any concern. But often enough we must work quickly, with many explanations and instructions, and with anxious concern for what we are doing. Is this wrong? Is this still contemplative?
It all depends on why we’re doing what we’re doing. This is why we look to St Joseph to help us to simplify our holy desires and good intentions to work in a prayerful way. How did he work? With Jesus and for Jesus and Mary. He was always aware of the presence of Jesus at his side, and he always had Mary in mind. He loved them both so much and was always aware of what a privilege it was to provide for them, to work for them. This is really the only thing that gives meaning to Christian work: Doing it for the Lord and His Mother, rather than for men. And never forgetting how much of a privilege it is to be children who serve in the house of the Lord.
That’s what we are here for: To know, love, and to serve God in this world and to be happy with Him in the next. It is true that we are not here simply to work—not in any state of life only to work. We are here to know the Lord, love the Lord, and then serve the Lord, as the concrete expression of love. This was the order that St Joseph always had in his mind and heart: knowing Jesus and Mary, loving them, serving them.
If Christians sometimes become “burned out” with their work, it is time to stop and re-examine our attitude toward our work.
“Forgive my insistence: the instrument, the means, must not be made into an end. …You really do need to make an effort and put your shoulder to the wheel… For all that, you should put your professional interests in their place: they are only means to an end; they can never be regarded—in any way—as if they were the basic thing. How many of these forms of ‘professionalitis’ make union with God impossible” (cf. Furrow, 502-503).
Work is indispensable, but ultimately, man was made by God for Himself, not for work. And so we should look more to our relationship with Him. Is my work an expression of love for Him? Is it a way of making Him known and loved among those with whom I live?
Jesus did not call us to follow Him more closely so that we would work for the food that perishes, but for that which endures unto eternal life. And what endures unto eternal life? “Love,” says St Paul, “never ends.” And St John Vianney tells us: “Our only occupation here on earth is that of loving God.” In imitation of St Joseph, may all that we do be an expression of this love. Working with that love will convert our work into the worthy prayer of the children of God.