Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Work in Progress

A “first” is usually a pretty important event.  First tooth, first day of school, first car, first kiss, and—the topic of this post—first job.

My first job couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.  It was my freshman year of high school and it all happened the weekend of my first Homecoming Dance.  Ah, yes—a first I would rather not recall.  What didn’t go wrong at that dance? 

Let’s start with my attire.  No one told me that becoming a ninth grader meant you stopped shopping in the girl’s department and moved to juniors.  I’ll spare you the details of my wardrobe selection.  Next, the boy I had a crush on since seventh grade took that opportunity to tell me—two years later—that he liked me (oh the dreaded words) as a friend.  Oh, and I had to leave the dance early because ten o’clock was too late for my parents to pick me up. 

It wasn’t exactly the best debut into the world of high school. 

But where one door closed, another opened and the day after the dance, the pastor at my parish asked if I would like to work in the Rectory, answering the door and helping serve dinner. 

I was overjoyed and spent the next eleven years working for the parish, in one capacity or another.

Having a job for the first time helped me understand something my Mom would often tell me.  She said, quoting my Grandma, “Work is good for your soul.”

Indeed it is.  So much so, in fact, that we can consider work a virtue.  Thus (apologies for the long introduction) this week’s virtue is none other than work!

There are many ways you can approach the reality of work.  On one extreme, you have the workaholic, putting in ten-hour days, working weekends, driven by a fanatic desire for money, prestige, or to prove him or herself. 

Then, on the opposite extreme, you have the person who shuns work: he or she counts the minutes until the end of the workday, lives for the weekend, and seeks free time at just about any cost.

Most of us fall somewhere between these two bookends.

The reality is that all of us, in some capacity or another, spend the vast majority of our day, and our lives, working.  Even when you are officially “off the clock,” you go home and find yourself working again.  There are bills to pay, a lawn to mow, dishes to wash, kids to bathe.  

This looks like hard work.

If the concept of never-ending work tempts you to despair, try reworking your understanding of “work.” 

This is exactly the way God designed it to be: He created man explicitly to work.  “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15).

Now, unfortunately due to something called original sin, our work now is difficult and, at times, very unpleasing to us.  But it need not be that way, if we can change our understanding and opinion toward the idea of work.

Work is good for us; if it weren’t, God wouldn’t have commanded us to work.  How is it good though?  Well, there are a number of reasons.

1)   Work allows us to support ourselves and our families: to provide us food to eat, clothes to wear, and a roof over our heads.

2)   Work allows us to contribute to society.  Whether the policeman keeping order, the teacher instructing students, the doctor taking care of the sick, the chef preparing a meal for hungry customers, work gives us the ability to help others and to promote the common good.

3)   Work develops our personalities and is the training ground of virtue.  If you’ve had the experience of a tyrant boss, you may have used that opportunity to develop the virtue of patience.  A nurse, caring for the elderly and infirm, may use that position to grow in understanding.  Co-workers, who come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities give us many social interactions where we can practice and grow in virtue (or, sadly, in vice if we aren’t careful).

 So, how is one to avoid the two extremities of activism or wasting time?  How can work become “good for your soul?”

In two words: sanctify it.  Take your work and make it holy. 

Sanctifying your work doesn’t necessarily require that you do anything manifestly different.  You might deposit money in someone’s account the same way, conduct the same research, drive the same bus.  No, it’s mostly about changing your mindset and approach.

It’s about having an awareness of God in the midst of your work.  As you enter your office, your classroom, your lab, your store, your hair salon, your child’s bedroom: silently offer your work to God.  Say something like, “Lord, I offer to you my work this day.”  You can even offer it for a particular intention or for someone who needs prayer.

Then, as you go about your work, continue to keep God in mind.  Perhaps keep a small crucifix on your desk, small enough where it won’t attract attention, but will serve the purpose of reminding you that God is indeed present. 

When a problem presents itself, as it inevitably will, offer that to God, too.  Make that holy.

In this way, your ordinary tasks become something of utmost value: they become ways of drawing you closer to God.  Your work actually becomes prayer.

Sanctifying your work is a good way to help remember that you’re not just working to bring home a paycheck at the end of the week.  You’re working to serve others.  What you do has meaning and a purpose.  Keeping this in mind is also a good way to avoid becoming self-seeking or dishonest.

When you are building a career, you bring to the table your education and experience…but also bring your faith.  One’s morals and beliefs should imbue and direct the decisions made at one’s employment.  What a doctor chooses to prescribe, who a lawyer decides to defend, what lessons a teacher presents, what moral an author’s story will give: these are decisions that faith should inform.

Thomas More: Lawyer, Author, Statesman, Martyr, and Saint
For God, there is no job great or small; all jobs are measured by the same criteria: is the work done with love?

So, as you seek to grow in the virtue of work, there are some helpful questions to consider:

·      How well do I work?  Is my work a worthy sacrifice to God?

·      Do I strive to do my best work possible?  Do I sincerely work to develop my competence and skills in my particular profession?

·      Am I punctual in my work?  Do I arrive on time?  Do I complete my tasks on time?  Do I postpone or avoid something unpleasant in lieu of an easier job?

·      Am I honest in my work?  Do I keep my work time strictly for work, or do I use it for my own use and interests, such as checking my personal email? 

·      Do I work in an orderly way, finishing one task before moving onto another? 

·      Do I take proper care of any equipment or tools needed for my work?

·      Do I treat my co-workers and boss with proper respect?  Do I set a good example for others through my words and actions?

In a time when unemployment is so high, we should be grateful for the work that we do have.  But being grateful isn’t adequate.  We must take our work, whatever it is, and make it holy.

If you find yourself working on a railroad, all the live long day, don't work just to "pass the time away."  (Sorry, Mary loves that song and I've been singing it all day...)  Work to sanctify yourself and all those around you!

Those who knew Jesus from his hometown of Nazareth, where He worked as a carpenter, remarked of Him: “He does all things well” (Mark 7:37).  Can our boss, our co-workers, our customers, our family, and—most importantly—our Lord, say the same thing of us and our work?  

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Turkish Delight

"Edmund was already feeling uncomfortable from having eaten too many sweets and when he heard that the Lady he had made friends with was a dangerous witch he felt even more uncomfortable.  But he still wanted to taste that Turkish Delight more than he wanted anything else." ~ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

No one ever explicitly desires evil; to do so is contrary to our very nature.  We are always seeking what is good…or, rather, what we perceive as good.  Unfortunately, many times our perception is flawed and what we think is good for us turns out to be quite the opposite.

Take, for example, Edmund from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  There is nothing inherently evil about Turkish Delight, but when one’s desire for it isn’t directed by reason, it does indeed become evil.  If you have read the book or watched the movie, it becomes quite clear that Edmund’s inordinate love of this delicacy led to a great deal of evil.

This week’s vice is another one of the seven deadly sins: gluttony.  Derived from a Latin word meaning to gulp or swallow, by definition, gluttony is an inordinate desire for food or drink. 

Overeating is certainly gluttonous, as you probably know.  But this vice isn’t limited to just the degree of consumption. 

You see, gluttony also pertains to the way in which a person eats.  As human beings created in the image and likeness of God, does this nobility of ours shine through all of our doings…even around the dinner table?  Or when we’re alone in the kitchen, scrounging through the fridge or cabinets?

Here are some ways gluttony can rear its ugly head:
  •      Scarfing down your food as rapidly as possible
  •      Ignoring any conversation with those around you so you can   focus 100% on your dinner plate
  •       Eating when you aren’t actually hungry
  •       Demanding food that is made of very costly ingredients
  •       Only eating food that is prepared with 5-star restaurant quality 

There is nothing wrong with enjoying your food—we’re supposed to enjoy it, after all, since it is required for our very survival.  The fault comes when we allow the pleasure of food to surpass our reason.  Drowning your sorrows in a gallon of Ben and Jerry’s isn’t the most rational recourse in time of trouble…even though it tastes really good.

St. Alphonus Ligouri sums up gluttony well:  “It is not a fault to feel pleasure in eating: for it is, generally speaking, impossible to eat without experiencing the delight which food naturally produces. But it is a defect to eat, like beasts, through the sole motive of sensual gratification, and without any reasonable object.”

The same applies to drink—specifically, alcohol.  There is nothing inherently wrong with alcohol, but its abuse is evil.  Drinking to the point of intoxication is wrong because someone who is inebriated no longer has control over his or her thoughts, words, and actions.  So serious is this willing surrender of one’s free will that it is considered a mortal (deadly) sin.

In all things, including when we are eating or drinking, we must always keep our eternal destination in mind.  We weren’t created for this world and so our consumption of worldly pleasures (no matter how scrumptious they may be) shouldn’t consume us.  

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Satanic Sin

It's Virtue & Vice Wednesday!  

Last week, the debut post in this series was about humility, the foundation of all virtue.  It seems only fitting that the root of all vices, the very opposite of humility, should follow this week. 

This week's vice is indeed the most serious vice.  In fact, this vice is so grave that is has the dishonor of being first in the series of what is commonly referred to as the seven mortal or deadly sins.  

This one takes the crown precisely because it's the Satanic sin.

Let's talk about Satan.  He has many names (Lucifer, devil, accuser, evil one, enemy, serpent, dragon) and they all point to one and the same reality.  In the very beginning, he was a great and magnificent angel.  Created by God, he was--naturally--good.  

Yet, to be great and magnificent wasn't quite enough.  To dwell in heaven and to rejoice over his Creator didn't satisfy him.  Satan desired more: he wanted to be like God.  

Imitation is the best form of flattery, right?  What is so inherently evil about wanting to be like God?  Here's the fault: Satan sought to be like God according to his own merit.  He was going to do it himself, through the force of his own nature alone, rejecting the grace of God.  Remember that phrase?  If it's meant to be, it's up to ME!

And thus we find the root of all vice: pride.

Pride, by definition, is an inordinate esteem of oneself--inordinate specifically because it's not a truthful evaluation of self.  Humility, if you remember, is all about truth.  It only follows that it's opposite--pride--is all about lies.  

With that in mind, it makes perfect sense that one of Satan's titles is "father of lies."  He's been whispering his untruths all throughout history, beginning with that seductive falsehood to Eve, " will be like God."

He's still whispering them today, to you and to me.

Pride is the gateway sin, opening up the floodgates to all kinds of other vices.  This is because pride convinces a person that he or she is above the rules.  Once the commandments and moral teachings don't apply to you, you can rationalize any kind of immoral behavior.

Pride especially leads to presumption, vanity, hypocrisy, and disobedience.  Like Miss Piggy, who can't take her eyes off her own beauty and perfection, pride makes us so caught up with ourselves, we can't see God.  

Just as worse, pride is deceptively hard to detect, making it particularly dangerous.  Yet, when you really analyze it, you can spot pride underlying every sin.  

For example, the other day Chris and I were having a chat about things we needed to accomplish over the weekend.  Instead of offering helpful suggestions, I found myself bossing him and basically telling him what he needed to do and when.  

Bossiness is pride: I thought I had the best knowledge and understanding of the situation--better than Chris--to direct his activities.  And, of course, this was a lie.

Pride can manifest itself as perfectionism, in the desire to be perfect in order to prove oneself and receive subsequent honor.

A desire for control, whether directing one's own life or that of one's adult child, is pride at work.

You can spot pride in wanting to have the final say in a conversation or finding a way to always redirect the course of the conversation back to yourself.

Having difficulty asking for or receiving forgiveness--that's also pride.  

Finding fault with others is pride, too, because you deem your own thoughts/ actions/words better than your neighbor's...or, at least you consider yourself high enough to be a capable judge of another. 

You are in the midst of an argument and immediately rush to your defense before the other even has a chance to fully explain his or her position.  Yes, you guessed it: that's pride.

But pride is especially grave, deadly even, when a person is unwilling to acknowledge his or her dependence on God and refuses to submit to God's authority.

As professor and prolific writer Peter Kreeft aptly says, "The national anthem of Hell is 'I did it my way.'"

Here's a homework assignment.  At the end of the day today, consider ways in which you may have fallen into sin.  Once you've done that, focus on each sin and ask yourself how pride was operative in that circumstance.  Unmasking pride and the ways you fall prey to it is a good step in resisting this dangerous vice.