At some point in your career, you may struggle with burnout, job dissatisfaction, or simple boredom with the daily monotony. Perhaps you have resigned yourself to projects left incomplete or finished half-heartedly. Something is better than nothing is a tempting motto. On the flip side, I have met people, particularly people working for the Church, who feel that working hard for a promotion is too “worldly” and not fit for a Christian. It may surprise you that a saint once wrote, “A person with no professional ambition is of no use to me.”[i]
Inferior Work Is Not Christian Work
That was expressed by St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei. He wrote those words because he clearly saw the connection between work and virtue. The virtuous Christian, regardless of whether he or she is working in the Church, the office, or at home, is working to the best of his or her ability and always striving for perfection.
Professional ambition, while it can be wrongly ordered, is not only the worldly or greedy. Success in our professional lives is not antithetical to the Gospel. Rather, a good Christian will be a good worker. We often think of virtue in terms unattached from daily living. But the life of grace is built on the everyday, normal life of the Christian.
Virtue is found in doing daily work well. St. Josemaría warned, “Since we should behave at all times as God’s envoys, we must be very much aware that we are not serving him loyally if we leave a job unfinished; if we don’t put as much effort and self-sacrifice as others do into the fulfillment of professional commitments.”[ii]
We cannot strive for virtue at only certain times of our day or in particular environments. The woman who cuts corners at work, the man who is lazy at the office, and the student who does not study are not virtuous. Striving for excellence and virtue cannot be compartmentalized into certain arenas of life. Escrivá continues, “people who neglect obligations that seem less important will hardly succeed in other obligations that pertain to the spiritual life and are undoubtedly harder to fulfill.”[iii]
Self-knowledge here is important. If I am constantly cutting corners or neglecting obligations, are these the result of choices I am making and behaviors I could remedy? On the other hand, if we live with ADHD or another medical condition, our struggle to make deadlines might have a very different cause. I am not insinuating that those who must work with disabilities are less holy. Those who live with the challenges of neurodivergence are called to strive for virtue in work, too, but it will look differently for all of us.
The Cardinal Virtues in Work
Let’s look at how a few virtues play out in the workplace. When working, we should be spending our time well, seeing tasks to completion, and not dropping balls. While everyone needs a chat with a coworker at the coffee pot occasionally, we must be honest with ourselves: am I wasting time at work? While everyone works differently, when we fail to use our time well or do our work sloppily, we are not acting with justice to our employers and, if we work for the Church, to our parishioners and benefactors.
Perhaps getting distracted by coworkers or social media is your proverbial kryptonite. Maybe you are the one always running five minutes late for a meeting. Cultivate the virtue of temperance by resisting that urge to check social media at work or setting a limit to unnecessary conversations. Mortification is not just abstaining from meat on Fridays; it can also be found in doing the most undesirable task first or being punctual to a meeting.
The virtue of prudence can be lived out in our dealings with our bosses and coworkers. How do I learn from mistakes? Am I willing to learn from others? Discretion, sound judgment, and discernment are enormous aids in the workplace. Are you the coworker that flies off the handle or the one people come to for sound, balanced advice?
Fortitude can be found in persevering through tasks, especially those we find less desirable. It is tempting to focus on the fun and exciting projects and leave the other things for another day—or another coworker. Fortitude is also found in patiently dealing with others’ idiosyncrasies or mistakes. This virtue is not just for battlefields; it is also for monotonous tasks and annoyances.
The cardinal virtues, along with virtues such as industriousness, affability, honesty, generosity, and sincerity allow us to complete our work in love, which is necessary if we are to make all of our work —even “secular” work—a prayer. Every action of our day can be done in love and offered to God.
Christian Professional Excellence
It is not wrong for the Christian to excel professionally. On the contrary, it is a manifestation of his efforts to do his work well for the glory of God. In our quest for excellence, there are a few traps that we want to avoid.
Firstly, Christian professional excellence is not perfectionism, which is often a result of vanity; nor is desire for this excellence the same as the ladder-climbing of the world. Escrivá warns against a “disordered anxiousness to climb up the professional ladder” that is actually selfishness and vanity disguised under the appearance of wanting to serve souls.[iv] The Christian is focused on doing work well. That means we may have to be content with not getting the promotion, or with working without human adulation. Whether we are seen or unseen, we work with the same industriousness because we work for God. “Remember that you too have to be obedient and work away at that obscure job, which does not seem at all brilliant, for as long as God asks nothing else of you. He has his own times and paths.”[v]
Secondly, we must not get confused regarding the measurement of our success. The intention and way in which we work is different from the outcomes we achieve. We will not always make a lot of money, have crowds at our events, or be successful in the eyes of the world. However, these are not excuses to be content with inferior work. They are reasons to always continue to persevere in fortitude, have the prudence to pivot if necessary, and pray to see our work with the eyes of God.
Perhaps most importantly, having professional excellence as a Catholic does not mean your status, promotion, or title is an indication of your worth. It does not mean work should become an idol, consuming our lives and getting in the way of our spiritual lives, primary vocations, or the important practice of leisure.
Hinge of Holiness
St. Zita said, “A servant is not good if she is not industrious: work-shy piety in people of our position is sham piety. All devotion which leads to sloth is false. We must love work.”[vi] Work is the means through which we sanctify our daily lives. That requires us to do our work well, with industry, diligence, and love. It requires us to fulfill our obligations as perfectly as we can, without cutting corners or stopping halfway. It means striving to be punctual, organized, and conscientious of others. We cannot be sanctified through immoral work—but we cannot be sanctified through sloppy, careless, or poor work, either.
Whether we work in the home as a mother or father, for the Church or the government, whether we are an accountant, a teacher, or a student, if we work with our hands or sit behind a computer all day, we are called to live out the virtues in our work. St. Josemaría once wrote, “I cannot see the integrity of a person who does not strive to attain professional skills and to carry out properly the task entrusted to his care.”[vii] While St. Josemaría Escrivá’s words might seem harsh, we must remember: if we aren’t living the virtues in work, how do we expect to live them in our family lives, our spiritual lives, or our friendships?
Joan Watson is a Catholic speaker and writer who loves to make Scripture, theology, liturgy, and history accessible and applicable. She has worked for the Church and various religious apostolates for almost fifteen years.
[i]Josemaría Escrivá, Letter 15 October 1948, no. 15, quoted in Andrés Vázquez de Prada, The Founder of Opus Dei: The Life of Josemaría Escrivá, vol. 3, The Divine Ways on Earth (New York: Scepter Publishers, 2001), 71.
[ii] Josemaría Escrivá, Friends of God, no. 62, available online at https://www.escrivaworks.org/book/friends_of_god-point-62.htm.
[iv] Josemaría Escrivá, Furrow, no. 701, available online at https://www.escrivaworks.org/book/furrow-point-701.htm.
[vi] Zita, quoted in Ronda De Sola Chervin, Quotable Saints (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1992), 115.
[vii]Josemaría Escrivá, Christ is Passing By, no. 50, available online at https://www.escrivaworks.org/book/christ_is_passing_by-point-50.htm.
This article originally appeared on pages 30-31 of the printed edition.
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