You don’t say “Thanks“ to a slave, do you, for doing what was commanded? The case is the same with you. When you have done everything that has been commanded you, say, “We are useless slaves! We have done what we were supposed to do!”
Luke 17: 9-10
Today is election day in the United States. It is the end of a political campaign in which calls for the common good and for responsibility to each other as fellow citizens have been largely absent. Only rarely have the candidates described the purpose of the office they seek as one of service to the people at large. Yesterday, as the campaigns were coming to an end, Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for office, told his supporters: “If we don’t win, I will consider this the single greatest waste of time, energy …and money.” Clearly for him, as truthfully for many who seek office, the purpose is to win, not to work for and to serve others.
All of us seek recognition, we desire to be seen as significant by others. We desire to be successful, as our cultures define success. We desire to excel, in the sense of standing above others in some way or other. Yet, we all know some area or other of life where we do something “for the love of it.” We have moments of engaging in work or activity that we do for no reason except to do it. As Jesus starkly teaches in today’s gospel, we do not at such times do the work we do even to receive “thanks” from others. Working in such a way is of ultimate value no matter the result of it or the response of others. Whatever its outcome, we would never consider the time spent doing “our” work, the work that is “ours to do,” “a waste of time.”
The gospels make clear to us that Jesus saw his life in the world as a work, a work that is completed as he gives up his spirit on the cross (John 19:30). So too our lives are, as Adrian van Kaam writes, “an assignment, a task, a mysterious call.” Our life, and so our life work, has no end or purpose external to its very being. Of course, life requires of us at times to do things we would rather not, to undertake tasks that seem unproductive and meaningless to us. Yet, even in these cases, we have a spiritual capacity to work in such a way as to be carrying out our life task. The young Therese of Lisieux discovered that the way to and of God was to do everything, including the smallest, most difficult, the most seemingly insignificant tasks “out of love.” For Sigmund Freud, “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” The key to human wholeness is for these two key dimensions of our lives to become one.
According to the teachings of all of humanity’s great wisdom traditions, the way to such an integration is to learn to do our work, as Meister Eckhart says, “for no reason whatever.” We are complex beings. Almost everything we do has multiple motivations. At times those motivations are largely material: we want to earn a good salary so that we can appropriately care for our family and maintain a respectable “lifestyle.” At other times, they are more emotional and psychological: we want respect and recognition. And at yet other times, they may appear to be more spiritual: we want to be good persons, good citizens, and to be loved by God. We want to be just in this life and rewarded in the next.
None of these motivations are bad, and forms of them pretty much play a part in everything we do. Today, however, Jesus reminds us that we are to do our work, to do what “has been commanded” of us only because it is what is to be done. To work in this way is what the tradition calls “poverty of spirit” and “purity of heart.” It is the way of freedom and integrity. When our doing flows from the mysterious call that is our life, we will never experience our work as a waste of time, even if nothing we can recognize comes of it.
In reflecting as a much older man on his young life, Theodore James Ryken spoke of his conversion at age 19 as an experience of being put in his place, of turning toward God, and of falling in love with God and putting himself in God’s service. It is quite clear from the remainder of Ryken’s biography that this was not, for him, a once and for all experience. As all of us, Ryken longed to love God and put himself at God’s service, but often it was the many “lesser” motivations that moved his actions and reactions. Simone Weill has said that “love is a direction.” It is in our acts, in our work, that we love. Our true ground is God’s ground and so when we act from that ground it is the creative love and action of God at work. The way to that ground is the way of poverty. We, with our manifold needs of body, ego, mind, and psyche must decrease that God may increase in us. The more this happens, the more our being becomes pure act. Then, what we do is never a “waste of time,” for time itself is but the space in which we/God carry(ies) out what we are for, what we have been commanded to do from before our very birth.
Now pay great attention and give heed! I have often said, and great authorities say, that a person should be so free of all things and of all works, both interior and exterior, that such a person might become a place only for God, in which God could work. Now I say otherwise. If it be the case that a person is free of all created things and of God and of oneself, and if it also be that God may find place in such a person in which to work, then I say that so long as that is in the person, that one is not poor with the most intimate poverty. For it is not God’s intention in his works that one should have in oneself a place for God to work in. Poverty of spirit is for a person to keep so free of God and of all one’s own works that if God wishes to work in the soul, God himself is the place in which God wants to work; and that God will gladly do. For if God finds a person so poor as this, then God performs God’s own work, and the person is in this way suffering God to work, and God is God’s own place to work in, and so God is God’s own worker in God’s self. Thus in this poverty the person pursues that everlasting being which that person was and is now and which will evermore remain.
Meister Eckhart, Sermon 52