And this is why the Jews persecuted and prosecuted Jesus, because he did this on the sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working and I also am working.” This is why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.

John 5:16-18

Recently I was listening to a podcast which was dealing with the status of The American Experiment (Open Source with Christopher Lydon, March 23). At one point, the Brazilian social and legal theorist Roberto Mangabeira Unger pointed out that the crisis of work, especially in the diminishing of manufacturing jobs, that western societies are undergoing has no way of being properly taken up within our current neoliberal framework. From his perspective, a new understanding of the role of work in our lives is required. As technology advances and the “production line” no longer requires human beings, we are offered the possibility of realizing once again the inherent connection between a person’s uniqueness and personal talents and the expression of that personhood in his or her work. Work could become the means by which a person’s call and distinctive and unique identity is manifest in the world through his or her activity. No longer must any human person become but an automaton, reduced to doing the work of a machine. If it is true that through technology we might arrive at a point where human beings need no longer be merely means of production, what kind of human and spiritual dynamism and creativity might be unleashed on the earth? Of course, this would require a wholesale re-orientation of our economic understandings and structures. We would need somehow to support such a way of living and working for each other.
As utopian as Unger’s perspective may be, it evokes real aspiration and sense of possibility. An inherent human tension and one of our central “spiritual” issues as human persons is the role and place of work in our lives. In our experience, despite Unger’s hopeful projections, there remains most often a great disconnection between the way we spend our hours of work and our deepest desires and aspirations of spirit. This is the reason and need for sabbath. Much of our work activity tends to distance us from our deeper ground and dissociate us from our spirit. As we fulfill our tasks and responsibilities in the work sphere of our lives, we often find that we can but dream of manifesting in our actions what it is in our hearts and our souls that we long to express.
As a very young man, in my first years of teaching in secondary school, I would very often walk into the school building in the morning and inwardly express a deep joy and gratitude that there was nothing I would rather be doing than the “work” that lay ahead of me that day. In time, I realized that in the classroom with my students I was more myself than anywhere else. I also realized that for most people this was not the case. Even for some of my colleagues, the work of teaching was something to be endured until the weekend or the next vacation. While the activity in which we were engaged was not at all “work” for me, it was sheer duty and drudgery for others.
It is our implicit disconnection between work and call that leads to the conflict in today’s gospel, and to the conflict that we feel between prayer/contemplation and action/service. At a recent meeting with a school community, the need for more spaces of quiet and reflection during the school day was raised. Many of the faculty and staff who were present felt that there was inadequate time and space for students to appropriate and integrate the teachings and spiritual directives they were receiving. As the conversation progressed, the inevitable sense of conflict between detachment and involvement, between prayer and action emerged. Without refuting the validity of the concern for more time, space, and silence, some brought up their uneasiness that we might be forgetting the call to ministry and service. It was pointed out that our call is to build the Kingdom of God in service to others, not to become introspective and self-centered. In our common experience, our actions and our work are in conflict with our desire for rest and stillness. We see the stillness, the rest, the prayer as valuable when it serves our working, but fear that it could readily become an excuse for avoidance of our work or our mission.
In today’s gospel, Jesus tells those who are accusing him of breaking the sabbath that God continues to work during the sabbath and that when we are working with God, when we are doing God’s work, we are also at rest in accord with the call of the sabbath. Adrian van Kaam says that each human being is “a task, an assignment, a mysterious call.” Deep silence and deep rest are not avoidance of but rather encounter with the call, the task, and the assignment that we are. The task that we are, however, may not be the work that preoccupies us. The discomfort of this inner conflict is why we so often avoid the quiet and the stillness. To realize our communion with God is to experience ourselves as a call in and for the world. This is potentially very threatening to the established order of things. To “run” the world as we do requires that we inhibit and even stifle the true identity and call of many, if not most, human persons. Our lives and our world are restless, perhaps, because there is such a distance between our call and our busyness.
In religious communities we speak constantly about our mission and our fidelity, or lack of fidelity, to it. Yet so often that mission is for us a ‘product.” As we see it, if we are not producing that product we are failing in our mission. Yet, in the deeper sense, the mission of a community is constituted by the unique “task, assignment, and mysterious call” of its members. “The Father is still working” in the lives of each of us. When our “work” corresponds to God’s work, we are fulfilling our mission in the world. The first and ongoing step for us, however, is to listen, attend to, and discern that work within us and how we are called to express it. This is not merely an individual task, but it is also a communal one. It is the meaning of what we call obedience.
In prayer and in action we can remain at rest if we are doing what our Father is doing in and through us. Likewise, in prayer and in action we are “at work” in the deepest sense of the term when we are allowing the Father’s work to manifest in us. The “problem” is not one of prayer versus action; it is rather one of obedience versus willfulness. As remote as it usually seems to us, we are able, both in meditation-prayer and in action to be at rest in our immersion in God’s life and love.

If we could always remain there with our simple gaze, we would constantly experience this, for our immersion and transformation in God continues forever, without interruption, provided we have gone out of ourselves and possess God in the immersion of love. If we do possess God in the immersion of love—that is, if we become lost to ourselves—then God is our own possession and we are his, eternally and irretrievably immersing ourselves in our own proper source, which is God himself. This immersion is essential and is characterized by habitual love. It therefore continues whether we are asleep or awake and whether we are aware of it or not. This immersion accordingly does not earn for us any new degree or reward, but it maintains us in the possession of God and of all the good that we have already acquired.

This immersion is like a river, which constantly and without turning back flows into the sea, which is its proper resting place. In the same way, if we have come into the possession of God alone, then our essential immersion through habitual love is always and irreversibly flowing into an experience which is without ground. We possess this experience as our own resting place. If we were always simple and unified and if we always saw with the same wholeness of vision, we would always have the same experience.

Jan van Ruusbroec, The Sparkling Stone, II,C


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