A Work Within a Work

Notes from the talk of Julián Carrón at the National Assembly of the Companionship of Works (Milan, Italy, November 16, 2008).
Julián Carrón

BERNHARD SCHOLZ (President of the
Companionship of Works)
The situation has brought us to a dead end; we have to rediscover the road, a road that is surely toilsome, often uphill, but right, the right road, that starts out from work and enables each of us to regain awareness that every one of our gestures has infinite value.

Today’s theme was chosen before the crisis exploded so evidently, because for a long time we’d been aware that something wasn’t right anymore, that it was necessary to abandon the fixation on profits to return to a renewed appreciation for work.

We asked all the members of the Board [of the Companionship of Works] to channel questions on this theme to us, and then we decided on two of them.

The first question I’d like to ask Fr. Carrón touches upon an issue that has often been addressed in his talks, and that concerns an existential contradiction: on the one hand, people experience work as a condemnation, a kind of inevitable curse you have to bear when you have no other choice, and on the other, people experience it as an emotional high, above all in the moments of success (economic remuneration, career advances), and some even experience it as a drug, only to fall into a deep depression afterward.

So, the question is: How is it possible to experience work as a free subject who doesn’t depend on circumstances, but can face them head on? What is the meaning of work?

Work, as you’ve said, can become a high or a condemnation, because each of us experiences it as we experience ourselves, since work is an expression of self. The things that happen at work are the things that happen in life, above all when you have a certain conception of yourself. In fact, if you think of yourself alone, if your point of departure is only yourself, you’ll inevitably have moments of exaltation or depression. This demonstrates the paradox of the human being: our greatness, by which we can dream and achieve enormous things, is bound together with our smallness, which makes us more aware of our abysmal poverty. Those who conceive of themselves as alone, autonomous, without bonds, depend almost inexorably on these cycles of exaltation or depression, moments in which they touch the sky with their fingers and feel like God, and moments when they descend into the abyss and feel that they are nothing. How many of us have probably felt this way during these days of financial turbulence!

The Bible also recognizes this paradox as we see described beautifully in Psalm 8: “When I see the heavens, the work of Your hands/ the moon and the stars which You arranged/what is man that You should keep him in mind/ mortal man that You care for him?/ Yet [being a nothing] You have made him little less than a god/with glory and honor You crowned him/ gave him power over the works of Your hand/ put all things under his feet” (Psalm 8:4–7).

This is the acknowledgment of the greatness and smallness of the “I.” But as we see in the Psalm, religious men and women live this paradox within a relationship that supports them, clarifies them, saving them from the deceit of believing themselves to be God, or nothing–depending on their success–and this enables them to work in peace, to walk in peace, giving meaning to their work that, as the Psalm says, is collaboration with the Creator in the perfection of the work of His hands. This relationship is what supports us, enabling us to start fresh no matter what the circumstances, and this permits us to find an answer to the question: How can one experience work as a free human being, without being a slave to circumstances? This doesn’t depend on the kind of work you do, or on your conditions, but on the degree of humanity of the subject.

In another meeting that perhaps many of you attended, I read a letter written by a young man waiting for surgery (which he didn’t survive). He wrote to his friend about having to take an exam, saying, “Taking an exam is something we’ve all done in life, and it’s certainly nothing extraordinary. This is what I thought before meeting people who forced me, through a real interior revolution, to ask myself how seriously I was living my life. As you know, in a few days I’ll be admitted to the hospital for a bone marrow transplant; you might wonder what this has to do with my exam. If I weren’t in the Movement, if I hadn’t learned from the Movement to consider my studies as a fantastic opportunity to seek truth, to give meaning to my life, and to express a total judgment on it, then by now I’d already have started easing off, and I’d have gone home to wait for the day of the hospital admission. Maybe I’d have spent the time reading a few books or the newspaper, but fundamentally I’d have dissipated my days in the passive and desperate search for some way to endure the time waiting for the war to start (because it’s like going to war). By studying for the exam, the emptiness of time didn’t fill my days, but I myself filled time. The emptiness didn’t dictate the rhythm of my life; I did. I was lord and master of my days. I studied Civil Procedure, day by day grappling with the topics, happy about the power I still had over my day and, in short, over my life [this is protagonism: up to the last moment!]. If I had been inert, and waited out the passing of time, I would’ve remained its slave and been consumed without even realizing it. This makes me happy today, that I passed Civil Procedure, but I was already proud of myself yesterday; I felt fulfilled as a man because I knew that I was hoping against all hope.”

This testifies to the usefulness of living and of work. “The usefulness [of what you do, as we see in the letter] is independent of what you do; instead, Fr. Giussani says, it is determined by the consciousness with which you do it. This is freedom! If the value of an action lies in the circumstances of the action, then there is no freedom, because we depend on the situation. Instead, it lies in the consciousness of what one does [that one lives in a free way].”

In this way, work doesn’t become a condemnation (nor does an exam); instead, it is part of the journey to destiny–that is, the fullness of the “I.” In light of the young man’s death later, you understand the unique import of that gesture, of that way of acting. Who would’ve thought that in this way he was preparing to take the definitive step toward his destiny? He was already living it with this consciousness, which made him free, even from his illness. In order for this to be possible for each one of us, like this young man, we need to find someone to introduce us into living it as he testified: as a master, not as a slave, not subjugated. In order to live it with freedom and not as a condemnation, we need to understand, as he did, the meaning of work.

So then, what is the meaning of work? Understanding the meaning of my actions means grasping the nexus between what I do, enormous or banal as it may be, and destiny, the fulfillment of life, the fullness of the “I.” This involves an adequate conception of self. The human being is made of, constituted by, a desire for the infinite. Look how Fr. Giussani described it years ago: “Work is the expression of our being. This consciousness truly brings light and air to the worker who spends eight hours a day at his worktable, and to the entrepreneur striving to develop his company. Our being–what the Bible calls “heart”: courage, tenacity, shrewdness, labor–is thirst for truth and happiness. There is no undertaking, be it the humble one of the homemaker or the genius-inspired one of the designer, that is exempt from this reference, from the search for full satisfaction, for human fulfillment: thirst for truth, that starts from curiosity and moves more deeply into the mysterious enigma of inquiry; thirst for happiness, that starts from instinctivity and broadens to that dignified concreteness that alone saves instinct from degenerating into a false and ephemeral breath. This heart mobilizes everyone, regardless of the undertaking achieved” (L. Giussani, L’io, il potere, le opere [The “I,” Power, Works], Marietti, Genoa, 2000, pp. 91–92).

Those who understand this elementary truth about life also realize, on the one hand, that it is this desire for fulfillment that makes them work but, on the other hand, that no achievement of this work, no outcome, no result–whatever its degree of success–is enough to sate our desire for fullness. It is truly pathetic, if it weren’t so tragic, to see how completely this clear fact can be neglected by those who, for example, have made great scientific discoveries. This negligence is at the origin of the impression of work as condemnation that assails people who think they can achieve fulfillment with what they do. The hopeful expectation of the human heart is incommensurable compared to our achievements. This is the unique greatness of the human being.

Therefore, there is only one road to follow for work not to be perceived as a condemnation but, as that young man testified, as a journey to destiny, that is, as a step toward the Only One who can fulfill the human heart: the Mystery. This is why Fr. Giussani said that awork, the action of work, “deep down, is a prayer open to the religious sense of those who have faith and of those who don’t, because the religious sense, as described, is in everyone” (ibid., p. 92). This is the tragedy: we think we can erase this from the horizon of life.

Therefore, the condition for avoiding this tragedy is willingness to acknowledge this Mystery, witnessed to by the infinite exigency of the heart, and willingness to take each step in relationship with Him. Only those who accept the challenge of this vertiginous position can understand the meaning of work and be able to do the labor involved, without being discouraged by possible failures.

In order to accompany us along our journey, the Mystery became flesh, to be our companion and reveal to us the meaning of work. Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of the Father who is the eternal worker, and tells us, “My Father is at work now, so I am at work” (Jn 5:17). Becoming man, Jesus showed us how to live our work. Identifying with Him, we can live our work as He lives it, that is, as a relationship with the Mystery.

These aren’t mere imaginings. It has introduced a new concept of work into history, a love of work. Recently, the Holy Father reminded us of this: “In the Greek world, manual labor was considered something for slaves. Only the wise man, the one who is truly free, devotes himself to the things of the spirit; he views manual labor as somehow beneath him, and leaves it to people who are not suited to this higher existence in the world of the spirit. The Jewish tradition was quite different: all the great rabbis practiced some form of handcraft. Paul, who as a rabbi and then as a preacher of the Gospel to the Gentile world was also a tent-maker and earned his living with the work of his own hands, is no exception here, but stands within the common tradition of the rabbinate. Monasticism took up this tradition; manual work is a constitutive element of Christian monasticism. In his Regula, Saint Benedict does not speak specifically about schools, although, in practice, he presupposes teaching and learning, as we have seen. However, in one chapter of his Rule, he does speak explicitly about work (cf. Chap. 48). And so does Augustine, who dedicated a book of his own to monastic work. Christians, who thus continued in the tradition previously established by Judaism, must have felt further vindicated by Jesus’ saying in Saint John’s Gospel, in defense of His activity on the Sabbath: “My Father is working still, and I am working” (5:17). The Graeco-Roman world did not have a creator God; according to its vision, the highest divinity could not, as it were, dirty his hands in the business of creating matter. The ‘making’ of the world was the work of the Demiurge, a lower deity. The Christian God is different: He, the one, real and only God, is also the Creator. God is working; He continues working in and on human history. In Christ, He enters personally into the laborious work of history. […] God Himself is the Creator of the world, and creation is not yet finished. God works. […] [It would almost seem like a joke, if it weren’t so true.] Thus, human work was now seen as a special form of human resemblance to God, as a way in which man can and may share in God’s activity as creator of the world. Monasticism involves not only a culture of the word, but also a culture of work, without which the emergence of Europe [pay attention here, we’re talking about mysticism], its ethos, and its influence on the world would be unthinkable. Naturally, this ethos had to include the idea that human work and shaping of history is understood as sharing in the work of the Creator, and must be evaluated in those terms. Where such evaluation is lacking, where man arrogates to himself the status of god-like creator, his shaping of the world can quickly turn into destruction of the world” (Pope Benedict XVI, Meeting with Representatives of the World of Culture,Collège des Bernardins, Paris, September 12, 2008).

We here are involved in many aspects of work: either there are some “modern” monks who have this meaning of work and can educate others to this type of work, or it will be difficult for so many of our young people, with their indifference, to be inserted into the adult world and to collaborate in the destiny of all. Therefore, encountering the meaning of life with Christ doesn’t spare us from working but, as with the monks, puts us in the condition of doing so as free human beings, not as slaves. He is the One who reveals to us the full meaning of work; therefore, we can begin to work in a full way, as an expression of our love of Christ, because it is this love that enables us to work with a meaning and significance adequate to our being as men and women.

The second question we’ve obviously formulated as a synthesis of many others. It concerns work as an itinerary of knowledge because you understand, you intuit that work introduces you to the meaning of things, to a deeper knowledge of yourself. How is it possible, then, to live well the educative aspect of work, that is, to learn to work, and to work, learning?

I’ll respond with three short points:
1. In order to learn to work, we need to be willing to do a work within work; we need an education that enables us to have a different experience of work, more human, more able to fulfill life, as we mentioned before. Otherwise, work becomes our tomb, our sentence, in which we suffocate, waiting only for it to end so we can begin living when we have free time, as it is for the vast majority.

In order to do this work, we first of all have to start out from the acknowledgment that we need to learn to work. Secondly, willingness to learn is required, and this isn’t easy. It’s not easy for adults to accept having to learn what they thought they already knew. I’ve often told you that what saved my life was having accepted to learn what I thought I already knew.
This marks the beginning of an itinerary of knowledge. In work, as in life, the question continually arises, “What’s the meaning? Why do I do it?” What does work have to do with me, with my destiny, with my fulfillment?

2. In order to respond to this question, awareness of the need and willingness to do a work within work aren’t enough. What’s required is a hypothesis on the meaning of work that offers me a viable road. We know full well that our good will, our attempts are not enough. How many noble but sad attempts have each of us made (sad because they couldn’t reach the goal)! Each of us has made many such attempts without success. This is our powerlessness, and you need loyalty to yourself to acknowledge it. This is why we need to encounter someone who has a hypothesis to offer us, that each of us can then verify in reality, as that young man encountered it–banal as it may seem, the example of that young man contains all the factors that help us understand.

Each of us has a reason for working. All of us have a reason–family, money, power, society, etc.–otherwise, we wouldn’t do anything. Each hypothesis, whatever it may be, is subjected to the verification of experience, events, and unexpected occurrences. Whether we like it or not, beyond our intentions or the doggedness with which we pursue them, the consistency of each hypothesis or lack thereof is verified in reality. We see it now with the economic situation: how many hypotheses have proven true, that is, lasting, capable of challenging time and unexpected occurrences? Christians are well aware of this. Therefore, to the degree that faith is a principle of knowledge and action, and not merely a sentiment or a system of ethics, Christians don’t ground their value in any of these hypotheses. The Pope reminded us of this in his speech at the Synod:

“We must change our idea that matter, solid things, things we can touch, are the more solid, the more certain reality. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount the Lord speaks to us about the two possible foundations for building the house of one’s life: sand and rock. The one who builds on sand builds only on visible and tangible things, on success, on career, on money. Apparently, these are the true realities. But all this one day will pass away [it seems to me that you don’t have to go much further to see it]. We can see this now with the fall of large banks: this money disappears, it is nothing. And thus all things, which seem to be the true realities we can count on, are only realities of a secondary order. The one who builds his life on these realities, on matter, on success, on appearances, builds upon sand. Only the Word of God is the foundation of all reality; it is as stable as the heavens and more than the heavens, it is reality. Therefore, we must change [look at the extent of change required] our concept of realism. [it’s a problem of knowledge] The realist is the one who recognizes the Word of God, in this apparently weak reality, as the foundation of all things. The realist is the one who builds his life on this foundation, which is permanent. Thus the first verses of the Psalm invite us to discover what reality is and how to find the foundation of our life, how to build life” (Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI at the Opening of the 12th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, October 6, 2008).

The historical demonstration of this is what the Pope said about monasticism, with its capacity to rebuild Europe after the barbarian invasions, when everything had collapsed.

For Christians, what is this hypothesis we’re seeking? The same in which they place their hope for living: Christ, the consistence of everything, and therefore the only hope that doesn’t disappoint. For us, the meaning of work is Christ, the Presence that invades our life and fills it with tenderness and affection. This is why we can get up in the morning and go to work, regardless of the outcome, because we are filled with a Presence that makes life different and with which we can face everything. In this Presence we find the energy for commitment, enabling us to start anew over and over, even from the ashes of our failures. He is the value of every action. Therefore, “there’s not one instant of uselessness, a useless or less dignified job. Not one!” And Fr. Giussani continues, “Understanding and living this is called–in Christianity–offering, because offering a thing means acknowledging that the value of this thing is the mystery of Christ.”

For us, work is offering, acknowledgment that the consistence of everything is Him, Christ; to the measure to which we belong to Him, we can collaborate with Him in giving a more human face to the world, which we transform through our work. It is work done in the memory of Christ, something understood well by anyone in love; in fact, Guardini says, “In the experience of a great love […] everything that happens becomes an event in its sphere” (R. Guardini, L’essenza del cristianesimo [The Essence of Christianity],Morcelliana, Brescia, 1980, p. 12). Everything, even work. Once I was asked how it was possible to live the memory of Christ in work, and I blurted out, “And how can you manage to work without the memory of Christ?”

Those who dare to verify this hypothesis see an unexpected result spring forth, as Fr. Giussani says. “It is the evangelical concept of ‘miracle’: a humanity that could never have been achieved by a project or an operation. It’s not a definitive accomplishment […], but a down-payment, a pledge of it already, now. Christianity sees in this world the pledge of paradise; a pledge that consists precisely in a humanity that becomes better where the Christian hypothesis is accepted and actuated” (L. Giussani, L’io, il potere, le opere, op. cit., p. 93).
But a third element is needed.

3. In order to sustain the “I” in its tension, a companionship is needed.
“How is it possible for men and women to sustain this ‘heart’ [this striving for the infinite] before the cosmos and, above all, before society? How can men and women–they asked Fr. Giussani–find support for a positivity and an ultimate optimism (because without optimism you can’t act)? The answer is: not alone, but involving others with yourself. Establishing an operative friendship (shared living or companionship or movement)–that is, a more abundant association of energies based on a reciprocal acknowledgement.” I think this is what we’re attempting in the Companionship of Works. “The consistence of this companionship is directly related to the permanence and stability of the reason for which it is born. A friendship born of shared economic interest will last as long as it is judged useful. Instead, a companionship, a movement, that arises from the intuition that the goal of an undertaking exceeds the terms of the undertaking itself, and that it is the attempt to respond to something much greater, well, a movement born of the perception of the heart that we share in common and that defines us as human beings, this establishes a ‘belonging’” (ibid. pp. 92–93).

This is why the “religious sense [this heart we share in common] creates within society movements, experiences of unity among men and women, not abstract but desirous of building, of changing society and its structures, to make it more befitting the true image of the human being and the true measure of our exigencies.” Fr. Giussani continues, “Here, this is why our first duty is to build places, spheres in which the true image of the human is cultivated. This is the value of our groups wherever they may be: to build spheres where human beings are treated for who they truly are. This is why it’s necessary to get involved with others, not according to a pre-constituted idea but according to what the others are by their nature” (ibid. p. 56).

A word in conclusion.
“The verification of what we’re saying doesn’t have to wait till the end, when we’ll have reached our Destiny; it awaits us every day in a truth, in a gusto for life and in a capacity for shared living [a capacity for beginning anew] that otherwise would be impossible. The religious sense [what the Pope identified as the motivation of the monks, the quaerere Deum, as the reason for which they moved] acknowledged, tentatively and humbly lived, represents the road of the person, of the ‘I;’ the road of that being to whom a mother, with her pain, gives life” (ibid. p. 59). Thank you.