It is notable and even arresting how often our best efforts meet with failure—or at least what seems failure. This gives an opportunity to take a more careful look at how we conceive the point or goal of our daily labors.

In his Parochial and Plain Sermons John Henry Newman made a dramatic assertion, which could change our whole approach to work:

“…the time for reaping what we have sown is hereafter, not here; here there is no great visible fruit in any one man’s lifetime.”

My first response to this was skepticism; surely this is exaggeration! Then I kept thinking about it. I thought of Joseph of Nazareth. And other great men. What is the point of our work anyway? There is more here than meets the eye.

According to great thinkers like Aristotle, work, as opposed to leisure, is by definition an activity about producing something outside the work itself. It is reasonable then to judge work in terms of how well it produces what it aims to produce. I don’t think that Newman or any reasonable person would question this. Yet if we take a closer look at work as ‘producing’ something we might discover a deeper richness.

John Ruskin, in turning a critical eye at England’s industrial cities, delivered a devastating observation: “[W]e manufacture everything there except men.” He goes on: “[W]e blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages.”

Ruskin’s words open before us the complexity of the purpose or goal of work. There is work that yields good products but nonetheless fails in important ways and is perhaps even dehumanizing. And likewise, there is work that does not succeed in yielding desired products, at least immediately, but nonetheless succeeds in some key sense–perhaps the most important sense.

In reconsidering our work in this light two key takeaways come to mind, one about the inward fruit of work and one about the exterior fruit:

1) We need to rediscover an easily missed aspect of work: how it should grow the one working.
Josef Pieper uses the term ‘inner fructification.’ There is a real danger, especially today, in focusing exclusively on the outward and immediately ‘productive’ aspects of work. These are what get noticed, praised, and remunerated, and consequently they monopolize our attention and become the sole criteria of success, of how we judge ‘success’ in our work and even what work to do or not.

But by a plan written deep in human nature, an appropriate focus on excellence in production—which always characterized the practitioners of any ‘art’—is a key factor (though only one) in the inward fructifying power of work. In other words, striving rightly for excellence is part of how our work yields what might be its greatest fruit: the purification and maturing of our soul. I think of the line ‘as I work on my garden my garden works on me.’

2) We should take a long view of the exterior products of our work.
This begins with concrete material results. Work in the garden is not measured simply by this year’s produce—as desirable and important as it might be. We work in such a way that what we sow now will only come to fruition much later (especially by our care for the soil). The same can be said of the work of any real craftsman, whose work is always about serving human life, long term. The real value of what a carpenter makes today becomes clear in its serving people for many years.

Then there are those arts whose very work and ‘exterior’ fruit are in the bodies and souls of other persons, such as a medical doctor, therapist, counselor, teacher, or priest. Or parent. Here especially the long view is in order. What we do now doesn’t just echo down generations; it is aimed down generations.

This brings us back to a man named Joseph. A man who worked. With his hands, and with his heart. He sowed seeds. In every chair he carefully crafted. In every word he carefully spoke; to his wife, and to their Son; and to every person blessed to cross his path.

His was a workshop that crafted many things. Most of all it crafted men, starting with himself. It crafted wonders, far, far beyond his reckoning, that echo through the ages. And this is precisely because he steadily went about his work, practicing it as a gift, undistracted by anything that quickly passes, such as praise or notoriety.

What an incomparable gift. This deeper work of Joseph—from the stroke of his tools, to the order he put into the life of his home—was an exercise in crafting human flourishing, whether directly in souls or through the medium of material things. All in mindfulness of divine presence. And so it is can be for us. ~ ~ ~

TODAY’S NEW PODCAST RELEASE: Is Woman Still the Heart of the Home? Is woman as heart of the home an outdated and misleading stereotype, or is it what we should be striving for? Join John and Sofia in seeking answers to some wonderfully hard questions.

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