There is a famous phrase that resonates with an enduring truth, taken from the voluminous works of the American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation”. ‘Desperation’ comes from despair, which is the loss of hope. Hope in what? In God. Men cannot be sustained by a hope that is not theological.
Thoreau recognized that there is implanted in the human soul by its Creator a desire for truth and beauty that makes the commercial and social round that circumscribes the lives of most men deeply unsatisfying. He sought his escape by turning to nature. Yet, he only lived in his cabin in the woods for two years: just long enough to gather material for his book. If what he wrote were true, if contemplating the flora and fauna of the forest were sufficient for the human spirit, he would not have returned to the town, nor would he have bothered to write his book. But nature is not sufficient for the human spirit. Man can no more be sustained by nature than by artificial distractions. Perhaps that is why devout environmentalists are always seeking new causes and usually appear so intensely unhappy: they have placed their hope in something not only lesser than God, but lesser than the human soul. How can a Divinely created intellect rest content to expend its gifts on saving the rarotonga starling or protecting the habitat of the dwarf lake iris?
But it is the world of work where most try vainly to find fulfillment. This preoccupation with keeping ceaselessly busy is sometimes called The Protestant Work Ethic. I think this is a telling phrase. Why do we never hear of the Catholic Work Ethic? Are Catholics comparatively lazy? And why is work an ethic, which is a secular or philosophic term, instead of a moral virtue, which is proper to religion?
What if your boss, having asked you to work extra hours, were to console you with the words: “I think it was C.S. Lewis who said: Work is prayer in action” – would your reply be: “Perhaps. But C.S. Lewis was a Protestant. I’m Catholic. We believe that work is a punishment for original sin”?
A Catholic is aware that work began when Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise. That Adam and his descendants have had to eat their bread in the sweat of their brow is a punishment for sin, as is the degeneration and death of our flesh. The Protestants often curiously forget what’s in the Bible. We were not meant for work, but for contemplation. To make that which is a punishment for sin an idol to be worshiped is a denial of the Divine intent of creation. The Catholic must never forget that his ultimate vocation is sainthood, and it is the occupation of the Saint to look at the face of God. God does not care what we do, but who we are. What works can we offer Him? What does He need from us? What are our profit and loss statements in the economy of salvation? Or the size of our house or the cost of our furnishings? We often forget, in this land of waning opulence, that Scripture tells us love of money is the root of all evil.
Yet, our culture would make poverty the root of all evil and wealth the highest virtue, whose universal attainment has become the engine of social organization.