“There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make. He did not want to go, indeed the whole idea was distasteful to him; but he could not get out of it. He knew he would have to start some time, but he did not hurry with his preparations…” – J. R. R. Tolkien
J. R. R. Tolkien, most famous for his Lord of the Rings trilogy, has a short story called “Leaf by Niggle,” which is a an allegory about life and work, and a beautiful cause for reflection on how we use or don’t use our human actions—especially our work— to prepare for the long journey— death— that all of us eventually have to make.
As we’ve been looking at here, St. John Paul II elucidates the moral weight of work— that it is good, even if hard— in Laborem Exercens. Hard work constitutes a large portion of our earthly experience, and is actually connected with our salvation. The last portion of Laborem Exercens looks at how Christians are called to cultivate a spirituality of work and share the dignity of work with others.
What Has Work to Do with the Church?
Maybe the answer is obvious, but why is it particularly the duty of Christians to speak on the value of work?
From a Christian perspective, every kind of work, no matter how manual, is an act of the whole person— body and spirit. While the eyes of faith allow us to see every act of work as meaningful, we need to make what St. John Paul II describes as an “inner effort” to give our work the “meaning which it has in the eyes of God and by means of which work enters into the salvation process.”
It is our job as members of the Church to speak the truth about work and its meaningfulness, and it’s also our job to form a spirituality of work!
A Spirituality of Work: Sharing God’s Activity
Of course, realizing the spiritual significance of work does not mean that we can’t use work to better our earthly life. Working to better our lives is not incompatible with faith; in fact, God gave man a mandate to govern the world and organize it.
St. John Paul II describes how in work man shares in the activity of the Creator and the very dignity of work consists in how man lives his likeness to God through creative action. This participation in God’s activity isn’t exclusive to seemingly lofty jobs like being a master chef or an engineer, but also little, simple tasks.
The Christian message about work doesn’t draw us away from the heritage of human progress, but impels us to work diligently and creatively. The Gospel of work is a profound motivation for work— we should be competent in secular fields and work with excellence in whatever we do.
A Spirituality of Work: Christ as Model
When we work to form a spirituality of work, our guiding principle should be that Christ is a special model for how work allows us to participate in God’s activity. One reason for this is that Christ chose to be a man of work, to learn His father’s manual trade. That Christ looks with love on human work, St. John Paul II says, is also evidenced by how He featured work in so many of His teachings and parables.
Scripture also speaks abundantly of work. The Old Testament references a great number of professions, St. John Paul II points out, thus addressing work as an integral human reality. In the New Testament, St. Paul is a particularly strong advocate of work’s vital importance. St. John Paul II notes that St. Paul was able to earn his bread through his trade even after he became an Apostle, and he exhorted other Christians to earn their living diligently and “whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men” (Colossians 3: 23-24).
A Spirituality of Work: the Cross and Resurrection
Near the end of Laborem Exercens, St. John Paul II beautifully weaves work into the Paschal Mystery. “All work, whether manual or intellectual, is inevitably linked with toil,” he begins. But toil isn’t just a description of our earthly experience; it’s also “an announcement of death.” Toil presents each person “with the possibility of sharing lovingly in the work that Christ came to do,” in other words, toil allows us to participate in the Paschal Mystery. And, in the interconnectness of Christianity, the Paschal Mystery contains not just the cross but also the Resurrection. St. John Paul II says:
The Christian finds in human work a small part of the Cross of Christ and accepts it in the same spirit of redemption in which Christ accepted his Cross for us. In work, thanks to the light that penetrates us from the Resurrection of Christ, we always find a glimmer of new life, of the new good, as if it were an announcement of “the new heavens and the new earth” in which man and the world participate precisely through the toil that goes with work.
Back to Niggle
Let’s end our reflection on the spirituality of work by returning to Tolkien’s story and the character of Niggle. Tolkien’s daughter described the story as one about how an artist struggled to meet the call to creativity as well as the demands of more mundane human work. She wrote:
This was a situation my father faced throughout his entire human life; he was the breadwinner in a family with four children, he earned his living by working extremely hard as an academic scholar and teacher, and for many years had to take on extra work to meet his financial commitments.
The story of Niggle reflects this struggle to use work responsibly. Niggle’s profession is painting, but he struggles with time management, wanting to devote all his time to the details of his masterpiece painting while other responsibilities, such as the needs of his neighbor, pull him in other directions. The experience of being pulled in many ways frustrates him, he so desires to complete his masterpiece, but he knows that his time is limited and he will eventually have to begin a journey, whether he wants to or not.
“Leaf by Niggle” dives deep into the notion of our work as sub-creators, that we imitate the Creator in our work and that this imbues it with meaning. But it also reminds us that life is a journey, a pilgrimage, and our human work will never be completed or perfected on earth. This reality demands of us a holy detachment from work, the ability to see our creation as subordinate to the Creator.
When Niggle’s masterpiece takes on a new sheen, a new reality in the afterlife, one of his neighbor comments, “It did not look like this then, not real.” A man replies, “No, it was only a glimpse then, but you might have caught the glimpse, if you had ever thought it worthwhile to try.” Let’s make it worthwhile to try and see the glimpses of the eternal reality that our human toil reveals! Doing so will help us cultivate the spirituality of work St. John Paul II calls us to develop and share in our workplaces today.