work tedium operato dei surviving

The Christian Guide to Surviving Tedious Work

Have you ever flung yourself on the couch after a long day at work and screamed to the ceiling, “What is it all for?!” Does it ever feel like you’ll burst if you do one more load of laundry? Lord knows I have more than once—sometimes a couple of times a day, if I’m being honest.

On those days, I feel that nothing I do has a purpose. Whether it’s washing the dishes (again), plugging pages upon pages of names into a catalog that no one will ever look at, or even just smiling when I don’t want to—it’s all running in a hamster wheel.

Russian playwright Anton Chekov sums up the hardship of humdrum life thus: “Any idiot can face a crisis – it’s the day to day living that wears you out.” What good are these mundane little tasks that make up the endless cycle we call “ordinary life”? There is nothing grand or elaborate about our chores and routines, yet they fill our hours and days and years. So what is it all for?

God Put Man in Eden to Work

The answer lies in two words: Operatio Dei. God’s work.

Work, in the eyes of the divine, is not a chore and most certainly not a punishment or consequence of original sin. Rather, work is an invitation to each man to serve Our Lord in accordance with his God-given vocation. This service, in turn, becomes an active participation in the divine plan.

Remember how God called Adam to cultivate and nurture His creation? God didn’t impose work on Adam as a punishment for sinning. Rather, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” before the Fall (Gen 2:15). Upon his creation, Adam received the calling to participate in God’s work.

Josemaria Escriva, the founder of an organization for lay people called Opus Dei, examines Adam’s assignment to work in the Garden of Eden. He concludes:

Work is a magnificent reality… It is meant to fill out our days and make us sharers in God’s creative power. It enables us to earn a living and, at the same time, to reap ‘the fruits of eternal life.’

God called Adam to work alongside Him, and God calls us to do the same in our own daily lives. With the reality of that partnership in mind, nothing in our daily lives is ever truly mundane.

Find Greatness in the Humdrum or Not at All

When I moved back home from college for a gap year, I struggled to remember all this. It’s always hard readjusting to home life after a rigorous and exciting school year of independence, but it was harder this time – maybe because I knew I had graduated and wasn’t going back to school.

My life suddenly went from crafting essays to chasing scattered part-time jobs. I struggled to find a routine, and so my good habits slipped away with daily prayer being the first to go. I couldn’t have been more lost.

That is when I came across Alexandre Havard, author of Virtuous Leadership: An Agenda for Personal Excellence. A mentor recommended this book to my friend and me as we began our transition into post-college life. Havard constantly encouraged me to take an honest look at myself, yet he warned against despairing at what I thought I saw.

Instead of focusing on my day to day failures, Havard insisted that I direct my energy towards rediscovering the operatio Dei in my own daily life. I had to remember that life was something more than a cycle of ordinary duties. Havard reminds us:

We must be convinced that we will either find greatness in the context of humdrum reality and in service to the people we deal with every day or we will not find it at all.

This passage counters Chekov’s perspective on the hardship of daily life. God did not design “day to day living” to wear us out, but to help us reach unity with Him. Just as God sees us for what we truly are beneath all our worldly cares, toils, and strife, so must we remember that the “humdrum reality” is actually a participation in God’s work.

Your Labor Cannot Be in Vain

Does that mean I’ve found once again the greatness and wonder in the ordinary life? Did I have an overnight conversion? No. It’s still super ordinary. Less than twelve hours ago, I cried to the ceiling, “What is it all for?” It’s even hard to pray right now, and I often want to quit trying at life because any effort seems so futile. But I – and anyone else who’s struggling – must remember Paul’s words:

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast and immovable in your resolve, doing your full share continually in the Lord’s work, since you know that your labor in the Lord’s service cannot be spent in vain. (1 Cor 15:58)

We can’t let shame or laziness prevent us from doing God’s work with Him. Looking at every small task as Operatio dei is the only way we can understand that ordinary life is in fact an opportunity for communion with God.

Author: Madison Kearney

Madison Kearney is a graduate of Hillsdale College and Franciscan University, and currently teaches in Phoenix. She enjoys sipping wine, reading T.S. Eliot, and watching desert sunsets with her fiancé.

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