The best boss I ever had was a Catholic. He never made a big deal out of it, but later, when I had been in the workplace long enough and had run my own company, I realized that the man had acted as a Catholic every single day of his life, and that his Catholicism had informed every single thing he did in the workplace.
Catholics believe that God is in the midst of the hustle and bustle of daily work life. First of all, he was honest about everything, from the quality he put into his products, to dealing with customers and staff. “Always tell the truth,” he told me, “then you never have to remember what you said.” I remember one time when one of his vendors made a mistake in our favor on an invoice. My boss corrected it and paid the full amount. “I’d hope that our customers would do the same for us,” he told me, even though he knew some would not.
Second, he was compassionate. Our company had no set rule for how many days off employees could take after a death in the family. “How am I supposed to know how long it takes for a particular person to grieve a particular loss?” he asked me. “Our people will come back to work when they’re ready.”
Third, he was successful. Maybe his company didn’t make the maximum money it might have, but it paid all its bills, employees received fair compensation and enjoyed coming to work, customers received good service and a quality product, and my boss was well-respected by everyone who knew him. He practiced what I call a “spirituality of work,” even though he never imposed his religious beliefs or practices on anyone.
On the other hand, a college student I know has been working nights, summers, and holidays at a local fast food restaurant. The work there is a daily hell for her. She never realized how rude and insulting people can be, and how one such interaction can ruin an entire day. So she bites her tongue and gets through each workday. But then she goes home depressed and takes out her frustration on her parents, siblings, and friends.
How does my young friend learn what my old boss knew? What does she do each day to make her workplace a little better for everyone, including herself? How can she do her work in such a way that it brings her joy and fulfillment, rather than pressure and insecurity, even if it is not the greatest job in the world and even if she hopes she doesn’t have to do it forever?
Catholics believe that God is everywhere — not just in the quiet moments of peace and contemplation, but also in the midst of the hustle and bustle of daily work life. Is God present in a dehumanizing workplace? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Is it always easy to be aware of God’s presence in those workplaces? No.
Catholic spirituality has a couple of key elements that make it very helpful to those in the marketplace. First of all, Catholics are usually allergic to overt displays of religiosity. We don’t usually walk around saying, “Praise the Lord!” or asking people if they have been “born again.” With Jesus, we believe that if we are going to pray, we need to do so “behind closed doors” (see Matthew 6:5). These are good things in most workplaces, where people come from a variety of different religious traditions (or none at all) and are rightfully suspicious of those trying to impose their religion on others.
Second, Catholics believe that actions speak louder than words. We take to heart the stories Jesus told about “bearing fruit” and “going to work in the fields.” We believe that we will be judged on whether we performed the spiritual and corporal works of mercy rather than merely talked about them. At the end of every Catholic Mass, the entire congregation — without exception — is sent forth to help transform the world into something much more like the way God would have things, what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.” One of the places we are sent is to our jobs, whether we like them or not. It is our mission to make our workplaces better, just because we are there.
So what do I advise our part-time fast food worker? I’d tell her to look in her workplace for ways she can practice the spirituality of work in the midst of a difficult situation.
Let’s take that rude or insulting customer or fellow employee. The first thing my friend needs to realize is that she will encounter such people no matter what job or career she might choose. Certainly her present job may have too large a percentage of them, but that makes it a great place to learn how to deal with them. The first spiritual discipline she might practice is merely staying calm and not overreacting. Maybe a short prayer can be said: “Lord, help me be kind to this person.” If there’s not even time for that, perhaps a deep breath with her eyes closed before she responds might help.
As she grows in the practice of the spirituality of work, however, she might try to see if she can figure out ways to be more understanding of others who put her down. She might start by trying to imagine what might be happening in their lives. Maybe someone has just lost a job, had a death in the family, broken up with a spouse or fiancé, or has a kid in trouble. Having put herself in their shoes, she might react accordingly: “I’m sorry that you’re upset. Let me see if I can help.” Eventually, she might even try to “flip” the mood of the other person, especially once she gets to know him or her, by saying something funny or by inviting dialogue: “Is there something else I can do for you?”
Most of the time it will be something as simple as giving a smile and a sincere “thank you” or “have a good day” or “God bless you” (if that’s appropriate) to a customer who looks like he or she needs a lift. Or putting her arm around a fellow employee who is having a particularly hard day. Or saying a quick word of support to a boss who seems to have lost composure. If done with enough persistence and intentionality, these little practices can become this woman’s prayer at work, raising her awareness of the presence of God and changing her attitude toward her work. She may come to realize that she is doing what she can to bring God’s kingdom in a bad situation, and that perhaps she’ll be the only one who shows any concern for the crabby customer or fellow employee all day. It may not make the job any easier, but it might make it more holy.
That old boss of mine prayed unceasingly at work even though we never caught him at it, and because of that he was always happy and fulfilled. That young college student will eventually graduate and go on to her career. How she learns to pray at work ultimately will determine whether or not she is happy and fulfilled. CD
A guide to prayer in the workplace
“Pray unceasingly,” St. Paul told the Corinthians (1 Thessalonians 5:17), but he certainly didn’t have your workplace in mind. Or did he?
Whether your work is paid or unpaid, socially meaningful or pure drudgery, whether you love your job or merely tolerate it, the workplace is not someplace most people think to pray. But where else do we need it more? Here are a few guidelines for prayer in the workplace:
- Our prayer in the workplace should raise our awareness of the presence of God and allow that awareness to change how we do our work.
- Our workplace prayer should be done in the midst of our work, not in spite of, in addition to, before, after, away from, or — especially — instead of doing our work. Another way of saying this is that our work is our prayer or becomes our prayer.
- Our prayer should enhance our work, not take away from it. Our work needs to be done, and done well. “My Father continues to work, and so do I,” said Jesus, implying that we should, too (see John 5:17).
- Our prayer at work should never disturb or offend others. We are not praying to be noticed. We are not trying to convince people of how holy we are or they should be. Our work and the way we do it is what they should notice.
Resources for Workplace Spirituality
- Pope John Paul II’s Gospel of Work with introduction and commentary by William Droel (Twenty-Third Publications, 23rdpublications.com)
- “Faith and Work in Cyberspace” dialogue group (mycatholicvoice.com)
- On-the-Job Prayers by David Thompson, and other books on faith and work (ACTA Publications, actapublications.com; 800-397-2282)
- The Holy Bible and the documents of Vatican II, especially the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World and the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (vatican.va)