Dignified work & vocational discernment

Community Organising, Urban Leadership School l

The vocation project, started by a number of interns from this year’s summer internship, continues to grow. Alongside creating spaces for vocational discernment in various institutions, they have also been reflecting on a connected issue: the nature of work.

Having benefitted from it ourselves during this year’s Summer internship, our project emerged from a sense that enjoying a space for vocational discernment is very important. It allows us to reflect on what gives us life, wisely approach important decisions, and use our talents for the common good.

However, while doing 1-2-1s in various institutions and communities in Oxford and Exeter Universities as well as East London, it quickly becomes clear that an important prerequisite is necessary for vocational discernment to be possible and fruitful. This is namely the availability of dignified work. For how can one discern one’s vocation if stuck in a mode of incessant competition for menial and meaningless jobs? What is the point of discernment if there are only very few jobs available and your family needs food on the table? Several of the young adults and parishioners at the Catholic Parish in Manor Park work in low paid and monotonous jobs, which can make the whole topic of ‘vocation’ seem less salient.

This leads to an important question. What is dignified work? What should work be, particularly so as to open up a space for vocational discernment? This is a question that core team member Zoe Mathias has been reflecting on.

“As part of my work on the vocation project I came across John Hughes’ The End of Work: theological critiques of capitalism. This book aims to ‘oppose the myth of labour as utility.’ It argues that using utility as the criterion for work is dehumanizing, that the spirit of utility is ‘anti-theological’.

“What then should work be? This question is ‘profoundly ambiguous.’ In Genesis 2 we see work both as the purpose of humanity’s existence and as toil and hardship emerging from the fall. There is a lacuna in the field for a pragmatic and theological conception of exact what work should be.

“Hughes sketches a picture of work with a Benedictine feel where we can say ‘laborare est orare’ (to work is to pray)–when work moves beyond utility and is rather part of God’s divine work, and could be a ‘liturgical offering.’ He pictures a world where ‘production, exchange and consumption cannot simply pretend innocently to follow the slavish whims of popular desire but must all be subjected to an endless discernment based not on question that question ‘what can I get out of this’ but ‘is this truly good and useful’ and ‘is it serving its true end.’’ Holy working, eating and trading are prophetic witnesses.

“In the imperfect world-as-it-is we are very far from such an idealized picture of work. This is partly because work is so intermingled with the fallen world that we are apart of. The transformation of labour is ultimately about personal responsibility as can be seen from many of he key thinkers. It could even be argued that this side of the eschaton it is impossible.

“However we would love to see a society that is closer to this ideal, and an essential part of this is creating the space for people to think for about their lives as they are before God, not through the lens of utility.

“What does it mean for the work of an institution to be a liturgical offering? What does it mean to have a beautiful job? It is these questions that excite me and that I want to explore further. As Christians we believe that we have unique a vision of work as partaking in divine labour linked with the essential value of humans. We are excited takes John Hughes’ mandate of taking the question of work seriously as Christians.”

Our project hopes to agitate institutions to also take more seriously the challenge of creating dignified work. In the Parish of St Stephen’s, Manor Park, for instance, we are using community organising to empower the church community – led by the young peoplen- to act with local businesses to create dignified work in the area. And, we hope, this can then open up a fruitful space for vocational discernment. So that all the young people can be allowed to grow their talents and flourish.

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