One day, Jesus was having a lengthy discussion about the Law with the local religion scholars. The discussion that day was wide-ranging, covering many topics that some might judge to be not all that important. A scribe overheard the debate and decided it was time to cut to the chase:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
We should consider the possibility that the two Great Commandments to which Jesus referred are not simply religious laws to be kept ahead of all others. Rather, they are laws similar in nature to the law of gravity. The law of gravity is in effect everywhere and at all times. There is never a place or a time when the law of gravity is suspended. It penetrates everything. Likewise, the two Great Commandments permeate all of life, affecting everything all the time. There are no exceptions. They are so important and all-encompassing that they tie all of life together. Indeed, they infuse life with meaning. Although we are not obligated to acknowledge the existence of the law of gravity, we ignore it to our peril and certain death. Likewise, because we are free agents, we can ignore the two Great Commandments but with equally severe consequences.
The problem is that we have heard these verses of Scripture so often that we have become deaf to them. Furthermore, we are so accustomed to hearing and applying them in a religious context that we cannot fathom what they have to do with the rest of life, beyond showing kindness to the people with whom we rub shoulders every day. For certain, it is not immediately evident how these Commandments might relate to our vocations.
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola framed the two Great Commandments in a way that is helpful because of its conciseness, its profound simplicity, and its potential for relating our devotion to God to the rest of life. Ignatius wisely understood that his adaptation of the Great Commandments was absolutely fundamental not only to the spiritual exercises, but to all of life, as well. Therefore, he titled the following the Principal and Foundation:1
Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.
And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.
From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.
For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.
My work or vocation, is one of several major defining contexts for my life. All of us are shaped by our vocation in ways that, perhaps, we might have considered from time to time. My life would be different had I chosen to be a civil engineer or a politician rather than a university academic. Most importantly, this “shaping” is part of God’s plan for me. Because God is so powerful, it makes no difference, in terms of His ability to shape me, whether or not I chose wisely in selecting my vocation. He is not thwarted or dumbfounded by my mistakes. Certainly, a poor choice of vocation would impact my life, but does not interfere with God’s redeeming activity in me.
Behind all this is the concept that my vocation, and everything else I do in life, provides the essential context in which God creates, redeems, and molds me into the person that He wants me to be, the person who will spend all of eternity in His bosom. “And the other things on the face of the earth [including my work] are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.” (emphasis and bracketed addition are mine.) At a fundamental level, my work has but one aim: “to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord.” Therefore, I need to view my work as a means to this end, and not any other end, using what I do every day to help me to achieve that objective.
We are readily confused about “the end” and very easily persuaded that the work we do is “the end.” See how easily we conclude that planting churches and healing people from dreadful diseases is the work of God, by which we mean that vocations such as these obviously have more importance than many other vocations, which we classify as not being the work of God. However, the work, itself, laudable as it may be, is not the end! To conclude such is to commit spiritual adultery, substituting work in place of God. We must rethink our lives: our end is “to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord,” or as Jesus put it: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment.
The question remains: How do I construct or order my life in such a way that I understand my work, as a means to pursuing my end, which is God, my Lord?
1 St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises. P.J. Kenedy & Sons, NY, 1909. Originally composed circa 1520 A.D.