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Ratzinger on the Toil of Christian Living

I’ve been battling an enormous pile of dirt in my driveway. My wife and I have been building raised bed boxes for our garden, and like with any honey-do project, I went a bit overboard. After five hours of shoveling and hauling topsoil and fill, I was exhausted. The boxes were nowhere near full. And the pile of dirt sat seemingly untouched on the driveway.

As I worked, my thoughts went in random directions. I kept coming back to the idea from Genesis 3 of toil and labor resulting from the curse. My back ached and I was exhausted. Despite advancing, I felt little satisfaction because the pile of dirt was still huge and the boxes unusable.

This made me wonder: what exactly is the curse? When I was younger, I thought the “curse” of Genesis 3 consisted in work simply being work, that is, something keeping me from what I really wanted to do. I later realized that work was menial because I didn’t have skills to excel at anything. I learned a few skills and then a few more, and suddenly I could excel at things. But work was never really finished. The curse affected not just pure toil, but a continual frustration that no matter how much I worked, there is always more to be done.

As Catholics we say “offer it up” or “work and prayer ”— ideas that we should sanctify our work. I admit this idea is far easier expressed than lived. Few are the days that this orientation reduces the weight of the curse on my work. It feels like redemption makes little difference in my day-to-day life.

I’m relieved that Pope Benedict feels likewise. In a series of talks written before Lent in 1967, and collected in a small book called Being Christian, Ratzinger addresses this crisis that faces the believer:

I believe the real temptation of today’s Christian does not consist in the theoretical problem of whether or not God exists, or of whether He is three persons in One; nor in whether Christ is simultaneously God and man. Rather, what troubles and tempts us today is the impracticability of Christianity; after two thousand years of Christian history we do not see that there has come about any new state of affairs in the world — a world which is still filled with the same fears, doubts, and hopes as before. In our private lives, too, we notice the weakness of the Christian truth in comparison with all the other forces which oppress us. And if, after living a Christian life in the midst of struggle and temptation, we are once again filled with the feeling that the truth has slipped through our fingers, that we have lost it and are left with nothing but the weak flame of our goodwill as a last resort. At this point, in these moments of depression, we look back over the path we have taken, a question springs to mind: what is the point of all this dogma, of religion, and of the Church if at the end we still find ourselves engulfed in our own wretchedness?

At the end of many work days, I find myself “engulfed” in my “own wretchedness,” and sometimes “depressed,” trying to do some good in this world, realizing I have little chance of seeing a “new state of affairs in the world.” A progressive attitude of trying to make things better looks as futile to me as a conservative one of simply handing on what we have received.

At this point, I expected the author to offer some pious saying or other fruitful thought to console my despair. “It is advent,” he remarks, “All our answers are incomplete.” So is my work. So is my pile of dirt. But working, moving dirt, helps to uncover hidden truths — the same truths as Benedict talks about. Work dignifies me because of it. That’s a consolation to me, finding solidarity with him in this most basic, personal dimension of faith.

 

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