Antonio is a man in his 50s who works on a fruit and vegetable farm in Dutchess County, New York. From sunup to sundown six days a week, he spends every hour picking peas or apples, depending on the time of year. For the grueling work, he is paid $8 an hour with no overtime pay. “I’m tired,” he told The New York Times last summer. “Right now my knees hurt a lot because all day I work bending over or down on my knees.” Like the millions of other US workers who harvest much of the food we eat, Antonio’s days are monotonous, long, and seemingly devoid of spiritual meaning.
Stephanie is a young mother with four children. Her typical day includes waking up at dawn, diapering and feeding one child while clothing another, preparing lunches for the rest, doing a couple loads of laundry, cooking dinner, and putting the kids to bed—all before falling into bed herself, exhausted. The exhaustion runs deep. Aren’t there more important things I should be doing? she asks, lamenting that she doesn’t have the energy for prayer and study. Many days, she suffers quietly and alone.
For all of us who struggle to find spiritual meaning in our daily work, Antonio and Stephanie’s stories resonate. And the longer we stay rutted in our routines, the more pressing our questions become: How is this work shaping my heart and mind? Is it strengthening my relationship with God and others? Does it even matter in the world?
To answer these questions, many contemporary church leaders and writers describe the ways that work, paid and nonpaid, can shape our communities and bless our neighbors. And that’s true. But we also find rich answers among men and women of the fourth and fifth centuries, ...1