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The Worth of Work Unfinished

My one-year-old has lately begun to “color.” A supply of pencils, crayons, and paper sits ever-ready at his small table in the corner of the kitchen, and when he first wakes up, or whenever he finds a free moment in his little day, he hastens there to draw, with all seriousness, beautiful inscrutable lines and swirls and loops. So intent is he that I sometimes have a hard time tempting him away for the day’s other tasks; he ignores offers even of snacks or outside play; I have to lift him, wailing and wriggling, to carry on with things I deem more needful: mealtime, bath-time, bedtime.

But, of course, I am too big for him to lift or pull away from my work of cooking or cleaning, even when he deems me needed elsewhere. All stern and patient, I, who tear him away from the work that absorbs him, explain that mama needs to finish her work before she can go to help pick up the blocks or rescue the stuffed puppy.

This is a double standard, and maybe it is not wrong. I, the parent, do have responsibilities that my son cannot yet understand. Food appears on his plate with the regularity of sunrise, and he cannot realize that it’s because of work I have had to finish over against his pleas. The parent, the provider, the protector, has a right, by the dignities and duties of his office, to privilege the finishing of his work over his child’s.

But there are many, many times that I privilege my work over others’ needs for reasons of selfishness rather than responsibility. I do not like baskets of unfolded laundry, dishes stacked in the sink, weeds overtaking my garden, chore lists left unchecked. And I have moods in which I will shush my baby’s interruptions—shorten conversations—skip opportunities where I could have brought comfort or consolation—to finish something so petty as dusting baseboards.

I am a parent; I have responsibilities. But then, many of the tasks I assign myself—even many that are needful in their turn—are loops and lines on a piece of scratch paper, compared with a greater summons.

For whatever else I am, I am the child of my Father in heaven, Who may call me from my work to finish His. St. Benedict says in his Rule that monks who “cherish Christ above all” take the “first step of humility,” which is “unhesitating obedience”; given a command from their superior, they “immediately put aside their own concerns, abandon their own will, and lay down whatever they have in hand, leaving it unfinished” (5.1-4, 7-8).

Put aside—abandon—lay down—leave unfinished: These phrases gall my checklist-cherishing soul. But what I see as mess might image the soul that cherishes Christ more. After all, unfinished work litters the Gospel landscape. Peter and Andrew “straightway left their nets” to follow the calling Christ; James and John, not to be outdone, “immediately left the ship” and, with it, their father. All four together just walked away, left the fish from the miraculous catch flopping on the beach. Matthew, too, “left all, rose up, and followed” when Christ came; perhaps some lucky ones slipped into the city without paying their taxes.

Conversely, the mark of the man not worthy to follow Christ is that he weasels for a way to first finish his work. The festal invitation “Come; for all things are now ready,” permits no excuse. Whoever begs field or ox or wife will be shut out from the wedding supper; whoever tries to bury his father will be sent away.

“Never,” says Benedict, “turn away when someone needs your love” (4.25-26). Given the chance, of course, it behooves us to seek the completion of what we have begun; the faithful servant does not dilly-dally after distractions. But the servant’s work is not finally the Master’s tasks but the Master’s will. The child waits upon the Father’s voice. Humility, obedience, and love move the Christ-cherishing soul; and we all are living on given land, seeking its good by the work of our hands, awaiting the Jubilee that will pluck us from the place of our labors and restore us to the place of our inheritance.

So take heart: the work unfinished at end of day, the lists unchecked, the dreams unrealized, may be the measure of your love.

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