May 13, 1999

[This letter in English]
[Dieser Brief auf deutsch]
[Esta carta en español]


May 13, 1999
Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

One day, someone asked a priest: "Why did they say you were crazy?" He answered, "Don't you think it's a bit crazy to claim that we can and must be holy in the middle of the street, that those who sell ice cream cones from a little stand can and must be saints, the same for the employees who spend their time in the kitchen, a bank director, a university professor, and the person that works in the fields, and the person who carries luggage on his shoulders? They are all called to sainthood! The last Council (Vatican II) has now taken this up, but at that time, in 1928, this hadn't occurred to anyone. Thus, it was logical to think that I was crazy " This priest was Blessed Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer.

"How well you take care of these flowers!"

Blessed Josemaría explained, "In order to love and serve God, it is not necessary to do extraordinary things. Christ asks all men without exception to be perfect as His heavenly Father is perfect (cf. Mt 5: 48). For the great majority of men, to be holy consists of sanctifying their work, to sanctify themselves in their work, to sanctify others with work, and also to find God on the road of their life." One day while passing by two gardeners, he said to them: " How well you care for these plants, all of these flowers  What do you think is more worthwhile? Your work or the work of a government official?" And, since they were unable to find an answer, he went on: "That depends on the love of God that you put into it. If you put in more love, then your work is more worthwhile."

Early on, Saint Benedict, the Father of the Western monks, placed great importance upon work. In his Rule, written in the sixth century, he declared that laziness was the "enemy of the soul" and made sure that the monks were never without work (chap. 48); he prescribed prayers to sanctify activities (chap. 35), and suggested that the tools and goods of the monastery be given the same care as the sacred vessels of the altar (chap. 31); he also desired that his followers make their living through work, but always in a measured fashion and "so that God be glorified in all things" (chap. 48; 57).

In our time, Blessed Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer contributed greatly to bringing back into the limelight the "spirituality of work." Born on January 9, 1902, at Barbastro in Aragon (Spain), Josemaría was the son of a fabric merchant. He was to have four sisters and a brother. The atmosphere at home was marked by dignity and by tradition, simple, elegant, joyful and pious.

in Barbastro, Josemaría went to a school runned by the religious of Saint Joseph Calasanz. The successive deaths, in 1911, 1912, and 1913 of his three younger sisters profoundly affected him. In 1915, another test struck the family: his father's business interests were ruined; they had to leave Barbastro for Logrono. There, José Escrivá found work in another fabric store. The family had to live in cramped lodgings, with low ceilings, hot in summer and cold in winter. But nothing changed in their manner of living, profoundly Christian, heroically joyous, and very helpful to their neighbors. Josemaría finished his middle school years at a school in Logrono.

Footprints in the snow

In the last days of 1917, he noticed in the snow traces of the steps of a "Discalced" Carmelite, that is, of a Carmelite Monk who, in the spirit of humility and poverty, walked barefooted. This sign of humble imitation of a poor Jesus Christ aroused in Josemaría a bold thirst for the love of God, an intense fervor in his life of piety and finally the decision to become a priest in order to be totally available in the hands of God. He began his studies in theology at the Seminary of Logrono, in 1918. Then, in September 1920, he went to Saragossa, where, a few months before his priestly ordination (1925), his father died on November 27, 1924. "I never recall a mean gesture on his part," Josemaría wrote. "I always see him calm, a happy face, always smiling  God made me to be born into a Christian household like all of those in my country, of exemplary parents who practiced and lived their faith, leaving to me from the earliest childhood a great freedom, but at the same time, watching over me with attention. They insisted on giving me a Christian upbringing, and that is where I learned more than I did in school, even though they had entrusted me right from the age of three to Nuns and from the age of seven to Brothers."

Strengthened by his family experience, Blessed Josemaría would be able to say to married couples: "The least I can do is bless this human married love, which the Lord asked me to refuse for myself. But I love it in others, in the love of my parents, in that of couples for each other. So, love truly! And as I always advise you: husband and wife, do not argue much amongst yourselves! It is better not to play with happiness  Never argue in front of the children; they pay attention to everything and they immediately make a judgment. I have a wonderful memory of my father and my mother: I never saw them quarrel. They really loved one another. Obviously they quarrelled. But they never quarrelled in front of the children  Be modest in front of the children."

Work of God

On October 2, 1928, during a spiritual retreat, Don Josemaría saw while praying the particular work to which God called him: to transmit to the men of our time the ideal of sanctification by the fulfillment of the duty of one's state (professional, familial, etc.). In 1930, he christened his work "Opus Dei" (God's work), which signified in his thought that each member would make of his work something sacred, under the look of God.

Opus Dei owes much to the Escrivá de Balaguer family. That is where the simple and joyous family atmosphere was found, as well as charity and affection, and the love of work well done; distinguished and smiling, Don Josemaría's mother really did everything to perfection. The importance of an upbringing oriented towards work received in the family is underlined by Pope John Paul II in his Encyclical Laborem exercens on September 14, 1981: "The family is the first school of work, within the home, for every person . Work and industriousness also influence the whole process of education in the family, for the very reason that everyone `becomes a human being' through, among other things, work, and becoming a human being is precisely the main purpose of the whole process of education" (No. 10).

In 1927, Josemaría moved to Madrid and his mother, his sister Carmen, and his brother Santiago accompanied him there. Mrs. Escrivá de Balaguer took it upon herself without hesitation to champion the work that God was performing through her son. The founder of Opus Dei would say, "Without her help, the work would have had difficulty succeeding." Starting in 1932, the Escrivá family lived at No. 4, Martinez Campos Street. Josemaría spread his apostolate principally among youths.

God and Boldness

The first center of the work, the DYA academy, began in Madrid in 1933. The initials of the DYA academy correspond to the studies of Law and of Architecture (Derecho y Arquitectura). In reality, to the founder this acronym stood for: "God and Audacity" (Dios y Audacia). A tireless worker, Don Josemaría would soon become a Doctor in Canon Law, Civil Law and Theology. In 1934, he published a book which, after revision and expansion, would appear in 1939 under the title of "The Way" and which, in 1993, would reach the following publication levels: 3,818,228 copies, 272 editions in 39 languages. The work contains 999 thoughts-three numbers which are multiples of three, in honor of the Holy Trinity.

During the first months of the Spanish Civil War which broke out on July 18, 1936, Don Escrivá de Balaguer remained in Madrid in peril of his life. At the end of the year 1937, he crossed the Pyrenees on foot and arrived in Andorra, accompanied by a small group of his first disciples. Then he went to Burgos, in the "nationalist" zone, and returned to Madrid in 1939, at the conclusion of the hostilities.

On March 9, 1941, the Bishop of Madrid, to whom Don Josemaría had constantly referred, approved of Opus Dei as a "Pious Union." The founder had always recommended and practiced the personal apostolate of friendship and confidence. During the development of the work, there were "family reunions," in which up to 5,000 persons sometimes participated. By a special grace of God, the great number of participants did not prevent a real intimacy of each person with Father Josemaría.

A doctor from Cádiz constantly showed his bad mood in his Social Security consulting office. One day, he heard a conference by Don Escrivá de Balaguer. Afterwards he said to his wife, "Starting right now, I am going to treat each patient as if I were their own mother." Thousands of such stories occur again and again since October 2, 1928.

The Gospel of Work

The spirituality of Blessed Josemaría found its basis in Holy Scripture. He stated, "Right from the beginning of Creation, man had to work. I wasn't the one who invented it, all you have to do is open the Holy Bible. In the very first pages-even before sin appeared in humanity -, we can read that God made Adam with the clay of the earth and created for him and his descendants this very beautiful world so that he would work it and be the guardian of it (Gen 2: 15)  Thus we must be fully convinced that work is a magnificent reality, that it imposes itself on us like an inexorable law to which we must all submit in one way or another  Remember this well: this obligation was not born as a consequence of original sin; neither is it a finding of modern times. It is a necessary means that God entrusts to us on this earth, by prolonging our life, and also by associating us with His creative power, in order that we may, at the same time, find nourishment and gather fruit unto life everlasting (Jn 4: 36). Man is born to labor and the bird to fly (Job 5: 7)."

Pope John Paul II has also focused the attention of the faithful on the participation of man in the work of God: "The truth that by means of work man participates in the activity of God Himself, his Creator, was given particular prominence by Jesus Christ-the Jesus at whom many of His first listeners in Nazareth were astonished, saying, `Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to Him?... Is not this the carpenter?'(Mk 6: 2-3) For Jesus not only proclaimed, but first and foremost fulfilled by His deeds the `gospel,' the word of eternal Wisdom, that had been entrusted to Him. Therefore this was also `the gospel of work,' because He who proclaimed it was Himself a man of work, a craftsman like Joseph of Nazareth. And if we do not find in His words a special command to work, at the same time the eloquence of the life of Christ is unequivocal: He belongs to the `working world,' He has appreciation and respect for human work. It can indeed be said that He looks with love upon human work and the different forms that it takes, seeing in each one of these forms a particular facet of man's likeness with God, the Creator and Father. It is not He who says: My Father is the vine dresser(Jn 15: 1)?  In His Parables on the Kingdom of God, Jesus Christ constantly refers to human work: that of the shepherd, the farmer, the doctor, the sower, the householder, the servant, the steward, the fisherman, the merchant, the laborer. He also speaks of the various forms of women's work. He compares the apostolate to the manual work of harvesters or fishermen. He refers to the work of scholars too" (Laborem exercens, 26).

Lace of stone

Participating in the work of God, human work must be accomplished in the best possible way. "If we endeavor, day after day, to look at our personal obligations as a divine request," said Blessed Josemaría, "we will learn to accomplish our work with the greatest human and supernatural perfection of which we are capable." While walking with some young people in Burgos, Father happily passed in front of the Cathedral. He said, "I loved going up to one of the towers and having them contemplate from close by the ridge of the roof, a veritable lace of stone, the fruit of a patient and costly labor. During these conversations, I made them realize that this marvel could not be seen from the ground; and, to make more concrete what I had often explained to them, I said the following: `Here is the work of God, truly the work of God! To complete one's own work to perfection, with the beauty and grace of the detail of these delicate laces in stone.' Then they understood, before this reality that spoke for itself, that all of that was prayer, a magnificent dialogue with the Lord. Those who spent their energy on this task knew perfectly well that their effort could not be appreciated from the streets of the town: It was uniquely for God. Do you understand now that a professional calling can lead to the Lord?"

But, ever since original sin, work is not accomplished without pain. Don Josemaría said, "Let's not close our eyes to reality, being content with a naïve and superficial view of things, which would lead us to think that the road that awaits us is easy and that it is merely sufficient to travel on it, to have sincere resolutions and an ardent desire to serve God." Commenting on the words By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread (Gen 3: 19), Pope John Paul II explained: "These words refer to the sometimes heavy toil that from then onwards has accompanied human work; toil is something that is universally known, for it is universally experienced. It is familiar to those doing physical work under sometimes exceptionally laborious conditions  It is likewise familiar to those at an intellectual workbench; to scientists; to those who bear the burden of grave responsibility for decisions that will have a vast impact on society. It is familiar to doctors and nurses, who spend days and nights at their patients' bedsides. It is familiar to women, who, sometimes without proper recognition on the part of society and even of their own families, bear the daily burden and responsibility for their homes and the upbringing of their children. It is familiar to all workers, and, since work is a universal calling, it is familiar to everyone" (Laborem exercens, 9).

Work or prayer?

Nevertheless, the suffering that work includes may often be the occasion of union with the Passion of Christ. Again, John Paul II said, "By enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, man in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity. He shows himself a true disciple of Christ by carrying the cross in his turn every day (cf. Lk 9: 23) in the activity that he is called upon to perform" (ibid. 27).

Union with Jesus carrying His Cross favors the transformation of work into prayer. Blessed Josemaría explained, "Be convinced that it is not difficult to convert your work into a prayer of dialogue! You offer it and you put a hand to the work, and there is God listening to you and encouraging you. We attain the air of contemplative souls, while we are completely absorbed in our daily work, imbued as we are with the certainty that He is watching us, while asking of us a new victory over ourselves: this small sacrifice, this smile given to an unwelcome person, this effort to give priority to the least pleasant but the most pressing work, this attention to detail, this perseverance in the accomplishment of duty, when it would be so easy to abandon it, this will to not put off until tomorrow what should be accomplished the same day, and all of that to please God, our Father!"

Don Josemaría continued, "Thanks to your work, you will contribute to the extension of the kingdom of Christ over all the continents. And this will be a succession of hours of work offered, one after another, for the distant nations which are being born to the Faith, for the Eastern nations which have been savagely impeded in the free profession of their beliefs, for the countries of the old Christian tradition where it seems that the light of the Gospel is obscured and where the souls struggle in the shadow of ignorance."

But the work of a job is not the only means of sanctification. Holiness is equally accessible to those who do not have, or who do not have any longer the possibility of using their talents in a profession (handicap, sickness, unemployment, retirement ). The Second Vatican Council stated, "In a special way also, those who are weighed down by poverty, infirmity, sickness and other hardships should realize that they are united to Christ, who suffers for the salvation of the world  All Christians, in the conditions, duties and circumstances of their life and through all these, will sanctify themselves more and more if they receive all things with faith from the hand of the Heavenly Father and cooperate with the divine will" (Lumen gentium, 41).

"That Jesus alone may shine"

On November 8, 1946, Don Josemaría moved to Rome. Several months later, he was named Prelate, and from then on was called `Monsignor.' After a very active life, he died suddenly in his office on June 26, 1975, and he died "quietly" as he had always wished. Paradoxically, this priest whose ideal was: "to hide myself and disappear, so that Jesus alone may shine," has exercised an extraordinary influence, helping those who wish to grow in their friendship with God through the multiple circumstances of their daily life, in their family and their work, all so many opportunities to meet with Christ. His life, "imbued with Christian humanism and marked with the incomparable seal of goodness, gentleness of heart and hidden suffering through which God purifies and sanctifies those whom He has chosen," (John Paul II) has had such an apostolic reach that 69 cardinals, 1,228 bishops and 41 Superiors of Religious Orders solicited his beatification.

On May 17, 1992, His Holiness Pope John Paul II declared Blessed Monsignor Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, underscoring his great devotion to the Virgin Mary. Throughout his life, Josemaría also venerated Saint Joseph, his baptismal patron. Let us also honor the head of the Holy Family with the beautiful prayer composed by Saint Pius X:

"Glorious St. Joseph, model of all who are devoted to work, obtain for me the grace to work in a spirit of penance, in order thereby to atone for my many sins; to work conscientiously, putting devotion to duty before my own inclinations; to labor with gratitude and joy, deeming it an honor to employ and to develop, by my labor, the gifts I have received from Almighty God; to work with order, peace, moderation, and patience, without ever shrinking from weariness and difficulties; to work above all with a pure intention and with self-detachment, having always before my eyes the hour of death and the accounting which I must then render of time wasted, of talents unemployed, of good undone, and of my empty pride in success, which is so prejudicial to the work of God. All for Jesus, all through Mary, all in imitation of thee, O Patriarch Joseph! This shall be my motto in life and in death. Amen."

Blessed Josemaría, pray for us and for all of those who are dear to us, living and deceased.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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