Tuesday 1 May 2012

Why Work Should be Awesome

By John D. O'Brien, S.J.

Saint Joseph is one of only four saints I can think of (not including the Blessed Mother), who has more than one feast on the Roman calendar – the other saints being Peter, Paul, and John the Baptist. St. Joseph’s great solemnity, of course, is March 19th, and its technical title is “St. Joseph, Husband of Mary”; but today we honour him as “St. Joseph the Worker”, so I’d like to propose a little reflection on the purpose and value of work.

Work often has a bad name in our society. It always surprises me how many people consider their jobs, their livelihood, as drudgery, folks who willingly live and work only for that mythical golden reprieve called “the weekend.” I can understand the need for rest. I can also understand working crummy jobs as a means to other ends, like a better job or a university education. But how tragic it is when people live their whole lives working “only for the money”, with little sense of higher purpose, craft or calling.

Work is a fundamental aspect of what makes us human. In its absence we start to lose something constitutive of our calling-to-be. Consider the plight of the unemployed: while we feel for their anxiety over supporting their families, we are also aware (sometimes from first-hand experience) of the deeper blow to human dignity. Idleness, whether intended or not, can be an immensely burdensome and degrading condition.

The early Christian communities put such a value on work, they said that those who do not work should not eat (2 Thess 3:10)! St. Benedict’s monastic motto of “ora et labora” encapsulates the essential role of work in the spiritual life. St. Ignatius wrote that love is proved best in action. All this we see this personified in the person of Joseph. His carpentry was his service: to Mary and Jesus, and to his neighbours in his local community. Authentic work, if it be contemplative and creative, is directly related to authentic spiritual freedom.

We seem to be made for work, for artistry (“art” comes from the Latin word ars, which means “skill” or “technique”, but which also has the connotation of beauty). I believe this is because we are fashioned in the image and likeness of a God who “labours” in creation, who “speaks” the world into existence from the superabundance of his goodness. As Tolkien said concerning being a writer of fairy-stories, we are meant to be sub-creators with God, to use our resourcefulness, whether our brawn or our brains, to participate in the creative stewarding of nature. Work or art "perfects" nature, actualizing potentialities nature cannot realize by itself. A wooden stool in a kitchen, the garden in the backyard, metal eyeglasses – these are all examples of art “perfecting” nature. As such, work functions analogously to grace, and is ultimately an ennobling activity. This is the sacramental quality of honest and free work.

Both the assembly line and the post-industrial cubicle-based economies have struggled to retain that dimension of freedom, creativity, beauty and contemplation. Part of the Christian vocation, I believe, is to recover the sense of depth and dignity in work, to illumine the hidden pockets of being, of mystery, of wonder and of gratitude that are already there. As one wag has put it, this does not mean that every worker needs to a philosopher-king, but there should at least be the possibility that he could become a philosopher-plumber. We do not want to lose the sense of the poetry of existence, lest we forget the Poet.

Let's remember, in any case, that the smallest and most menial labour, if done with love, can help save the world. St. Joseph shows us that.

No comments:

Post a Comment