The Dignity of Work

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Joseph the Worker, a memorial instituted by Pope Pius XII and dedicated to the dignity of labor and to honoring workers.

In his Encyclical Laborem Exercens, John Paul II described work as one of the central characteristics that distinguishes humans from other creatures. “Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark decides its interior characteristics; in a sense it constitutes its very nature.” Work is thus “a fundamental dimension of man’s existence on earth.”

The source of the view of work as fundamental to human existence is our creation in the image of God. Created in the image of God, human participate in the act of creation through our work.  From the standpoint of Catholic thought, all work, no matter how ordinary or mundane it seems, is an act of cooperation with God’s creative work. This might be a useful thing for us to keep in mind, both as we contemplate those aspects of our own work that may at times seem less than exhiliarating and as we encounter those working in jobs we dont’ typically value. 

On this day on which we remember St. Joseph the Worker, we pray in a special way for all workers and we pray that we may develop and use the gifts God has given us to do the work to which He has called us.

All Work is God’s Work

Our speaker at Weekly Manna at the law school yesterday was Bryan Lair, lead pastor of Trinity City Church in St. Paul. This was Bryan’s second visit to the law school and he is a wonderful speaker.

The them of yesterday’s reflection was work and, Bryan’s “major premise” was that all work is God’s work. This is a theme we’ve discussed in many programs at the law school, the idea that there is no separation of our faith lives from the rest of our lives – that all we do is part of the living out of our vocations as people of God.

Bryan’s starting points in talking on this subject were Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 2:2:

God blessed them, saying: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.” (1:28)

Since on the seventh day God was finished with the work he had been doing, he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken.

Bryan observed that God didn’t rest on the seventh day out of fatigue, but because God was finished with his part. It is as though God said: I’ve created the world, I’ve given you the raw materials, now you bring it to flourishing.

Humans were given work before sin entered in the world, Bryan reminded us. Work is not punishment, not something we are forced to do, but something we were made to do. And something we were given to do out of love. Bryan spoke of his father letting him help mow the lawn when he was a child. His father could have done the job quicker and better, but out of love let his son participate in the task. So, too, God. God could do a whole lot better job than we do – but out of love invites our participation in the co-creation of the world.

The other part of his talk I found interesting was his discussion of the corruption of the balance between work and leisure. From the beginning there was work and leisure – both are necessary. The effect of sin, however, is a corruption of the proper relationship between the two – a corruption that can operate in either direction. Sometimes the balance tilts in work’s favor – work becomes important, not for the sake of God’s plan, but for our own. We become greedy and work displaces God and human relationship. Sometimes the balance tilts too far toward leisure and sloth and laziness takes over. Either extreme is problematic, so our task it to keep them in proper balance.

Labor Is the Law of Life

Today the United States celebrates Labor Day, a day we’ve been celebrating as a nation on the first Monday in September for over a hundred years. It is a day the U.S. Department of Labor calls “a national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

From the standpoint of Catholic Social Thought, the day is more accurately framed as a day we pay tribute to work and workers as “co-creators” with God.

A central theme in Catholic thought is work as participation in the creative action of God – in the work of creation itself, and therefore as a means of sanctification. From a Catholic perspective, work serves to facilitate and encourage human person in becoming “fully human” and therefore receptive to the divine, playing a tremendously important part in bringing workers to the realization of the fullness of their existence and potential as a human person.

This sense of work as participation in the act of creation, as a means for realizing our full potential as humans comes from our creation in the image of God and the dignity of the human person. The purpose of work is to create, and the purpose of creation is to actualize our potential as beings created in the image of God. Our divine nature is displayed in work.

However we think of the day, it would seem a bit inauthentic to celebrate it without lamenting that there are fourteen million unemployed people in this country today and another 8.8 million involuntary part-time workers (i.e., those unable to secure full-time employment).

Perhaps we might pray this day for those who seek work and are unable to find it.

How We Go About Our Tasks

Let’s face it. Not every aspect of our jobs or other tasks in life is fun or exciting. Sometimes our jobs can be exhausting, boring and tedious. But it makes all the difference how we approch them.

We’ve been in Chicago for several days, a trip we took for the purpose of visiting some colleges Elena is considering and to have a few days of family vacation before Elena starts back to school on Tuesday. The first morning, having decided to take the train to DePaul, we walked into the nearest station to the hotel. Not having ridden the Chicago transit system in some years, I was puzzling over the machines trying to determine what the fare was. A worker standing some distance away called over and instead of just telling me the fare for a single ride, asked questions about how many days we would be here and what our other plans were, ultimately helping us conclude that a 3-day unlimited pass was the most economical way to proceed.

This morning, the same worker was on duty as we walked into the station to go to the Art Institute. I had no sooner stood in front of the train map before she asked me where we were going and told us the correct stop. Later, as we returned from the museum, I hear her voice, directing another group of people as to fare cards and destinations.

There are plenty of ways to appraoch one’s job for the transit system (or any other job for that matter). And I’ve seen plenty of workers in my years of riding subways in various cities sitting back and clocking their hours until the end of their shift. But this woman spent her time smiling and being helpful to as many people as she could. I have to think her attitude and approach made a big difference to how she feels at the end of a long workday. And I know it made an enormous difference to me and everyone else she came in contact with during the day.

Labor Day

Today we celebrate Labor Day in the United States, a day on which we recognize the achievements of American workers. The Department of Labor calls it a day to “pay tribute… to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.” In Catholic terms, we more accurately pay tribute to workers as “co-creators” with God.

A central theme in Catholic thought is work as participation in the creative action of God – in the work of creation itself, and therefore as a means of sanctification. From a Catholic perspective, work serves to facilitate and encourage human person in becoming “fully human” and therefore receptive to the divine, playing a tremendously important part in bringing workers to the realization of the fullness of their existence and potential as a human person.

This sense of work as participation in the act of creation, as a means for realizing our full potential as humans comes from our creation in the image of God and the dignity of the human person. The purpose of work is to create, and the purpose of creation is to actualize our potential as beings created in the image of God. Our divine nature is displayed in work.

It is good to remind ourselves that work as participation in the act of creation is not dependent on how a particular type of work is regarded from a secular standpoint. Some work is more glamorous or seems more important than other work. Some work looks to us like mere drudgery. But it is not the nature of the particular job that gives work its dignity. Brother Lawrence, in the classic Christian text, The Practice of the Presence of God, observes that God is as present in the kitchen as in the cathedral.

P.S. The Labor Day statement of the American Catholic bishops is here.

St. Joseph the Worker

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Joseph the Worker, one of two days in the church calendar on which we honor St. Joseph. The memorial was instituted by Pope Pius XII, some say in response to Communist-sponsored May day celebrations for workers. It is a day dedicated to the dignity of labor and to honoring workers.

Work is central to who we are as human persons. As my friend Randy Lee once put it, “man does not work because he does not have the wealth stored up to be constantly at rest; man works because his dignity is in creating.” Gaudium et spes speaks of work as the means by which humans develop themselves and in Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II observed that humans express and fulfill themselves by working.

This view of work stems from our creation in the image of God; created in the image of God, human are called to co-create the world with God. We participate in the act of creation, we share in God’s creative activity, through our work.

On this day on which we remember St. Joseph the Worker, we pray in a special way for all workers and we pray that we may develop and use the gifts God has given us to do the work to which He has called us.

Checking Motives

I purchase of otherwise acquire so many books that I confess some of them end up in a pile for quite a long time before I look at them. One book I picked up a while ago had a title I couldn’t resist: Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World (by Joanna Weaver). Yet, somehow it managed to get buried so that I only picked it up recently.

One of the first things I saw as I started to flip through it was a page with a box labeled, Checking your Motives. The thrust of it was that while serving others is important, why we serve is as important as how we serve. It suggested a series of questions, drawn from Jan Johnson’s Living a Purpose-Full Life, that are helpful in ascertaining whether we are doing “the work of Christ with the heart of Christ.” The questions are:

Am I serving to impress anyone?

Am I serving to receive external rewards?

Is my service affected by moods and whims (my own as well as others’)?

Am I using this service to feel good about myself?

Am I using my service to muffle God’s voice demanding I change?

Some useful questions to put to ourselves, particularly when we find ourselves doing, doing, doing.

Human Work

Today we celebrate Labor Day in the United States, a day dedicated to achievements of workers.  It offers a good day to reflect on the meaning of work from a Catholic perspective.

The secular world tends to think of work narrowly. Work is viewed as separate from spirituality and the holiness of work is often overlooked, even by many men and women of genuine spirituality.

The Catholic vision of work is very different. In Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II described work as one of the central characteristics that distinguishes humans from other creatures. “Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark decides its interior characteristics; in a sense it constitutes its very nature.”

The source of the view of work as fundamental to human existence is our creation in the image of God and God’s command in Genesis that humans “[b]e fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” Created in the image of God, human are called to co-create the world with God. It is through work that we participate in the act of creation, making all work (no matter how ordinary) a means by which we fulfill our calling to be in the image of God.

Thus, in the words of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, work “is the condition not only for economic development but also for the cultural and moral development of persons, the family, society and the entire human race.”

May the Lord bless all of our work and may we be nourished by the awareness that all our work is holy.

Giving Glory to God in All Things

Let’s face it. Not everything that we do is very exciting and glorious. Some things are downright drudgery and just not fun. It is hard to feel like we are doing anything very worthwhile when we engage in such tasks. And I’m not just talking about things that wear us down physically; what prompts this post is that I’m currently reading page proofs of the third edition of my 1500 page co-authored treatise on employee benefits litigation. (I’m guessing I don’t need to point out that it is not fun.)

Gerard Manley Hopkins said something that is very useful when we are feeling this way. He wrote:

“It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work. Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall, driving horses, sweeping, scouring, everything gives God glory if being in his grace you do it as your duty. To go to Communion worthily gives God great glory, but a man with a dung fork in his hand, a woman with a slop pail, give him glory too. He is so great that all things give him glory if you mean they should.”

I’m guessing Hopkins would say that even reading page proofs of an employee benefits treatise can give God glory. It takes some work for me to view it in that way….but I’m trying.