"From the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator."
“O town of Nazareth, O town of the carpenter’s Son, touch us and give us wisdom to discern that submission and labour is needed for dignity, redemption and liberation.” (Pope Paul VI)
Ever since the industrial revolution, our civilisation has been based on work, whether it be done at a machine, in a laboratory, in a library or behind a computer. It has been a basis for income distribution. However, in the context of so much automation, we need to re-think the nature of work.
The supreme title accorded to an apostle is ‘God’s co-worker’. “We are God’s co-workers…” (1 Cor 3:9). St Paul refers to Timothy as “co-worker for God in the gospel of Christ…” (1 Thess 3:2). Work is a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth. Jesus devoted most of the years of his life on earth to manual work at the carpenter’s bench.
Simone Weil, renowned philosopher and mystic, said that every person’s work should be an object of contemplation for him/her. Having completed the statue of David, it is said that Michael Angelo admired it and then struck it with his chisel saying, “Speak!”
While work can be ennobling, it can also be a chore or drudgery, and can dehumanise us. For the most part, I would suggest, we do not experience work as something that flows from us spontaneously, but rather as something imposed on us. Today, houses are often far removed from places of work, separated by one or more hours of heavy traffic. It’s not easy for today’s Christian to find God in her/his work. For the vast majority work is impersonal – it is repetitive, boring, monotonous. Those who work on the factory line rarely see the finished product.
“Work was the daily expression of love in the life of the Family of Nazareth.” (Guardian of the Redeemer – Apostolic Exhortation of John Paul II). Human work, and especially manual work, receives prominence in the Gospel. Jesus was referred to as “the carpenter’s Son.” He lived the ordinary life of a carpenter of his day in Nazareth, and by doing so he has made holy all ordinary things and activities. Joseph brought human labour closer to the mystery of the Redemption: “St Joseph is the model of those humble ones that Christianity raises up to great destinies;… he is the proof that in order to be a good and genuine follower of Christ, there is no need of great things – it is enough to have the common, simple and human virtues, but they need to be true and authentic.” (Pope Paul VI: Discourse)
When we think of work we are conditioned, I think, to limit our definition of work to mean manual labour. Cardinal Basil Hume said that “all human work is sanctified and sanctifying. It is sanctified because the Lord himself devoted much of his life to it. It is sanctifying because everything that is good contributes to giving honour and glory to God.” Our work itself is a prayer. The old monastic dictum was ‘Laborare est orare’ (To work is to pray). Work is part of our humanity. When we are deprived of work we feel somehow threatened and devalued.
It can be painful and soul-destroying to be faced with unemployment, redundancy or early retirement. Many are faced with the necessity of making sense out of enforced idleness. Due to advances in technology full employment may be a thing of the past. As a result we may have to change our ideas with regard to work: Should we continue to think that work will always be regarded as paid employment? How can we hold on to our sense of self-worth if we are not earning a wage or salary? These are questions we need to face.
Work befits human dignity: it confers dignity. That is because work is a sharing in the creative act of God. Creation was not a single act many million years ago. It is a present fact. Our discoveries are explorations of the mind of the Creator.
Even the most repetitive task, even the most exhausting labour, can be lifted up to God, made holy. All work is for the people; all of it keeps life going. In that sense, work is part of God’s continuing creation…
At the Mass we offer gifts of bread and wine – ‘the work of human hands’ – and we offer it with Christ our Brother. God’s daily miracle could not take place without human work.
Prayer: Lord, I praise and thank you today for the work of all who strive to make this world a better place for humankind. I pray for those whose work is difficult and monotonous, and who get little reward for their labour. I pray for those who are unemployed or who are unable to work, that they may find help to enable them to support their families and live with dignity. Amen