Tag Archives: Labor Day

Labor Day and St Benedict

“Work is a good thing for man – a good thing for his humanity – because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being’.”

Laborem Exercens (1981) St. John Paul II

The Pope focuses our attention on the the subjective experience of the worker, who bears the imago dei and thereby lends work its dignity. He raises some things we need to regularly recall. Today, too often, workers disconnect their experience from that of God’s image, and the life of the Church’s genuine experience of prayer, work, the moral life (one’s personal encounter with the Lord) and the community of faith. Their might be good reason for this fact. That is, too many of us are not doing anything meaningful in contributing to the common good; there is a lack of generatively, a failure to see work as working with God to advance His Kingdom on earth and looking forward to Paradise.  Work is not vocation; work may be more akin to one’s mission but not a “calling.” Big difference. And I think we need to revolutionize work according to the mind of St. Benedict and the Benedictine tradition.

Having just returned from the annual Benedictine Oblate retreat I attend with men and women in the greater New York City area, where we conferenced on St. Benedict’s idea of accountability as a cor ad cor experience. Today, I am also thinking of, in general terms, what the Rule of Benedict and the gift of Benedictine monasticism gives us on the theme of work. Just as accountability is a heart-to-heart experience, so is work.

In the experience of the monastery –which needs to be translated in the life of those of us not professed monks and nuns but Oblates, living in the world– work is a daily (except Sundays in selective cases) component and necessary part of the spiritual life, i.e., there is a natural rota of attending to prayer and work. In relation to our Sabbath observance which has become so non-existent today, the teaching of Abraham Joshua Heschel is worth considering anew and taking his challenge seriously. (As an aside, if you have not read Heschel’s work on the Sabbath, do so. You won’t regret the time with the book.) The Jewish scholar argues for the idea that Sabbath is at the heart of human existence. He says, on the Sabbath, the person “must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of”man and woman. So, work is placed within the ambit of the Sabbath.

Not to distract, St. Benedict’s teaching is germane for us today: work is essential to fulfilling the community’s needs without becoming an end in itself; he in fact limits work in order to prevent it from inculcating vicious habits that will distract our focus on seeking God. The monastery (our home) is a “workshop” for holiness. Further, Benedict uses work as way of keeping a monk (nun and Oblate) from sinful indolence: he should “be given some work in order that he may not be idle.” Think of all the ways we get into trouble by being idle, of having an essential focus on God.

From the perspective of the holy abbot, Benedict places a limit on how long a monk should perform any one job in the monastery. Essential common work done on behalf of others, like cooking, cleaning and reading at mealtime, are to rotate among the monks. Today, monks change these jobs weekly for the most part. The kitchen master’s job may be more stable than the table reader. In fact, no one becomes a permanent reader, no matter how good he is. The avoidable danger is becoming specialized and seeing yourself as indispensable. Likewise, the artisans from his Benedict’s experience, end up with the wrong priorities. In the Rule we read: “If one of them becomes puffed up by his skillfulness in his craft, and feels he is conferring something on the monastery, he is to be removed from practicing his craft and not allowed to resume it unless, after manifesting his humility, he is so ordered by the abbot.” No work of the artist is a work placed ahead of the companionship’s journey to conversion of manner, to holiness.

The Benedictine approach to work might be characterized this way:

NOT, What work am I called to do? BUT, How does the task before me contribute to or hinder my progress toward holiness? How does my work contribute to my life of virtue, and edify others? Is my work missionary, human, loving and creative?
NOT, How does this work cooperate with society’s expectations, material creation? BUT, How does this work contribute to the life of the community and to others’ material and spiritual well-being? How does my work make me more a man, (or, more a woman)?
NOT, Am I doing what I love? BUT, What activity is so important that I should, without hesitation, drop my work in order to do it? What is my God-given mission for the sake of the Kingdom and the good of others?

Always remembering the exhortation of Saint Benedict, Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ  (RB 72.11).

St Benedict’s Legacy on Work

Our Catholic Faith, I believe, has something important to say to the concerns of post-modernity, especially regarding matters of faith and reason AND faith and the public order. Work –our labor– is one of those things that Catholicism speaks eloquently about. We still live with the legacy of Marx and his kind when it comes to understanding the role and place of work. Contrary to Marxism’s theory of alienation, we would say, human labor does have meaning and there is a dignity to the process of work and the worker.

The following is an excerpt of a 1980 letter sent to the Benedictines by John Paul II on the 1500th anniversary of monastic life. John Paul writes:

Man’s face is often wet with tears impelling him to pray, but these tears do not always spring from sincere compunction or excessive joy. For often tears of sorrow and disturbance  ow from those whose human dignity is disregarded, those who cannot achieve what they justly desire, and who cannot do the work that suits their needs and talents.

St Benedict lived in a civil society deformed by injustices. The human person frequently counted for nothing and was treated as a criminal. In a social structure drawn up in orders, the most wretched were segregated and reduced to slavery. The poor grew poorer, while the rich grew richer and richer. Yet this remarkable man willed to found the monastic community on the prescriptions of the Gospel. He restored man to his integral condition, no matter what social order or rank he came from. He provided for the needs of each according to the norms of a wise distributive justice. He assigned significant duties to individuals, duties which cohered aptly with other duties. He considered the conditions of the weak, but left no room for easy laziness. He allowed space for the cleverness of others lest they feel hemmed in, or rather, so that they might be stimulated to give their best. Thus he removed the pretext of a light and sometimes justified murmuring, and brought about the conditions of true peace.

Man is not reckoned by St Benedict as a kind of nameless machine, which someone uses to get the maximum profit, providing no moral justification to the worker and denying him a just wage. It should be noted that in his time work was usually done by slaves who were denied the status of human beings. Benedict considered work, however it happens to be done, as an essential part of the life and obliges each monk to it, making it a duty in conscience. This labor is to be borne ‘for the sake of obedience and expiation’, since indeed pain and sweat are attached to any truly efficacious effort. But this distress has a redemptive character when it purifies a man from sin, and it ennobles the things carefully worked on and also the environment where the work is done.

St Benedict, leading an earthly life in which work and prayer were properly balanced, in this way happily inserts work into the supernatural way of considering life. By doing so, he helps man to know himself as God’s fellow-worker, and truly he becomes such when his person, acting with a certain creative energy, is enhanced in an all-round way. Human action is carried out in a contemplative manner, and contemplation attains a certain dynamic quality. It influences the work itself and throws light on the ends proposed for the work.

Work is, therefore, not performed solely in order to avoid the idleness which enfeebles minds, but also and indeed chiefly, to enable a man to grow gradually as a person mindful of his duties and careful about them. Also, talents perhaps concealed deep inside the person may be discovered, and brought to fruition for the common good, ‘so that in all things God may be glorified’.

Work is not relieved of its burden of the harsh clash of forces, but a new interior impulse is added to it. The monk is united to God not in spite of his work but through it, because ‘while working with hand or mind he continually raises himself to Christ’.

Thus it happens that even lowly and insignificant work is done with a certain dignity, and becomes a vital part of ‘that sovereign effort by which God alone is sought in solitude and silence, so that to such a life is added the vigor of continual prayer, the sacrifice of praise, celebrated and consummated together, under the influence of cheerful fraternal charity’.

Europe became a Christian land chiefly because sons of St Benedict gave our ancestors a comprehensive instruction, not only teaching them arts and crafts but also infusing into them the spirit of the Gospel which is needed for the protection of the spiritual treasures of the human person. The paganism which was formerly drawn over to the Gospel by the many hands of missionary monks is now spreading more and more in the Western world, and it is both the cause and the effect of the loss of the Christian way of esteeming work and its dignity.

Unless Christ endows human action with a constant lofty meaning, the worker becomes the slave –a special kind of slave unique to modern times– of profit and industry. On the contrary, Benedict affirms the urgent necessity of giving a spiritual character to work, enlarging the purpose of human labour so that it can escape the excessive application of the technical arts and the excessive greed for what is useful to one’s self.

(An excerpt from Pope St John Paul II’s 1980 Apostolic Letter for the Fifteenth Centenary of the Birth of St Benedict)

Labor Day

Labor Day is our day to sit back and reflect on the virtue and value of work. From the Christian perspective human work ought always be connected with Divine Work. Since the industrial revolution and the false ideologies of the 20th century, work has taken on a dark and weary existence where we are frustrated and weighed down; John Paul II would call this as part of the culture of death. But we know from Scripture and the teaching of the Church the darkness of secularism is not the final word on human labor, nor the force by which we live as adopted children of God: He does not intend work to be inhuman and devoid of Spirit, but a place where we co-create and are sanctified. Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami published these words in his capacity as the head of the justice commission for the U.S. Bishops:

Pope Francis continues to rouse our consciences and challenge us to live more thoroughly Catholic lives. Laudato Si’ is, in large part, about something called “integral ecology,” an idea that our care for and relationships with one another deeply impact our care for the environment, and vice-versa. The Pope writes extensively about the importance of work in that context. “We were created with a vocation to work” (no. 128), and “the analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family, work-related and urban contexts, nor from how individuals relate to themselves, which leads in turn to how they relate to others” (no. 141). Reminding us that “called into being by one Father, all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect,” he calls for a “sense of fraternity [that] excludes nothing and no one” (nos. 89-92).

Labor is one important way we honor our brothers and sisters in God’s universal human family. In the creation story, God gives us labor as a gateway into participation with Him in the ongoing unfolding of creation. Human labor, at its best, is a deeply holy thing that ought to honor our dignity as we help God “maintain the fabric of the world” (no. 124, citing Sir 38:34).

This Labor Day, the violation of human dignity is evident in exploited workers, trafficked women and children, and a broken immigration system that fails people and families desperate for decent work and a better life. How do we participate in this wounding of human dignity, through choices about the clothes we wear, food we eat, and things we buy–most of which is unaffordable to the very workers who make it? Do we give a thought to this truth, that for our wants to be met, economic realities are created that cause others to live in ways that we ourselves would not? How can we advance God’s work, in the words of the Psalmist, as he “secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, [and] sets captives free” (Ps 146:7)? These are difficult questions to ask, yet we must ask them.

Can we ask these questions of our situation? Can we ask these questions of ourselves? My friends, I hope our prayer today could be for the grace to restore our work and relationships to a place of honor by which we bless God.

Blessed Labor Day

“Work is a duty, because our Creator demanded it and because it maintains and develops our humanity. We must work out of regard for others, especially our own families, but also because of the society we belong to and in fact because of the whole of humanity.” Laborem exercens, 16

AND

“The most profound motive for our work is this knowing that we share in creation. Learning the meaning of creation in our daily lives will help us to live holier lives. It will fill the world with the spirit of Christ, the spirit of justice, charity, and peace.” Laborem exercens, 25

St. John Paul II clearly orients our ideas to how we live and work, the sign of a great pastor of souls.

Labor Day 2013

truck-thumb-250x162-13063The Christian finds in human work a small part of the cross of Christ and accepts it in the same spirit of redemption in which Christ accepted the cross for us. In work, thanks to the light that penetrates us from the resurrection of Christ, we always find a glimmer of new life, of the new good, as if it were an announcement of “the new heavens and the new earth” in which man and the world participate precisely through the toil that goes with work.

Blessed John Paul II
Laborem exercens, 27

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.
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