Tolkien’s short but poignant work "Leaf by Niggle" offers fascinating insights into the intersection of our personal and professional lives. Niggle’s vocation involves painting leaves. But he battles against his own inertia as various chores and inconveniences keep him from finishing the painting to his satisfaction.
When Niggle passes from this life, he discovers that the leaves he was painting are, in fact, embedded in lush forests, mountains and streams of Heaven. Tolkien's theory of vocation concludes fittingly: a worthy vocation contributes not only to financial well-being but ultimately to new creation.
How might this change the way we see our work as spiritual calling?
The Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker
The feast of Saint Joseph the Worker is a powerful reminder of the real purpose of our work. In response to “May Day,” Pope Pius XII instituted the feast in the 1950s to encourage devotion to Saint Joseph, in whom he saw a perfect model for dignifying human work.
When God created Adam and Eve, He made them imago dei (in the image of God). Being image-bearers means reflecting what God is like. Throughout the creation account, we see God at work: cultivating, creating, caring, and forming. When Adam sinned, the ground was cursed. But it was a curse eventually seasoned with grace. Our carnal nature looks to work to fulfill us but grace rescues us from the logic of profit, from the fever of consuming. Grace allows work to form us, mold us, and mature us.
Grace fuels communal love. By cultivating the garden, Adam fed and clothed his family. The produce of the land was to be shared with the poor, the orphan, and the widow.
From Saint Joseph, we learn how the ultimate act of our labor is love. And love gives, it suffers, it sanctifies work.
The Dignity of Labor
Labor Day is a much-needed break from what we refer to as our "jobs." We take time to recuperate and recreate. We sleep a little longer. And while that is all good, for Christians, Labor Day invites us to deepen our understanding of labor in light of the Gospel.
Work has changed considerably since the Industrial Revolution. With much advancement in technology, it is no secret that the next generation describes a time when machines will completely take over man’s brains... possibly also their hands. Man will act as a substitute machine and life will be no more than humanoid... unless we know what man (woman) is... unless we know where the dignity of our work comes from.
During World War II, the future Pope Saint John Paul II worked in a limestone quarry. In his poem titled “The Quarry” he speaks deeply of his anguish, his daily struggles, and how the temptation to give in to anger, resentment, and despair lurks within our workplaces each day. By the sweat of his brow and tears down his cheeks, this heroic worker taught us why we labor and where our dignity comes from: not in the size of our paychecks or the weight of our accolades, but simply as children of God. The dignity of our labor flows from our innate humanness, from the command of God to join Him in His creative endeavors.
In his encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) he wrote:
…the basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person…
Think about how many people worldwide are victims of slave labor or trapped under work that enslaves? How many have turned this great gift into a seductive and merciless idol?
The Heart of Our Labor
In choosing Saint Joseph as the patron Saint of workers, the Church draws us to the heart of our labor. It is never self-serving or self-protecting. It is always outpouring and overflowing. Work united to Christ is redemptive (see CCC 2427) and Saint Joseph shows us how.
The humble carpenter of Nazareth was dedicated, not addicted. He did not seek an identity through his work. He was not a workaholic. He sweated, got dirty, and even experienced tedium at times; but because He was in communion with Christ, His work became an expression of worship, a channel of love, and a window through which the Light of the World could shine.
When Mundane is Meaningful
A close friend recently gave birth to twins. Her typical day now includes waking up at dawn, diapering and feeding one child while clothing another, doing loads of laundry, cooking and putting the kids to bed all before plunging into bed herself, exhausted.
Beneath that exhaustion is deep lament. She gave up a high paying job. Her work now is difficult and repetitive and, in some ways, unrewarding. She lives in a cycle of mundane tasks. She feels trapped. She suffers silently.
Perhaps you are in a place where the word "ordinary" immediately indicates purposelessness, a sense of being undone? Perhaps work for you feels like punishment, something you cannot escape, a necessary evil you must endure to gain something you desire?
In her book, Glimpses of Grace, Gloria Furman writes, “Theology is for homemakers who need to know who God is, who they are, and what this mundane life is all about.”
Isn’t our biggest fear as homemakers found in feelings of not being relevant? We need faith like Saint Joseph to trust that God doesn’t merely “know what’s best for us,” but that He is what’s best for us no matter what our circumstances are.
The One for Whom We Work
God is present as we unload the dishwasher or balance the budget. God sees little things like changing diapers or cooking meals. God uses our hands, our feet, and our homes as spheres of His influence. God chisels us through ordinary moments to conform us into Christ likeness.
We exist in the "already, but not yet" time in God's redemptive history. We desperately need the Holy Spirit to see with new eyes and hearts for the monotonous aspects of our daily work. We need new vision to embrace work not just as a means for money, but as a mission to ask: In my daily interaction with my work, how can I emerge a better person? How can I become more attentive to my family, my next door neighbor?
In Christ Alone
Isn’t it remarkable that there are no written words about the daily ins-and-outs of Saint Joseph’s carpentry business? Yet we know that Saint Joseph was a good steward of the earth, family, and neighbor. He sacrificed. He persevered. He labored in love.
Together with Mary, he shared a single common center of attention: Christ.
Outside of Christ all our impressive labors, careers, bank accounts, reputations, and legacies are grand nothings. But in Christ, even the most tedious toil is reversed and redeemed. In Christ, there is hope for those who are unrecognized, those battling daily chores, those abused at work, those for whom no room is given for advancement or opportunity to learn.
In Christ alone is true rest.
And while we, with creation, groan for a world that’s coming, we live in the knowledge that we don’t have to labor and overcome by our own strength. What Niggle discovered after his life, we discover now: that Christ has redeemed work for all humanity. He is alive and making all things new. In His Resurrection we can live in the eternal now.
We can turn to Saint Joseph, under whose patronage and intercession we are being renewed, being made a "new creation."
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