Our Vocation to Work
Sep 1, 2017
Monday is Labor Day. The observation of this day began locally in the 1880s, but following the deaths of workers at the hands of the United States Army and United States Marshals Service during the Pullman Strike of 1894 in Chicago, the United States Congress unanimously voted to make Labor Day a national holiday, and President Grover Cleveland signed it into law six days after the end of the strike. We are supposed to be celebrating organized labor, but organized labor is rather weak at the moment. So probably everyone celebrating is celebrating having a job... by taking a day off from the job. But a lot of people don’t have jobs, and many more are under employed in low-skilled, low-paying jobs. It’s tough out there in the labor market. Just today, the state of Missouri LOWERED the minimum wage in Saint Louis.
If you take the book of Genesis literally, work is part of the curse incurred by the sin of our first parents, whose life was originally a leisurely affair in the garden of Eden. Certainly in the past, some jobs were terrible; maybe some still are. Some workers were exploited by greedy and predatory employers, but that was not the rule. There was, and still is in some places, the abomination of child labor. Certainly some work is/was hard and grueling and other work boring. I worked one summer in the shipping department of a book bindery and spent most days either flipping books into boxes as they rolled by on a conveyor belt or catching the filled boxes as they came off the line and tossing them into the correct zip code bag. It was boring and tiring, but the pay was pretty good... and I did learn zip codes. Most of my coworkers had worked there for years. They made it bearable by lots of conversation and good humor. It was steady and secure work, and by it they supported their families. Starving or being homeless would be a curse; for them, this tedious work was part of their American dream.
Likewise, in most of my years in the hotel business, every big hotel had an army of women working the switchboard and taking messages. They too were well paid and also skillful and efficient. Most jobs like that don’t exist anymore. They didn’t go to China or Mexico; they went to computers and robots. These days the American dream is less accessible and less satisfying, except to those at the shrinking top of our social pyramid, where (thank God) most of us are. But it is getting more and more difficult for our children and grandchildren.
We know today that work is not a curse but that it is a blessing. In fact, in the Hindu religious system, work done selflessly is one of the three ways of salvation. For us it is the way we share in God’s ongoing work of creation; our work is either our vocation or an integral part of it. Pope Francis wrote about human labor in his last Encyclical, with a special nod to Saint Benedict and his rule.
Saint Benedict of Norcia proposed that his monks live in community, combining prayer and spiritual reading with manual labour (ora et labora). Seeing manual labour as spiritually meaningful proved revolutionary. Personal growth and sanctification came to be sought in the interplay of recollection and work. This way of experiencing work makes us more protective and respectful of the environment; it imbues our relationship to the world with a healthy sobriety.
We are convinced that “man is the source, the focus and the aim of all economic and social life.” Nonetheless, once our human capacity for contemplation and reverence is impaired, it becomes easy for the meaning of work to be misunderstood. Work should be the setting for this rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God. It follows that, in the reality of today’s global society, it is essential that “we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone,” no matter the limited interests of business and dubious economic reasoning.
We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work. (Pope Francis, On Care for Our Common Home [Laudato Si] nos. 126-28)
We should always think about what we celebrate. Although Labor Day is the traditional end of summer, wearing white and swimming pools, these are clearly not reasons to celebrate. But the blessing of human labor is a reason to celebrate. I teach my students the dictum “We are formed by what we do.” If work is done right, doctors become genuine healers by what they do; lawyers become upholders of justice; merchants become distributors of necessary products and marketers vehicles of human innovation. Work holds human society together. Enjoy your well-deserved Labor Day celebration.