Labor is a fact of life that few think about beyond the particulars of the work in front of them. Yet, considering that it is much of what we spend our time doing, it is worth understanding why we do it and what the Church’s teaching is on it. Since work is so intrinsically tied to human nature, how we view humanity and ourselves will be impacted by how we view labor. As in all circumstances, Christ is our model, who accomplished the work of our salvation on the Cross.
I tend to identify three deficient views of labor. The first is that it ought to be avoided at all costs. The second is that while it is a regrettable part of life, it is necessary to work in order to get anything desirable. The third is only a difference of degree from the second, that man ought to work exorbitantly hard in order to attain comfort.
The first view, that labor should be avoided in all circumstances, falls short for practical reasons, simply because a life of only comfort is not attainable for almost anyone. Virtually all human beings across history have lived in poverty, and labor consumed their days. The second view flows inevitably from the first because upon realizing that one cannot survive without working, the holder of this view decides to work only so far as his labor leads him to more pleasure. This view has led civilizations to increasing specialization and a drive to increase efficiency in the production of goods. At times, this effort by humanity has produced incredible technological innovations designed to alleviate human suffering. At other times, human beings have been used for the production of goods for their own sake. Christ speaks of this desire in the human heart to work hard but also its distortion in the parable of the rich fool:
[the fool says] “‘I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.’” (Luke 12:18-21)
And again, when he says that: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24)
This latter reference satisfies the third condition, the tendency to make for ourselves an idol of our own labor. We are all too familiar with the kind of characters who are too devoted to their work and miss out on what is most important, his family, God, etc. What we often forget is the similarity between this vice, an inordinate disposition to work, and the other extreme previously mentioned, the disordered hatred of work.
The life of the college student is an example of this teeter-tottering back and forth between two extremes of the same vice. Many students stay up very late, working a ridiculous amount of time, and when finally we have the chance to rest, we vedge far too much.
In both cases, one is not serving God, but rather is complacent to exist in the rapid waters of his id. The id, as I am defining it, is the animalistic inclinations in human beings. Considering that it is the nature of an animal to give into its id, we must also recognize that, in a way similar to the reality that not all animals are disposed to do the same thing, not all human beings are disposed to the same vice. While it may be difficult to urge a lion to carry a load, perhaps a donkey is more disposed to it. In much the same way, some human beings are happy to work from sundown to sun up simply for the stimulation of it.
The general system of thought among Americans would be something analogous to, “let the donkey carry his load, and the lion hunt prey-they are happiest when they fulfill their natural inclinations.” While obviously true for animals, this is not true for human beings. To appropriate the animals and humans requires a practical materialism, which all of us always subscribe to when we satisfy our animalistic urges at the expense of our spiritual needs. We treat ourselves as if we are only matter, and therefore degrade our nature. Though we are animals, and our natural inclinations are good, they are disordered by sin. It is only through our cooperation with grace that we can order our inclinations.
Besides practical materialism, relativism impedes our response to God’s grace, because in it, everyone is the author of his own vocation. Without operating in God’s framework, we have no signposts to decide our vocation, and we inevitably submit our will to our id in trying to decide our own purpose. Ignorance, willful or unintentional, of our vocation is therefore the fastest route to having a deformed understanding of labor. One must be able to accurately answer in every labor, the question, “to what end?” The only true answer is our vocation to love, which is my precipitating subject.
There are few societies across history that have allowed for such a free choice between personal treatments of labor. Previously, one’s choices were determined by his socioeconomic class, such that for the majority, if one did not work, he did not eat. It is now possible in America to not work and also to eat, for essentially every person. Many function without knowledge of this, but living with one’s largest priority being liberty from labor, it is possible to survive off of the good will of the government and her handouts. It should also be stated that, unlike many societies, ours rewards effort directly with capital, a radical development easy to take for granted. (This is not true among the socialists, for example, where individual merit is not rewarded, or all too often even reprimanded. While, in most other systems, there is no economic mobility. For example, a serf can only work as hard as his land will let him; he cannot acquire a larger plot by tilling with more effort.) These two coexisting principles are a result of our mixed economy, which, in many ways, really does have the right idea. It is wrong to let people starve, and it is right to reward people for their labor. The difficulty inevitably comes in with individual choice and disordered priorities. And in a nation which subscribes to radical individualism, many are happy to fall into whatever category they please, without thought to social or moral obligations. This will inevitably produce a bell curve distribution, with the majority of people having some kind of moderate view of work, and with large outliers on the extremes, as some people will never work, and some only work. The moderate view, however, is not necessarily a virtuous one, though it is closer (as discussed previously).
Having spoken of the vice, we will speak of the respective virtue. Scripture is clear that one thing man is made for is labor, along with authentic love and leisure (Genesis 2). Therefore, the underlying principle in all three above discussed views, that labor is a regrettable part of the human experience, is false. It is true that, in the beginning, before the fall of Adam, suffering was not an intrinsic part of the human experience. Still, the devil was in the world, and Adam was called to defend the Garden from him (the same word used for “till” also means “protect” and “work”). Thus, Adam’s work would be a test of his choosing suffering and confronting Satan. The sin Adam committed was one of complacency; thus, the remedy God offered him was to never allow him to be complacent. No matter how hard human beings try, they cannot avoid discomfort. God let suffering become an unavoidable part of the human experience so that we would learn that everything good, our very life, comes at a cost. Love comes at a cost.
Labor is a form of love. We ought to work, not to gain comfort, but to love human beings. Love is an act of self gift, just like work. When one chooses to perform labor, they essentially take the place of a machine. In choosing to be treated like a machine, one gives himself away for something good. Of course, people are not machines and have far more dignity than simple pieces of matter. There lies the great majesty in work, for the humility of laying yourself down for another is more akin to Christ the King than anything. Christ the King, who in the beginning, “worked for six days, and on the seventh day rested.” Christ the King, who once more accomplished his salvific work on the sixth day, Good Friday, and on the seventh day rested. Christ the King, taking up His father’s work, laboring, sweating, and I imagine hitting his thumb while hammering nails once or twice. Christ the King, performing His Father’s work upon the wood of the Cross. Work and the Cross are tied together. Work is always dignified when tied to the Cross of Christ.
The majesty of labor places work in a prominent position in the life of the Church. Benedictines do nothing but work and pray. The laity, while not called to that sort of cross, are called to never cease working for the salvation of souls. In the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13), only those with oil in their lamps are able to meet the Bridegroom and enjoy the wedding feast. The wedding feast is Heaven, Christ is the Bridegroom, the lamps are the souls of the faithful, the flame is the presence of divine grace in the hearts of the faithful, and the oil in the lamps are both the charity (love) of the faithful and their good works. Therefore, be vigilant, for you know neither the day nor the hour that you will have to give account of your works.
Do not forget, however, that all good work we accomplish can only be accomplished in Christ Jesus. Grace is offered first, and our accepting divine grace is the work of the Holy Spirit in us. Furthermore, we must understand that everything is grace; therefore, there is no work set before us which is not a grace from God, nor is there a trial set before us that we are not capable of accomplishing in Jesus Christ.
So, let our works proclaim, with all of their majesty:
“All glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.”