a playground of liberty
(cyprian, for st. joseph the worker)
I’ve been kind of fixated on the feast of Saint Joseph the Worker this year. I kept thinking it was actually, liturgically, a full-on feast, but I was disappointed to find out it’s only an optional memorial. (Actually, in a kind of Orwellian moment, I was thinking, “All optional memorials are optional but some are more optional than others.” This one not only has its own prayer and its own readings; it even has its own preface!) I think the reason it’s only optional is because it is relatively new. There was a secondary feast day established in 1870 by Pope Pius IX, but then it was re-established by Pope Pius XII in 1955 as the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker to be celebrated on 1 May. This made it coincide with two things: International Workers’ Day, also known as Labor Day in some countries, which is a celebration of laborers and the working classes, and very popular with socialists, communists and anarchists; and it also coincides with May Day, which is an ancient pagan European spring festival. I like to think of it not so much as a reaction against socialists, communists and anarchists––and pagans!––as it is a response to them, in dialogue with them.
One of the reasons that I’m so interested in this celebration this year is that in this day and age, and particularly in America, it seems more important than ever to emphasize Catholic social teaching as our highest common denominator, especially that going back to Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, which is often marked as the beginning of the modern era of contemporary Catholic social teaching, all the way through to the contemporary teaching of Pope Francis. In a sense rising above partisan politics and ideologies, the teaching authority of the Church gives us an “at least this” for a common vocabulary. As in our dialogue with the environmental movement, we have a kind of “Yes, but…” or maybe a “Yes, and…” which may lead us to different conclusions and means, different telos and praxis––or may not! We have both much to offer as well as much to learn.
But to take it one step further, and closer to home, I was thinking of the monastic voice in all this too, even the Camaldolese monastic voice: what wisdom do we have to offer, what prophetic stance do we have to take, what model do we provide for others to look at in terms of our understanding of work? I thought of five things.
First of all, Benedict seems to want his monks to work for subsistence, a word that is very common, in modern times––“subsistence living.” (And here we actually may have more to learn from modern times on this than to offer.) As many modern counter-culturalists do, Benedict seems to want the monastery self-contained when he says in the Rule that The monastery should, if possible, be so constructed that within it all necessities… are contained, and the various crafts are practiced. Our Constitutions echo that: “… the brothers engage in their various occupations in such a way that together they may contribute to the self-sufficiency of the monastery.” (This also makes me think of and appreciate our staff as well, who help make up our village.)
Secondly, for the Benedictine monastic tradition, there is a civilizing and a humanizing quality to work. Our own Constitutions quote Laborens Exercens of John Paul II: “…by work [people] not only transform nature and adapt it to their own needs, but they realize themselves as human beings and even, in a certain sense, become more human.” This is very important in Catholic social teaching and cannot be over-emphasized, I think: through work we realize ourselves as human beings and become more human. Why? Because we are imitating our creator, we are accepting our role as co-creators.
Third, Benedict also sees work as asceticism, an ascetical practice, as again do our Constitutions. But please note, when I use the word “asceticism,” I do not mean penitential, but a spiritual exercise, a training, in a sense. Work is a positive asceticism, not tearing anything down, but building something up. And so Benedict says that even when the work slackens, we should go wherever other duties are assigned them… whenever they are free, they work wherever they are assigned. As a matter of fact he says, and I love this phrase, Then they are really monks when they live by the work of their hands! That goes along with the next one…
Benedict also sees work as solidarity with the poor and also as a means of almsgiving to the poor. He didn’t mean for monks to be spoiled sophisticates of the leisure class being pampered by society and the lay people. Monks may have become that later, but not there at the first hour, and certainly not in the reform traditions that tried to return to a primitive observance. And in our own constitutions as well, I always marvel at the fact that Chapter Five is about “Poverty and Work.” We have an innate sense that they are inseparably bound together.
This ties in with that writing of Don Benedetto that I love so much. He says that work becomes a great equalizer in monasticism; and more than that, it “enables the monks to associate with, and even evangelize, the poor, the uncultured, the farmers.” For most people in ancient times, working the land is the thing that could transform servants into free people, but monks instead “offer themselves as servants of Christ and brothers of the poor… The land is possessed by the community not as an exercise of power, as will happen later in feudal society, but as a playground (palestra) of liberty, of equality among the brothers, through the law of work accepted in evangelical liberty.” This I think too is our response to, if not resonance with, socialists of all stripes.
Finally, there is a mindfulness about work for Benedict’s monks, or we might say, a sacramental sense to material things. I keep coming back to that phrase from Chapter 31 that the cellarer will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected. Things are holy for a monk! Even tools and pots and pans, guitars and computers.
As we celebrate Saint Joseph the Worker, let’s lift up and remember all humanity today, and celebrate our own humanity too, and our own little civilization as well, and pray that as co-creators with God we could make of our earth a palestra of evangelical liberty and equality in the name of Jesus.
 RB 66:6.
 Const. 5,108.
 Laborens Exercens, 9.
 RB 53: 18, 20.
 RB 48:8.
 Benedetto Calati, “Orazione e lavoro” in Sapienza Monastica, 446.
 RB 31:10.
 RB 32:4.