joseph the worker: the dignity of human labor

The feast of St. Joseph the Worker is an odd one. It’s only listed as an optional memorial, but not only does it have its own opening prayer, it has proper prayers for all three presidential prayers, proper readings and even its own preface. My hunch is that there are some places in the world, particularly Communist countries, where this commemoration is raised to a higher level, because it wasn’t only to foster deeper devotion to St. Joseph among Catholics that Pope Pius XII instituted the feast of Saint Joseph the Worker in 1955: it was also in response to the May Day celebrations for workers sponsored by Communists. This year it has particular poignancy since this Saturday is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx.

There are three different Vatican documents that get mentioned often in relation to this feast. The first of course is Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, literally entitled “On the New Things,” subtitled “On the Rights and Duties of Workers,” from 1893. The industrial revolution and political change was sweeping Europe and the world at that time. Incidentally, and not unimportantly, Rerum Novarum was written 42 years after Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, and addressed very much the same problem––the exploitation of workers, the relations between workers and their employers, and unbridled capitalism––though with very different solutions. Then 60 years later another document comes along, Gaudium et Spes from the 2nd Vatican Council, a selection of which is read for the Office of Readings for this day. Gaudium et Spes insists that human activity, both individual and collective––our “great struggle in which human beings in the course of the ages have sought to improve the conditions of human living––is in keeping with God’s purpose.” This is the sentence that really struck me: “The Christian message does not deflect people from building up of the world, or encourage them to neglect the good of the human race, but rather places on them a stricter obligation to work for these objectives.” In other words, our mission in life is not simply to make sure we get to heaven individually; as Christians we also have the obligation and responsibility as individuals and communities to improve life on earth for each other and for all people. And then finally, the other document mentioned often in relation to this feast is Laborens Exercens of Pope St. John Paul II, which was written to coincide with the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum.[i] In the back of John Paul II’s mind of course is his own country’s struggle against Communism and his close tie to Lech Walesa and the Solidarity Movement. In it Pope John Paul II stated that “the Church considers it her task always to call attention to the dignity and rights of those who work, to condemn situations in which that dignity and those rights are violated, and to help to guide [social] changes so as to ensure authentic progress by humanity and society.”

I was particularly drawn to Laborem Exercens, because it gets cited in Chapter 5 of our own Constitutions. So I thought it would be a good idea to reflect on our own relationship to work as monks as it is presented to us by Saint Benedict and by our own congregation.

First of all, Benedict sees work as asceticism, an ascetical practice, as do our Constitutions. Please note, when I use the word “asceticism,” I do not mean penitential, but simply as a spiritual exercise, a practice and a training, in a sense. And so Benedict says that even when the work slackens, they are to go wherever other duties are assigned them… whenever they are free, they work wherever they are assigned.[ii] 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![iii] Now that may be more emphasized in regular observance Benedictine congregations or among the Trappists, who may even tend to be over-workers, but our Constitutions too see work as a positive asceticism. This is where they quote Laborem Exercens:[iv] “…by work they 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.”[v] Become more human! Not angels! That leads to a second aspect.

For the Benedictine tradition, there is a civilizing quality to work. St. Benedict seems to want his monks to work first of all for subsistence, a word that is very common in modern times––“subsistence living.” Like many modern counter-culturalists, Benedict seems to want the monastery to be self-contained. 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.[vi] 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.”[vii]

Third, there is a mindfulness about work for Benedict’s monks. I never get tired of the phrase from Chapter 31 on the cellarer: He will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected.[viii] And again in Chapter 32 he declares that whoever fails to keep the things belonging to the monastery clean or treats them carelessly should be reproved.[ix] Things are holy! Even tools and pots and pans, guitars and computers…

Finally, especially tying in with our feast, Benedict also sees work as solidarity with the poor and a means of almsgiving to the poor. Terrence Kardong, the great expert on the Rule, wrote that this is one of the fundamental changes in Benedict’s approach to work in the Rule: “the upper classes of that time looked on physical work as utterly degrading, but [Benedict’s monks] believed that hard work is ennobling,” I might use the word “humanizing” in keeping with John Paul II. “So they broke out of a sterile mindset that had corroded the ancient civilizations.”[x] And in our own Constitutions as well, I always marvel in the fact that Chapter Five is about “Poverty and Work.” We have an innate sense that they are inseparably bound together.

One last thing: John Paul II makes an interesting distinction in Laborens Exercens. He notes that there is a difference between work and toil. Toil, as the book of Genesis makes clear, is a consequence of sin; but work itself is an integral part of human nature, as a matter of fact it is a participation in the creative work of God. There are lots of ways to participate in divinity. One of them is our labor, the work of our hands, our creativity.

If I may adapt Gaudium et Spes: monasticism does not deflect us from building up of the world, or encourage us to neglect the good of the human race, but rather places on us a stricter obligation to work for these objectives. With St. Joseph as our guide, let’s pray for a proper attitude toward all our labors, great and small. Let’s pray for a spirit of joyful participation in the creative work of God. Let’s pray too for all those who are unemployed, underemployed, those who are exploited, and in solidarity with them have a spirit of gratitude for all we have been given, and pray God’s blessing on the work of our hands.

cyprian 1 may 2018

[i] It got delayed due to the assassination attempt on the pope’s life in 1983.

[ii] RB 53: 18, 20.

[iii] RB 48:8­.­

[iv] As does Charles Cummings in Monastic Practices.

[v] Laborens Exercens, 9.

[vi] RB 66:6.

[vii] Const. 5,108.

[viii] RB 31:10.

[ix] RB 32:4.

[x] ABR 62:4, Dec. 2011, 431-432.

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