Monday, May 25, 2009

Ora et Labora

The beginning of May was once marked by the Feast of Saints Phillip and James--a "Double of the Second Class" in the old taxonomy--but in more recent times it has been marked by an Optional Memorial of Saint Joseph the Worker. To some, this represents an unsavory change: in the days when May began with Saints Phillip and James, Saint Joseph was celebrated with a "Double of the First Class with a Common Octave"--the highest rank in the old taxonomy short of a "Double of the First class with a Proper Octave"--and he was celebrated under his title as "Most Chaste Spouse of the Ever-Virgin Mary, Confessor, and Patron of the Universal Church". This was a movable feast, held on the Wednesday in the second week after the Octave of Easter. Some critics of the change have described it as at once throwing a sop to Pinkos, making Joseph the "Patron of Workers" on "May Day", while at the same time kicking Traditionalists in the groin by demoting poor old Joseph to a mere Optional Memorial in the execrable new taxonomy forced on us by "that 'council'".

I do not really have a dog in that fight: there are some elements of the old taxonomy that I happen to like, but I have no objections to the new one, which is far simpler for those of us who happen to take the Daily Office fairly seriously but who prefer the Benedictine custom of preserving, as much as possible, the weekly structure of the Psalm cycle. Having said that, however, I was struck this year by one of the readings from the Daily Office on the first of May. The reading is from Sections 33-34 of Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. This reading does not treat Saint Joseph's new aegis as "worker" as anything like a sop to Commies; it is, rather, a tribute to Joseph's role as archetype of mankind's triumph over the forces of nature by means the efforts of his own God-given capacities for manipulating the created order of things:
Where formerly man looked especially to supernatural forces for blessings, he now secures many of these benefits for himself, thanks to his own efforts....

Those who believe in God take it for granted that, taken by itself, man's activity, both individual and collective...is in keeping with God's purpose.

Man, created in God's image, has been commissioned to master the earth and all it contains, and so rule the world in justice and holiness. He is to acknowledge God as the creator of all, and to see himself and the whole universe in relation to God....

This commission extends to even the most ordinary activities of everyday life. Where men and women, in the course of gaining a livelihood for themselves and their families, offer appropriate service to society, they can be confident that their personal efforts promote the work of the Creator, confer benefit on their fellowmen, and help to realize God's plan in history.

So far from thinking that the achievements gained by man's abilities and strength are in opposition to God's power, or that man with his intelligence is in some sense a rival to his Creator, Christians are, on the contrary, convinced that the triumphs of the human race are a sign of God's greatness and the effect of his wonderful providence.
This reading resonated with me at a very deep level, because it touches on some of the themes that I myself have been working through in my own spiritual investigations and about which I have written in this forum. In particular I am struck by the description of man's success in the epistemological domain as a sign of God's greatness: I have often written of my belief that the Incarnational aspect of our religion carries with it an assumption that all of reality, no matter how mundane in appearance or base in its experience, is nevertheless shot through with the reality of God, and stands as a sign, for those who are able to read such signs, of God's presence among us. So here, too, in the case of human labor, we see a sign of God's presence among us: the universe is such that we are able to master certain elements of it by virtue of the capacities that God gave us for such mastery, and to the extent that we make use of these capacities and bring about good things by means of them, we make manifest God's presence and, more importantly, his love--an essential act of witness on our part to those parts of God's creation that are not yet, for whatever reason, able to read the signs for themselves.

There is a steady emphasis upon the integration of such human capacities into a God-centered way of life in the Rule of Saint Benedict. Writing in the sixth century Benedict saw the real benefits of manual labor to the maintenance of well-being in a well-balanced human life. Although his Rule is clearly modeled on the earlier Rule of the Master, he departs in some significant ways from the Master's conception of what that well-balanced human life was directed toward. They both agree, of course, that the goal is to gain heaven, but whereas the Master seems to treat our life in the material mode as something of an obstacle to that end, a kind of pre-purgatory to be endured until the End Time comes, Benedict is much more optimistic about the real presence of God's Kingdom among us in the here and now, and he writes his rule with a view to showing how his vision of this Kingdom can be lived out in Community.

This is an element of Benedictine spirituality that I find deeply compelling. If reality really is incarnational, as I have suggested, then it seems naturally to point towards the eschaton in a manner than is more than merely symbolic. It does so by means of a kind of revelation: reality, as we experience it in the here and now, is already a sign of God's presence among us. It seems to me, then, that we ought to interact with reality as though we believe that to be true, and not so much as though we are waiting to see God only at the end of time.

Work is sometimes seen as a figure for our fallen nature: we must engage in toil and live by the sweat of our brows in order to atone for our sinfulness. According to this view, the whole point of the Sabbath day is to illustrate for us God's merciful forgiveness: though we deserve to toil, he sets aside a day for us on which we are to refrain from doing any work, because God has it in his power to excuse us--forgive us--from our debt. To work on the Sabbath, on this view, is to reject God's forgiveness. This is why Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

But this view of work is only half the story. Work per se is not a punishment, only work that is dreary. In the beginning Adam was placed in the Garden in order to tend it, and as any gardener knows, tending a garden is most definitely work. But people who love gardening love the work that they do in their gardens--it is not dreary toil, but sheer pleasure--though if you are like me, you often spend the evening after a day of such sheer pleasure with you feet up and a cool drink by your side nursing your aches and pains. But you don't regret any of it.

So the Benedictine approach to work sees labor in its fullness: sure there is always the possibility for any job to become tedious toil, but it need not do so. Saint Benedict had manual labor in mind when he established his Rule for monasteries in which the monks would pray for eight hours, work for eight hours, and rest for eight hours. But we all have work to do, whether it is the manual labor of tending a garden, driving a tractor, working a lathe, assembling a chassis, or less physically demanding forms of labor such as working at a computer, advising a client about her investments, teaching a class, or keeping the files in order. Many of us do plenty of work that we don't get paid for: taking care of our children, cleaning our house, mowing our yards, doing our laundry--and it is sometimes this kind of work, the work that we don't actually get any money for doing, that we come to find the most dreary. And yet all of this work can be approached with an attitude that sees it as part of a communal project undertaken with our fellow men in order to advance the common good, whether we get paid for it or not. If we have this sort of attitude towards our work, we take a step towards Benedict's vision of how we ought to incorporate work, labor, into our overall lives, lives that, in their fullness, include prayer and rest along with work.

If we are to take seriously the Benedictine injunction to "pray and work" (ora et labora), we will need to find ways of making our work a prayer-like activity. That is, if it should happen, as it often does in this life, that we begin to find our day-to-day tasks tedious and toilsome, we need to search in our hearts for ways to offer up our dislike for what we are doing as a form of prayer; if we happen to love what we are doing, we should offer that up as well. In the former case we ask the Spirit to help us to see, and to help us to help others to see, that everything we do, we do for the Lord; in the latter case we rejoice with the Spirit in our communion with God's manifest image in the created order of things.

1 comment:

RAnn said...

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