St. Joseph the Worker, and how Christianity transformed the meaning of work
By Kyle Greenham
The Book of Proverbs states, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”
One of the greatest threats to a healthy spiritual life is simply a lack of things to do. With it comes laziness, boredom, temptations and the slow ease into sin. Fr. Don Calloway says in his book Consecration to St. Joseph, “The devil hates an honest and diligent worker.” If that’s the case, then the devil must adore a lazy and inactive idler.
Work is a most practical remedy to the many sins that easily follow from idleness. Before you can let sinful thoughts take hold, quickly shift into some activity – whether it be physical exercise, practicing a skill, finally cleaning out that closet or storage space. Work is a spiritual antidote to this most prominent sin of the modern world – call it sloth, boredom, acedia, or a number of other names. In an age of TVs, smart phones, and a pandemic that has cancelled countless activities and kept many people shuttered within their homes, there’s no doubt that modern life directs us to be passively entertained, not actively working.
May 1, the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker, offers us a chance to meditate on the spiritual nature of work, something that I think our Christian faith is uniquely capable of understanding and expressing.
At the beginning of time God commanded Adam to work, specifically, to toil and cultivate the earth. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Gen 2:15) …Fill the earth and govern it (1:28).” Thus, all of our daily labours have a spiritual character, because we are fulfilling this most primordial of commandments – to work upon God’s creation and care for it. “Our daily work is a continuation in creation, consequently it has its archetype in God… All functions and occupations can and should be seen as reflections of His Divine Activity.” (Jean Hani, Divine Craftsmanship)
This sanctification of work reaches an entirely new depth through the Incarnation. When Christ enters the world, He spend His early years not as a royal prince or philosopher, but as a labourer. “Our Lord desired to do manual labour for many years before initiating his public ministry. Why did he do it? He did it because he wanted to sanctify work and teach us that work is honourable and pleasing to God.” (Calloway, Consecration to St. Joseph) Christ fulfilled that early commandment in Genesis as a carpenter – a man who takes the wood created by God and through his labour shapes it into something new and useful.St. Joseph is the model for Christian work because “he taught the God-man how to work.”
“When he became flesh, Jesus sanctified human work and elevated it to a level of greatness that did not exist prior to his Incarnation. Though divine, God humbled himself, became a man, and worked like a man. In his humanity, he learned how to work as a man by imitating the example of his earthly father, St. Joseph.” (Calloway, Consecration to St. Joseph)
Pope Pius XII noted this too when he declared the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1, 1955, seeing in St. Joseph the exemplar for all working class people: “The humble workman of Nazareth personifies before God and the Church the dignity of the man who works with his hands, and is always the provident guardian of you and your families.”
But this “dignity of the man who works with his hands” was not the attitude of the pre-Christian world. The ancient philosopher Aristotle famously defended slavery as something necessary in society, because physical labour was undignified for the upper classes and gifted intellectuals. Without slaves to do all the physically demanding toil of life, Aristotle argued, philosophers would not have the necessary time to contemplate. The Jesuit priest and economist Heinrich Pesch noted that, in the pagan world which preceded Christianity, “All work which did not have a predominantly intellectual character was looked on with disdain and as unworthy of a man’s respect. It was done by slaves and burdened with the stigma of bondage.” (Pesch, Liberalism, Socialism and the Christian Social Order)
However, the Catholic “Middle Ages brought work to its proper status… There was the Christian principle that the natural goods of this earth are destined by God to provide for the needs of all, and not for satisfying the fantasies, or merely enriching, certain individuals.” This Christian principle of work also meant that “Man ought to work for the sake of the glory of God who commanded work, and to have the blessing for his industry which lies in the soul; and what is conducive to Christian joy and happiness, and no less in order to share the fruits of our work with the poor and the sick.” (Pesch, Liberalism, Socialism and the Christian Social Order)
How did the Middle Ages bring about this transformation? With the collapse of the Roman Empire, around 4th century AD, came the collapse of this pagan attitude towards work; namely that physical labour was nothing more than an unfortunate burden only fit for lowly slaves. Christianity demolished this worldview and brought a new dignity to work largely through the Benedictine monks and their motto – Ora et Labora – work and prayer.
After Rome’s collapse, it was the Benedictine monasteries that restored order and rebuilt much of Europe. Through their motto of Ora et Labora, Benedictine monks lived lives of strenuous farm work and agricultural development, but also devoted many hours each day to prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours and the reading of Scripture. These Christian monks exemplified lives of both rigorous physical labour and the meditative contemplation of prayer. They proved the Aristotelian view wrong, showing that a man’s daily life could consist of both intellectual, spiritual and physical pursuits. By the Benedictines example, a new dignity and honour was placed on work that the world had not seen until that time.
This new Christian attitude towards work also cultivated the virtue of humility. Work can not only cure us of the idleness that leads us into temptation, it can also heal us of our pride. Nothing chips away at a man’s selfishness or his delusions of grandeur more than submitting to the (often humiliating) task of learning a new skill. Whether that be learning how to change the oil in your car or trying your hand at a home plumbing issue, these tasks begin with a humble admittance that we still have things to learn. As John Waters put it in his book Give Us Back the Bad Roads, “Making things, fixing things… takes a man out of his self-absorption and renders him answerable to the logic of the world and the rest of its inhabitants. It is the enemy of narcissism and self-will.” Work answers our inner insistence to know and understand things, it saves us from “the devil’s workshop” of idleness, and by work we learn how important it is to cooperate with the world, with each other and fulfill God’s commandment to be the caretakers of His creation. “We must recognize God as the sole source and energy in all we do and in all the gifts we receive… By returning our action to God, we avoid returning to our own ego.” (Hani, Divine Craftsmanship)
In our time, when it often seems like selfish pride and ego reigns supreme in society, where looking good on your social media profile is more important than doing good works in the world, the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker is needed now more than ever. It gives us the chance to acknowledge the dignity of work, the great humility it can teach us, and the way it can bring us closer to God. This is embodied in no one as much as St. Joseph, the man who taught Christ how to work.
I hope this feast of St. Joseph the Worker aids you in meditating on the importance of work, and why all Christians should remember and live by that Benedictine motto – Ora et Labora – for this is key to a healthy and upright life. Both in our spirit and in our day-to-day living, we need to make time for prayer and time for work to embody the complete human person God intends us all to be.
St. Joseph the Worker, pray for us.