Today is our national holiday, Labor Day. Originally intended to honor manual labor it’s now an occasion for recognition of all kinds of work.
The Hebrew Bible is ambivalent about work. In chapter 3 of Genesis, physical toil is considered a punishment for Adam and Eve’s sin, as they are banished from the Garden of Eden. Later in the Bible the importance of manual work is recognized:
Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 38:27-32
So it is with every artisan and master artisan
who labours by night as well as by day;
So it is with the smith, sitting by the anvil,
intent on his ironwork;
He sets his heart on finishing his handiwork,
and he is careful to complete its decoration.
So it is with is the potter sitting at his work
and turning the wheel with his feet;
he is always deeply concerned over his products,
and he produces them in quantity.
All these rely on their hands,
and all are skilful in their own work.
Without them no city can be inhabited,
Yet they are not sought out for the council of the people,
Any kind of work, well done, has dignity and worth. But it also holds the potential for obsessive over-emphasis—workaholism. Healthy work and rest balance each other. Genesis says that God rested from the work of Creation on the seventh day. Jesus went apart from his mission of healing and teaching for restorative times of prayer and rest. St. Benedict’s rule for his monasteries enjoins prayer and work in alternation during the day—“Ora et labora.”
Sadly, even Sirach notes that although the artisan’s craft skill supported the life of the city, manual labor’s dignity was not always recognized—artisans were “not sought out for the council of the people.” This is still true today. “White Collar” has more prestige than “Blue Collar.” Salaried labor has more prestige than hourly wage labor. To counter this a colleague of mine, Mike Rose, has written a wonderful book called The Mind at Work. It illustrates narratively the intelligence and skill involved in Blue Collar labor, showing this for waitresses and auto body shop workers, among others. (His mother was a waitress.)
All work has value, and also the potential to be a curse. Benedictine balance between prayer and work seems to be the best course for all of us—ora et labora. Let us pray today for all workers, in the words of the collect appointed for Labor Day in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is a retired priest of the Diocese of Washington