September 5, 2011

Happy Labor Day

Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the community members should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading - Rule of St. Benedict
Today is Labor Day, and the day to celebrate all those who labor to support themselves and their families and contribute to the economy of our nation.  It is a day to be with family and friends, bar-be-que, and even though there are over two weeks left until the autumn equinox and the days and the ocean are still warm, it is the traditional end of summer and for most of us it means going back to our normal routine.

Labor Day originally began as a day when people who worked hard and for long hours would get recognition by the government and given a day off.  It was a day to acknowledge the hard work that people did in factories, in the fields, in service to the community, and has expanded to include all kinds of work in offices, schools, in anyway that people earn their way.  It acknowledges that work is important. It is important not only in an economical and financial sense but in a spiritual sense as well.

St. Benedict knew the value of work.  He made it an important part of the rule of his communities...ora et labora, prayer and work are the foundations of monastic life. "Idleness is the enemy of the soul", he wrote.  We have all heard it reworded "idleness is the devil's playground" or "idle hands make the devil's work."  These saying are not suggesting that we work until we drop, or push ourselves beyond what is reasonably required, but when we work, when we engage in labor of any kind, we keep our minds and our bodies focused on what we are doing and thus avoiding temptations that idleness can bring.

Work, when done in the sense of giving glory to God, can be a very spiritual experience.  When I start my workday with prayer all seems to go better.  OK, I admit, I work for the Church, so it might be a bit easier to focus my work on the Lord, but, as anyone knows who has ever worked in a parish office or in Church ministry, it can bring it's own kind of challenges and sometimes we can easily lose that focus.  When that happens, it is time to stop and say a brief prayer.  St. Benedict knew this when he established hours of prayer throughout the day when work would cease when the work of God or Opus Dei would be prayed with the community.  Try it when things on the job get tense or overwhelming.

I discovered that work is mentioned 480 times in the Bible.  Right at the beginning, God put Adam in the garden "to cultivate and to care for it (Gen 2:15), yet because of the fall, man's labor and toil increased (Gen. 3:17b-19). In the New Testament, Jesus teaches us in parables about workers in the fields and vineyards.  Paul writes,
aspire to live a tranquil life, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your own hands, as we have instructed you, that you may conduct yourselves properly toward outsiders and not depend on anyone. (1Thes. 4:11)
The Church too views work as something that is important and necessary to the human state. Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1981 Encyclical Letter Laborem Exercens (On Human Work):
Work is a good thing for man-a good thing for his humanity-because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes "more a human being".
All too often today however, work  has become a means to an end, so to speak for many.  It is a way to increase what we have but really don't need.  It has created a society where consumerism and materialism have become more important than earning our keep and keeping food on our table and a home over our heads.  On the other side, there are those who work tirelessly for unjust wages and in oppressive conditions.  I am thinking of those around the world in sweat shops and fields, especially children who are forced to labor like slaves, while those who "employ" them get rich.  There are those, many undocumented, who stand in front of home improvement stores or in parking lots waiting for a contractor or landscaper to choose them to work just for the day, for less than minimum wage.  I think of the elderly men and women in my supermarket who, at a time when they could be retired and enjoying their last days, are forced to keep working to make ends meet. The mothers who are forced into working instead of raising their children because of the high cost of living. And those, who because of our consumer mindset, are working this day in stores so we can take advantage of the best sales.  These are the forgotten laborers, the ones we really don't celebrate today. Many of them are working today while the we relax in our yards.  We need to remember them and to see that unfair labor practices are eradicated so that all may enjoy rest and fruits from their work.

What ever we do, where ever we work, we must always remember that we are called to work in the Vineyard of the Lord, to do His bidding, and to labor tirelessly so that His Kingdom will come.  It is this kind of work that we should never rest from.  Today is the fourteenth anniversary of the death of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. If ever a woman worked for the Lord, it was she. She labored physically every day to help the poor and the dying, to protect the unborn, and to bring Christ to the world.  Her work brought glory to God.  She writes:
There is always the danger that we may just do the work for the sake of the work. This is where the respect and the love and the devotion come in - that we do it to God, to Christ, and that's why we try to do it as beautifully as possible.
There is a lot to think about in that quote. Whatever we may do to earn a living, do we do it just for the sake of work, or do we, in some way, consider our work as a means of living the Gospel and bringing Christ to others?

Happy Labor Day, enjoy your rest, but don't rest from praying.

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