We celebrate Labor Day tomorrow, a national holiday honoring the Labor Union Movement and the contribution of workers to our country. But we all labor in different ways, unionized or not, and it is good to consider the place of work in our culture.
Work may be defined in many ways. There’s working to pay the rent and put food on the table. There is volunteer work, actively helping others without payment. A mother’s work is never done, it is said, and probably true. Most of us wake with the first cry of our children and work for their well being on and into the night. They may grow up and leave home but will always be our children. We will always be their mothers. And so it ever shall be.
There is the work of those lucky few who have found joy in their calling, especially those who are paid to do something they love. They reap envy from others, but they too have their long hours of toil, one disciplined step at a time.
I have found it interesting that the Women’s Movement was begun by ladies of leisure, graduates from Ivy League colleges, women with time on their hands. They had no meaningful work. Nannies cared for their children. Cooks cooked and housekeepers kept house. What’s a girl to do? It was inevitable that ladies’ lunches and charity bazaars would bore some women. They wanted to be rewarded financially, for their brains if not their brawn. They wanted recognition in the “real” world. Somehow raising children wasn’t real, when they didn’t do the raising. I can see that.
As feminism swept the country, the women in my family were swept along with many others from the modest middle class. A woman without a career was somehow weak or silly or dimwitted. Eventually and with some reluctance, being a homemaker was accepted as acceptable, or at least lip service was paid. And so families, already fraught with the natural tensions of human beings living under one roof, without maid, cook, or nanny, felt additional pressure to meet unreal expectations, to “have it all.”
Feminism has benefited our world in many ways; equal pay for equal work, and greater respect for women, have been a welcome revolution.
But the desire of the wealthy to head off to work says something about basic human needs. We are wired to create, to build, to move from beginnings to middles to ends. To produce and achieve. Medieval monks knew this, laboring in those secluded houses of unceasing prayer, for their hours of prayer alternated with hours of work – ora and labora, as St. Benedict decreed. Their labor, their toil, was often tedious, to be sure, in fields and farm, digging, planting, harvesting. Monastics in more cloistered orders prayed in solitary cells, but they saw prayer itself as a kind of work. Their words to God were not turned inward as found in Buddhism or Hinduism, but outward, to the Christian God of love, as they meditated on his Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection. All Christian prayer has a goal within it that pulls one outside oneself – praise, petition, confession, intercession, thanksgiving. In this sense prayer is a work in itself, a beautiful work for God.
A tradition grew within Christianity of prayerful work, labora full of ora, work full of prayer. We offer our work to God, our time, ourselves, minute by minute. We infuse our work with the holy. Secularists have borrowed and renamed the idea, calling it “living in the moment” or “mindfulness”. But Christians have practiced this for centuries. In a world created by God, all creation, all time, is holy, and even our breathing can be infused with God’s spirit. A prayer-full friend taught me to breathe Jesus in and out, Je in and sus out, pulling God into our very breath, the breath that he breathed into us in the Garden. Now we hear from therapists to remember to breathe deeply, to relax.
Work structures our time on earth and gives it meaning, even if only for an hour. It structures our minds as well. We discipline ourselves to go to work, to labor and toil, to make the effort to sit down and work, say, to write this blog. In the discipline itself, my mind is slightly changed, remade. My brain has been strengthened, sculpted, for the next work challenge. And my time has reaped rewards. I have no regrets.
We say a woman giving birth goes through labor. It is a life-giving work, God-like in its power and its love. For the woman must suffer in this labor, must breathe and push and give of her body to allow this new life, this child within her, the chance to breathe as she has been given. It is the most glorious and important and cosmic work of all, a true labor of love. It would be good for our culture to one day honor such labor. It would be good to tell the truth about mothers and their unborn babies. Every woman giving birth should be especially honored. I pray for that, and that is another labor of love.
Since the Garden of Eden, when man was sent into the world to work, we have toiled for our living. And yet, through grace, our loving God pours himself into our labor.
We need merely breathe him in and he will turn our work into his glory.