Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
September 1, 2003
Labour in the Lord's vineyard
The Labour Day weekend is upon us. It's the last long weekend of the summer, a final deep breath before the kids go back to school, a time to renew those long-standing football rivalries.
Maybe if we take the time to actually think about "Labour" Day (what a novel thought!), we may think of the value work adds to the nation's economy or maybe of it as a holiday in honour of workers. Usually such thoughts will not last too long because there is nothing in Canada's celebration of Labour Day to focus our attention upon them. If we think about anything in this holiday, it's about our own leisure, not about work.
Pope John Paul, in his 1981 encyclical On Human Work, asks us to think more seriously about labour. He asks us to see it as an expression of human dignity. The working person is not simply a means of production and work is not simply a form of merchandise the worker sells to the boss so he or she can obtain things that are more interesting or important.
By working, we participate in God's activity. We imitate God who was the first worker when he created all that is. "Work is a good thing for man," wrote the pope, "a good thing for his humanity - because through work, man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed in a sense becomes 'more a human being.'"
Victor Frankl was imprisoned in Nazi death camps during the Second World War. At first, he asked himself, "What is it that I want?" But after awhile he realized the more important question is, "What is wanted of me?" When he asked that question, he emerged from despair to a life of meaning. Even his suffering had cosmic importance, even if he wasn't fully aware of its significance.
By asking, "What is wanted of me?" I remove myself from the centre of things and begin to gain some humility. My work is no longer something to gratify my ego or a means to some other end. It gains importance in and of itself.
Suddenly, I see myself as the steward of my talents, a stewardship to be exercised not in accordance with some ulterior purpose, but in accord with my conscience.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux expressed this insight in the context of Christian indifference to self. She wrote, "I do not like one thing more than another; whatever God prefers and chooses for me, that is what I like best."
Rabbi Joshua Heschel was asked shortly before his death in 1972 what advice he would give to young people. He responded: "I would say: Let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can - everyone - do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all frustrations and all disappointments.
"And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to build a life as if it were a work of art."
We need such expressions of hope. We live in a cynical age where too many of our "leaders" are concerned solely with protecting their own power, too many ordinary people look only to maximize their own comfort and ease, and too many of all of us are too willing to attribute sinister motives to anyone and everyone.
Labour Day is a day for something else. It is a day for taking note that work is a form of stewardship and humility is its root virtue. This is a simple insight. But it is an insight, which if applied with consistency by all, would lead to a much more human-oriented society. God would be respected as God and people would be treated as persons, not things.
Labour Day can give us hope that someday such will be the case.
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