Today marks the 30th Anniversary of the promulgation of Laborem exercens or “On Human Work” by John Paul II. There is a lot to recommend this document, but the best part of it is the end which talks about a “spirituality of labor.”
What the Holy Father argues in the last section of Laborem is akin to his Theology of the Body. He starts with the nature of the human person. We are both physical and spiritual beings. Salvation, assuming it accomplishes the total transformation of every part of us, must include an approach to labor that can transform its very meaning, connecting it to the transcendent. In other words, the Holy Father wants to show us how our everyday work can point to the heavenly kingdom to which we are all drawn.
John Paul II starts with pointing out that when we work we are participating in the creative work of God. This is an idea that appears earlier in the document and which is fleshed out quite well. He brings it up again here to remind the reader that there is already an other-worldly aspect to the work that we do. Part of our being made in the image and likeness of God means that our work to create or to produce objects is an extension of the creative power of God within us. We participate with God in the “unfolding of human history,” says the Holy Father.
So, no matter how menial the work, we are fulfilling in us part of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. Here alone we have a huge change in the way we ought to look at our labor.
John Paul II then writes about Christ the working man. This is one of those things that can often be either twisted to mean much more than it does, or can be totally forgotten. In the former, some want to make Jesus into the everyman who is preaching out against the oppressors of his time in some sort of social revolution. He’s the laborer who is attempting to overthrow the system. In the latter case, we can be so focused on Christ the redeemer and even Christ the King that we forget he was a man who worked with is hands, who got dirty, who probably struck his thumb on occasion or who had to deal with an unhappy customer. Jesus was a laborer and so by that very fact He’s transformed the meaning of labor.
Just as the Incarnation has changed what it means to be human, Jesus has provided a game-changer when it comes to work. He’s elevated it. He’s made it noble. No longer can the wealthy view the laborer as a lower class merely because they work with their hands.
Finally, the Holy Father voices what we all know already, and that is that work involves pain. Even if we enjoy our avocation, there is still pain involved. I remember being on an interview board once where a member asked the candidate what was difficult about their ministry. The candidate just kept repeating that he loved what he did and there was never any downside. After it was all said and done, the interrogator told us that he doubted the persons involvement with the ministry, because there is always some pain in work. It cannot be all roses and pixie dust. If it is, you’re not really involved.
So if there is pain in our work, what do we make of it. This is what the Holy Father has to say:
Sweat and toil, which work necessarily involves the present condition of the human race, present the Christian and everyone who is called to follow Christ with the possibility of sharing lovingly in the work that Christ came to do (Cf. Jn 17:4). This work of salvation came about through suffering and death on a Cross. By enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, man in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity. He shows himself a true disciple of Christ by carrying the cross in his turn every day (Cf. Lk 9:23) in the activity that he is called upon to perform.
So let’s get this straight, through the very suffering of my everyday work I’m working with Jesus for the “redemption of humanity”? Alright, so who saw that coming?
What John Paul II offers us in Laborem exercens is not a totally new idea, there are smatterings of it elsewhere as his footnotes demonstrate. But the point is that he contextualizes this, and with a nonchalance fitting one confident in the Lord, he states that we can actually help bring about the salvation of mankind by doing the work that we do.
Of course, there is a little bit more to it than just doing the work. We could gripe and moan and generally be a pain in everyone’s after as we do the work. Or we can do it with joy and humility, viewing it as a true blessing.
The Christian finds in human work a small part of the Cross of Christ and accepts it in the same spirit of redemption in which Christ accepted his Cross for us. In work, thanks to the light that penetrates us from the Resurrection of Christ, we always find a glimmer of new life, of the new good, as if it were an announcement of ‘the new heavens and the new earth’(Cf. 2 Pt 3:13; Rev 21:1) in which man and the world participate precisely through the toil that goes with work. Through toil – and never without it.
I read this and cannot help but to think of the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins
THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
The glimmer of new life in labor is the great new good we have before us, the chance to make even the dreariest of tasks, and I’ve had a few in my day, become moments of shook foil full of God’s grandeur.
One last thing, at the very end, the Holy Father states that he actually thought he had finished the document earlier than September and was going to promulgate it on May 15th, 1981 the 90th anniversary of Rerum novarum. It was however his hospital stay that kept him from doing so, and it was that stay that allowed him to revise it “definitively,” suggesting that the suffering there allowed him to include this spirituality of labor.
What hospital stay? On May 13th, 1981, Pope John Paul II was shot. So, thanks to the assassination attempt, we have this beautiful document that reminds us just how valuable our labor can be, even to the point of the redemption of the world. Happy Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, the day on which this wonderful document on labor was promulgated 30 years ago.