Introduction: What it Means to Work
There’s not a house in this country that I haven’t built that I don’t look at every time I go by. (Laughs.) I can set here now and actually in my mind see so many that you wouldn’t believe. If there’s one stone in there crooked, I know where it’s at and I’ll never forget it. Maybe thirty years, I’ll know a place where I should have took that stone out and redone it but I didn’t. I still notice it. The people who live there might not notice it, but I notice it. I never pass that house that I don’t think of it. I’ve got one house in mind right now. (Laughs.) That’s the work of my hands. ’Cause you see, stone, you don’t prepaint it, you don’t camouflage it. It’s there, just like I left it forty years ago.
I can’t imagine a job where you go home and maybe go by a year later and you don’t know what you’ve done. My work, I can see what I did the first day I started. All my work is set right out there in the open and I can look at it as I go by. It’s something I can see the rest of my life. Forty years ago, the first blocks I ever laid in my life, when I was seventeen years old. I never go through Eureka—a little town down there on the river—that I don’t look thataway. It’s always there.
Immortality as far as we’re concerned. Nothin’ in this world lasts forever, but did you know that stone—Bedford limestone, they claim—deteriorates one-sixteenth of an inch every hundred years? And it’s around four or five inches for a house. So that’s gettin’ awful close. (Laughs.)
The Mason: Carl Murray Bates from Studs Turkel’s Working
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation,
for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you:
fruit of the earth and work of human hands,
it will become for us the bread of life.
Blessed be God forever.
This familiar prayer, said right before the Eucharistic Prayer, nicely expresses the Catholic understanding of work: God is to be blessed, for through His goodness, we get to share in His creative act by making something new out of what He has given us. He gives us what we need to live – wheat and grapes – but we, as a gift from God, get to work with those gifts to make something truly human out of them. This secondary creative act is one way we have been made in His Image.
So, the bread and wine, fruits of the earth AND work of human hands, becomes the perfect offering. The food Adam had been cursed to produce by “the sweat of your brow” becomes the holy offering, and, ultimately, becomes Christ Himself, the one perfect offering.
Our work, far from being pointless drudgery, is meant as a gift, a sharing in the life of God the Creator. Mr. Bates, the mason, shows a perfectly natural and human joy in making things, a pride that is more like delight. This God-like sharing in the joy of creation is what is meant by work, in the highest, best sense. It is, properly, the sense in which we “subdue” the earth. Chesterton observed that there are few things more beautiful in this world than a good horseman on a fine horse. Maritain observed that, while a valley in its natural state is beautiful, a valley with beautiful farms in it is even more beautiful and perfect. Thus, God gives us a beautiful world, a land of milk and honey, and we *improve* it by our proper work. A horse is more beautiful when trained and ridden by a man; the valley is more beautiful when care for and made productive by a farmer.
It is no accident that the most hideous things we do to the earth are almost always associated with mistreatment of labor, of treating working people like mere inputs in a system, rather than sharers in God’s act of creation.
With this high calling of work in mind, it is tempting to focus with disgust on both capitalism (“unfettered capitalism”, if you prefer) and socialism as being systems within which man and his labors are seen primarily as inputs into a system, either as just another cost to be controlled within a capitalist enterprise, or as a sort of necessary evil, a formula for determining from whom things are taken and to whom they are given within a socialist system. And there is plenty to be disgusted with in both systems, as we will discuss as we go on. But we can’t ignore our own role as individuals working in the world. Regardless of the social hand we have been dealt, we must make our work holy and creative. Even slaves have been saints. The same tasks can be crushing or sanctifying, depending on how we perform them.
I hope, over the course of a few essays, to rehash neither church documents nor the Dismal Science itself, but rather to show how certain economic ideas that seem good fail due to both spiritual and practical considerations. We must be wise, as we are aspiring to great and holy things through our work.
Or you can go read John C. Wright’s latest. He takes the issues on with his incisive intellect and characteristically virile style. In this series here I hope to take a somewhat different approach.