Category Archives: work

The offensive worker

The people took offense at him.
Matthew 13: 57

 One of my pet peeves here in Honduras is the way manual workers and campesinos,the poor workers in the countryside, are treated.

They are looked down on, at times despised, for their lack of education, for being manual laborers. They are not culto, cultured.

As I look back on my life I recognize that this is not a concern that began when I came to Honduras almost seven years ago.

Neither my father nor my mother finished high school. They were “blue-collar” workers, though my Dad, because of his incredible math skills, went from working on the floor of a steel-fabrication plant to an assistant supervisor.

But it is also for me a question of spirituality.

I remember the story about St. Bonaventure in which he told a friar that a poor woman could get to heaven just as well – or maybe better – than he could with all his learning.

I remember hearing Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking in a north Philadelphia church, with a call much like this text of a 1956 sermon:

Whatever is your life’s work, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.”

I remember reading this text of John Gardner in the early 1970s and sharing it with a person working at the Catholic Peace Fellowship:

 An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

Bill noted the appropriateness of the quote. He was a plumber and I was studying philosophy.

When I was a campus minister at Iowa State University, I kept insisting on the dignity of work and had a special concern for agricultural issues and students studying agriculture at “Moo U” as some called ISU.

In a talk at the Antioch retreat I reminded the students of the priestly nature of their work by quoting Monseñor Oscar Romero who once said,

 How beautiful will be the day
when all the baptized understand
that their work, their job,
is a priestly work,
that just as I celebrate Mass at this altar,
so each carpenter celebrates Mass at his workbench,
and each metalworker,
each professional,
each doctor with the scalpel,
the market woman at her stand,
are performing a priestly office!

Today is Labor Day in most of the countries of the world. Today is also the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, when we remember that Jesus came from a working family.

The people of his town took offense at this:

 Where does this guy get all his wisdom and powers? He’s just the carpenter’s son.

Today is a day to remember the dignity of manual work – and the need we have for that work and for the people who sweep our streets, wash our dishes, grow our food. It is a day to remember that Jesus was one of them.

They have much to teach us. As Thomas a Kempis, the author of The Imitation of Christ, wrote:

A humble countryman who serves God is more pleasing to Him than a conceited intellectual who knows the course of the stars, but neglects his own soul.


Good work

In the early 1970s, I had a poster with this quote from John Gardner:

An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

I was studying philosophy in New York City, I volunteered about once a week at the office of the Catholic Peace Fellowship. I got to know a few members of the staff, including Bill.

One day I shared the quote with him. He smiled and noted that he was a plumber!

Good work is what we need – regardless of the type of work. Scorning those who work with their hands is an affront to God and to humanity – and especially to Jesus, the Word made Flesh, who worked with his hands in the workshop of Joseph his father.

So this week say thank you to someone who works with her hands. The world needs them.






Saint Isidore and the holiness of manual labor

“…these hands of mine have provided
for both my needs and needs of those with me…
…by working hard one must help the weak…”
Paul’s farewell to the Ephesians
Acts 20: 34-35

In the Western world and in the upper class societies throughout the world there is a prejudice against manual labor. I even saw this in Ames, Iowa, where Iowa State University is the first land-grant college in the US.

Yet even St. Paul is proud that by the work of his hands he cared for himself, his friends, and the poor.

Maria and Isidore (NCRLC image)

Maria and Isidore (NCRLC image)

Today the church celebrates Saint Isidore the Farm Laborer, a Spanish day laborer on a farm near Madrid, who lived from about 1070 to 1130. His wife, St. Toribia or St. Maria de la Cabeza, is celebrated on September 9.

Robert Ellsberg’s remarks on Isidore, in All Saints and in his short biography in the May 2013 Give Us This Day, are telling.

St. Isidore was canonized in 1622 with five great saints of the Counter-Reformation; unlike them, “he accomplished no great deeds (apart from tilling the land). He was, in fact, a simple farmworker.”

Tilling the land should be seen as a great deed, a way to holiness. St. Isidore lived a live of heroic holiness doing what the people here in rural Honduras do everyday – the hard work of tilling, weeding, harvesting.

“[St. Isidore] knew the hardships, the toil, and sorrows of all farmworkers then and since. And he displayed the simple though profound faith so common to campesinos the world over.”

Today I recall all those people who work the land – here and throughout the world. I recall friends in Iowa who are farming, often with little machinery, to provide food for themselves and others. I think of those here in Honduras who are now preparing their lands to plant the corn that is the staple of life.

By the work of their hands they are sanctifying the world and themselves. By farming they are seeking to be saints.


Growing Harmony Farm T-shirt

They may not write great tomes of theology or spirituality (though one of my farmer friends, Gary, is a spiritual director). They may not ever be known outside of their family and friends (though Gary is known throughout central Iowa as the carrot king.)

But their work on the land not only provides food; it is their way of living the Kingdom of God, especially those who use sustainable and organic farming methods. It is their way of trying to be saints.

The last line of Robert Ellsberg’s biography of St. Isidore merits our attention, today and every day:

In the list of canonized saints, his type is surprisingly rare; in heaven, presumably, less so.

Let us today celebrate these saints who became holy by the work of their hands.


The Catholic Worker at 80

On May Day, 1933, a group of Catholics gathered at the Union Square May Day rally with a mission. They had come to sell The Catholic Worker, at “a penny a copy.”

Dorothy Day had connected with Peter Maurin a few months previously and this was one of their joint ventures. Dorothy Day wanted the workers to know that the Catholic Church had not abandoned them.

For those who are sitting on park benches in the warm spring sunlight.
For those who are huddling in shelters trying to escape the rain.
For those who are walking the streets in the all but futile search for work.
For those who think that there is no hope for the future, no recognition of their plight – this little paper is addressed.
It is printed to call their attention to the fact that the Catholic Church has a social program – to let them know that there are men of God who are working not only for their spiritual, but for their material welfare.

For eighty years the New York City Catholic Worker and the many Catholic Worker houses throughout the US and the world have been a thorn in the side of the powerful elites in the world.

Who knows how many have been fed at these houses?

Who knows how many hours Catholic Workers have been on picket lines, protesting war and nuclear weapons, supporting farm workers and conscientious objectors, being signs of contradiction to the world?

Dorothy Day – a radical who lived among the poor – may one day be canonized, but her radical critiques of war and capitalism as well as her deep love for Christ and the Catholic Church are a challenge for all of us.

May the example of Catholic Workers – from Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin to the Des Moines Catholic Worker and the Mustard Seed Farm outside of Ames, Iowa – continue to challenge us and the church to be true followers of the Prince of Peace who appears among us as the poor and outcast.

For more on the Catholic Worker, you can check the Catholic Worker webpage here or visit your local Catholic Worker. A great introduction to Dorothy Day is Jim Forest’s All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day.  Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness is an inspiring read.




The dignity of manual labor

No race or society can prosper until it learns
that there is as much dignity in tilling a field
as in writing a poem.
Booker T. Washington,
born April 5, 1856

 In the early 1970s I had a poster with these words of John Gardner:

An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

I once shared this with someone who worked in the New York City Catholic Peace Fellowship office where I volunteered every once in a while. He noted that he was a plumber and that I was studying philosophy.

The dignity of work is a theme of Catholic Social Thought that is often overlooked, especially the dignity of manual labor. There is, within many of us, a subtle prejudice against manual labor. Why get my hands dirty when I can use my mind?

But many spiritual leaders of the twentieth century, especially Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Lanza del Vasto, have not only praised manual work but have considered it essential for a true spiritual life. Otherwise we become oppressive!

Sad to say I don’t do enough physical labor, though I really should try my hand at raising a few vegetables. But I have always respected manual laborers and I see them as essential, though neglected, members of our world, often doing more for the common good than office workers and intellectuals.

Manual labor, especially farming, demands a lot of skill and expertise. As Brazilian theologian Clodovis Boff wrote (Feet-on-the-Ground Theology, p. 60):

A human being should be able to exercise the same degree of skill in picking beans and doing research, hauling papayas and consulting books.

And manual labor should be seen as a place for prayer. As Gandhi noted:

Whether you wet your hands in the water-basin, fan the fire with the bamboo bellows, set down endless columns of figures at a desk, labor in the rice-field with your head in the burning sun and your feet in the mud, or stand at work before the smelting furnace, so long as you do not do all this with just the same religiousness as if you were monks praying in a monastery, the world will never be saved.

And so I need to try to live a life where I use my hands as well as my head and heart. After all, Jesus was a manual laborer for many years.


King and the dignity of manual labor

Forty-five years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. He had gone there to support the striking sanitation workers.

It might seem strange that he had gone to support a struggle of workers, this man who spoke against segregation and racism, who protested the Vietnam war and US militarism. Yet I think support for workers was central to his Christian understanding of the human person and the dignity of work.

I heard Dr. King in person once, about 1965, in a church in North Philadelphia. A friend and I were two of the few white faces there, but I felt at home. When King came he spoke strongly of the value of the human person.

I remember well one part of his speech, which I found in a sermon he gave in 1956:

Whatever is your life’s work, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.”

This struck home to me and has affected my life and my ministry in profound ways.

When I worked with college students I used this quote in my talk on the Antioch retreat to emphasize the dignity of all work as sharing in the work of God.

Here in Honduras this quote inspires me in my work with the poor to treat all of them with deep respect and to help them see the dignity and worth of all they do.

Since I’ve been here I’ve always greeted the street sweepers in Santa Rosa who pick up the litter on the streets. Some of them respond and a few months ago, one woman greeted me warmly and told me she wondered if I was still there.

In the countryside it’s also very important to affirm the dignity of manual labor – in the home, in the fields, building houses. The people in the countryside are looked down upon – “people of the mountains” [“hillbillies”], as one politician called them a few years ago. But they have an inestimable dignity in the eyes of God and their work is important.

And so Martin Luther King challenges us to respect the worth of all labor, especially manual labor, as he challenges us to work to rid the world of racism and war.

May his words and his actions inspire us to be with the marginalized of this world, respecting them, and helping them see the dignity of their lives and their work.

A personal note:
Only recently have I realized why affirming the dignity of all work is so much a part of me. My parents, who grew up in the depression, never finished high school. They both began as blue collar workers. My dad was promoted to the office because of his skills, including an incredible ability to do complicated mathematical calculations in his head. I grew up in a lower middle class, mostly blue collar, neighborhood and I finished college at the University of Scranton where many of my classmates were the first to attend college in their families, as was I. My roots in the blue collar worker of the lower middle class have, thanks be to God, survived many years of education and even professional work in the church and the university.





People with a mission

In today’s Gospel, Luke 4: 16-30, Jesus speaking in his hometown synagogue comments on a passage of Isaiah and tells them that this is fulfilled with his presence.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
He has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor,
to proclaim liberty to captives
and sight to the blind,
to free the oppressed
and announce the Lord’s year of grace.

This morning, during the Monday refection at Caritas in Santa Rosa de Copán, I asked the staff to share ways in which their work fulfilled these aspects of Jesus’ ministry. It was good to hear how they saw their work with communities in agriculture, in political formation, and in other areas as forms of living out the mission of Jesus in their work.

This is a good exercise which I recommend for persons and ministries since this passage is, in a sense, Jesus’ inaugural address in which he lays out his ministry.


Transformation and Eucharist

Over the past few months I been reading a book by Anselm Grün, OSB, Images of Jesus, with fifty short meditations on Jesus. At the end of the book he has a chapter entitled, “The eucharist as an encounter with Jesus.”

He includes a moving paragraph on the epiclesis of the Eucharist Prayer,  a meditation which speaks to my sense of the transformation which Christ wants for all of us, which begins with the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.

Two rites [in the eucharist] … affect me every day. One rite is the prayer before the transformation, the so-called epiclesis, in which with outstretched hands I call down the Holy Spirit upon the gifts of read and wine, so that they become the body and blood of Jesus. For me that is the daily prayer that the Holy Spirit will transform my work, my conflicts, my longings and wishes, my disappointments and bitternesses, so that Jesus’ spirit shines out in them. I want Jesus to come not only in bread and wine but in all that I think, speak and do. Everything is to make Christ known. And through Christ everything is to become bread and wine for men and women, something that feeds them and gladdens their hearts. (p. 174)

May God transform me and all I do, all I long for, and all I love so that we may become hope for all and a sign of God’s reign.

Bearing Christ to the world

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the visitation of Mary, pregnant with Jesus, to her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist. It is a feast of the love between two women who said yes to the presence of God in their lives.

There is much that could and should be written about the implications of the Gospel (Luke 1: 39-56), which ends with Mary’s Magnificat, a revolutionary canticle of God’s Kingdom overturning the kingdom’s of this world.

But what struck me this morning while praying Vigils from Benedictine Daily Prayer: A Short Breviary,  was a selection from Caryll Houselander’s  Reed of God.  The whole passage cited is worth reading, especially the first paragraph. But these words especially recalled to me the vocation all of us have to bring Christ to our daily lives, to our work and not only to our prayer.

If Christ is growing in us, if we are at peace, recollected, because we know that however insignificant our life seems to be, from it he is forming himself; if we go with eager will, in haste, to whatever our circumstances compel us, because we believe that he desires to be in that place, we shall find that we are driven more and more to act on the impulse of his love. And the answer we shall get from others to these impulses will be an awakening into life, or the leap into joy of already wakened life within them.

All work – that is true and just and good – can be a place where God is found. And wherever we can and whatever we do, that is where we can bring Christ.


St. Isidore the Farmworker

On May 15, 1130, outside Madrid, Saint Isidore died. Though he is invoked as St. Isidore the Farmer, he might better be called St. Isidore the Farmworker, in Spanish, San Isidro Labrador. He was not a farmer who owned his land, but – as many people do here – worked on another person’s fields.

From  his teens, St. Isidore worked as a day laborer on the farm of a landowner. He led a life of devotion, attending Mass each morning. But he was also known for his generosity to the poor as well as to animals.

A delightful story is that one winter day he was on his way to grind grain. Seeing some hungry birds, he poured out half his sack of grain to feed them. When he arrived at the mill, the sack was filled.

There are also stories of angels accompanying him farming.

An image I have seen here is Saint Isidore with two oxen, pulling his plough. It must mean a lot to people here in Honduras since in the department of Intibucá I have seen teams of oxen carrying materials and even plowing the field.

Saint Isidore reminds us of the dignity of work but also calls us to work for justice for all farmworkers, that they may have land to work so that they can sustain their lives and the lives of their families.

Let us pray today for justice in the land.

Such a call for justice can be heard in the Guatemalan bishops’ statement  The Cry of the Land:

“We belong to the earth (Gen 2:7) and it belongs to us because when the Lord created us, he charged us to till it and care for it (Gen 2:15). Thus, work in agriculture appears the quintessential task by which we situate ourselves in the world and before God.

“Many scriptural texts express joy at the fruit of our fatiguing labor on the land and our thanksgiving for God’s blessing. When the land bears a crop, we know that God blesses us (Ps 67:7; 85:13)….

“The land does not belong to us, but to God, and what each calls property is in reality the portion needed to live. ‘The land and all in it, the world and those who inhabit it, belong to God” (Ps 24:1)….

“In Recife, Brazil, [Pope] John Paul II told the farmers: ‘The land is a gift from God, a gift for all human beings, men and women, who are called to be united in a single family and related to one another in a fraternal spirit. Therefore, it is not legitimate, because it is not according to God’s design, to use this gift so that its fruits benefit only a few, excluding others, who form the immense majority.’”