Our Labor of Love
September 12, 2004
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great;
you are clothed with honor and majesty. . . .
You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to cultivate,
To bring food forth from the earth,
and wine to gladden the human heart,
Oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has its home in the fir trees.
The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the coneys.
You have made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.
The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
When the sun rises, they steal away
and lie down in their dens.
People go out to their work
and to their labor until the evening.
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
(Psalm 104:1, 14-24)
In this fall season in which we celebrate man's labors, may we appreciate the praise of work that this Psalm sings in the time of harvest and thanksgiving. While wild beasts seeking their food from God, as the Bible says, slink away to their lairs at morning, man does his work during the day, from sunrise till nightfall. The psalmist avers that the Lord made things so "in wisdom."
It is good to have work to do, in spite of our sometime longing for continuous leisure. Doing nothing all the time would really be a state of hell. Of course, overwork has its downside when we, as naturalist-philosopher Henry David Thoreau said in Walden, are "well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life." We have "no time to be anything but a machine," but worst of all, he continued, we are becoming a slave-driver of ourselves. It is then that we are living "lives of quiet desperation." In Biblical terms, we are laying up treasures that moth and rust will corrupt and thieves may steal (Matthew 6:19).
Thoreau, a reader of Swedenborg, was unlike the portrait of working man we studied in school in the poem "The Man with a Hoe," by Swedenborgian poet Edwin Markham. That man seems bereft of his divine nature and "dead to rapture and despair":
Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages on his face . . . .
Thoreau also worked with a hoe in his bean field at Walden Pond. In so doing, he was always aware of being close to nature, enjoying the natural sensations accompanying his work: seeing the yellow color of sand contrasting with the green of the bean rows, hearing wild birds provide an "inexhaustible entertainment," and even feeling that the "music" of his hoe striking a stone yielded an "instant and immeasurable crop." Thoreau made the most of his labor, and did nothing with drudgery, but rather with love.
John Ruskin was a British contemporary of Thoreau and a fellow philosopher. He wrote also of work, and of stones, as an architectural critic. We may think of his description as an image of people building their lives as they would a building, stone by stone. He emphasized the sacredness of the calling: "When we build, let us think that we are building forever. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for. And let us think, as we lay stone upon stone, that a time is to come when these stones will be sacred because our hands have touched them."
Let us continue with the image of working and building with stones--as in the Middle Ages, when the great cathedrals of Europe were erected. This was around 1200 A.D. In a hundred-year period, France alone built eighty of them. All of society was caught up in the fever of building. Everyone did his part, even though a cathedral might not be finished in a person's lifetime.
I recall a story in my grade four reader of an old man who took loving care in carving an angel figure for an almost hidden corner in one of these cathedrals. Someone asked him why he took such pains with his work when hardly anyone would ever see it or know who did it. He replied that God would see, and know the workman. Therefore there was a pride in his workmanship.
French writer Victor Hugo described these cathedrals as a "crowding upward before the eye; . . . a vast symphony in stone." American Henry Adams said that the workers (that is, the rich and poor, the young and old, right across society) "flung their passion against the sky"--so important was this work to their lives, these churches with their mounting columns and soaring vaults and pointed arches ("like hands touched in prayer"). God is light, and the builders had vast windows lighting them, awing the beholder. We may think here of our own Swedenborgian glass church at Portuguese Bend in California, which was fifty years old in 2001--a showpiece of our faith.
Normal, everyday work can be satisfying and ennobling, too, just as cathedral-building was for people in medieval times.
R.D. Symons, one of our best prairie writers, refers to the dignity of labor in describing some Mexican workers he observed putting up a building from cement and gravel dumped on the pavement, and water carried over in five-gallon cans--all mixing done by hand (from his book Silton Seasons): "What struck me was the good humor. . . . Just some men, dust of dust, using their brother dust and their sister water to mold upward a shelter." I am reminded of old-time threshing crews in the fall--lots of work, and a joy in it, and a sense of achievement in getting a job done.
Even the simplest task can be fulfilling. Martin Luther King said, "If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great sweeper who did his job well.'" I am reminded now of my father telling his sons as we were working in the barn on our farm, "I don't care what you boys want to do when you grow up, even if it's manuring out barns, but do a good job!"
Wilson Van Dusen, a psychologist and a Swedenborgian, also wrote about working well and being of use. He used an image of sweeping as well--a good image, because it implies a reaching out, a reaching further out, in doing a job. (I recall Robert Browning's famous lines: "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what's a heaven for?") Van Dusen writes, "There is a world of difference between simply sweeping the floor so it is swept, and sweeping as an effort to reach out and improve things; sweeping as a devotional speaking to the highest one can conceive of."
Van Dusen writes of the uses we serve in doing a job well; in being not only good, but good for something. This is in keeping with Swedenborg's notion that "everyone . . . who sincerely, justly, and faithfully performs the work of his occupation and employment becomes an embodiment of charity" (Doctrine of Charity #158). So my father's admonition was really Swedenborgian-- something I did not realize at the time. Van Dusen encapsulates the whole idea very dramatically: "You wish to speak to God? Do the task at hand with the greatest faithfulness and devotion."
God is perfection; and as we do some little job conscientiously, we are drawing near to his world. Our little function becomes part of the grand function. Thus we not only celebrate labor, but celebrate God, too. As the Rev. Edwin Capon has affirmed, "for most of us the best channel through which we express our love for others is our everyday work." The work affects others, and a job well done shows that we care for them--and for ourselves as well. We will be like the old carver, working on his angel in an all but hidden corner--only the "angel" is our potential selves, and we are shaping it, bit by bit, day by day, in every little job we do.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning once used the phrase "we Swedenborgians" in referring to herself and her husband Robert; and here she shows how inseparable the ideas of love and work are:
Our work shall still be better for our love,
And still our love be sweeter for our work.
In conclusion, we can well heed the lines of our opening Psalm:
People go out to their work and to their labor until the evening. O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
Dear Lord, preachers and psychologists, poets and philosophers have added their voices to the chorus that sings in praise of the works you have done, and the work you have given each one of us to do. Make our hands strong to do your work for the benefit of our fellow creatures. Make our minds bright with deeper insights that will guide our hands well. And make our hearts burn with a deep love for you, spreading your warmth all around us. Amen.
Victor Carl Friesen