The Virtue in Work

Growing up there was always something of an unspoken division between those who work with their hands and those who work in an office/cubicle. This is the blue collar/white collar divide and it has a history that can probably be traced back at least to a time as early as the rise of the mercantile class toward the end of the medieval era. For us, there was no real animosity or anything in this divide. Although there was perhaps often something along the lines of vague condescension toward those in the “working class” who had a lowbrow taste in music, movies, sports, books, etc.

Still, my family was comfortably middle-class and white-collar when I was growing up and I was expected to follow in that tradition. Go to college, get my degree because that would give me a good job… somewhere. So it’s rather interesting that since the first moment I got a job and started college, I’ve seemingly had a foot in both classes. My jobs have always been what can only be described as working class. Yet, I also have a master’s degree. And even though I’m currently enrolled in a doctoral program, I have no desire to embark on a “white collar” life. To put it in terms from my youth, I am “stepping down a class” as it were.

But here’s the thing: I have absolutely no problem with that. I actually much prefer it this way. I would rather do some kind of work with my hands. Such work is vastly more rewarding for me. Over the past six months I’ve been engaged on a project of chopping trees that have been felled on our property into firewood. Yes, that’s chopping with an axe. I really enjoy this work. I’m not the only one. I’ve read stories of other college-educated people who have discovered that, for them, there is something far more rewarding about manual labor of some form. I wonder why that is?

Some have speculated that with manual labor there is a greater sense of accomplishment. One who is engaged in digging out a hillside for a road to go through can see their progress, whereas working at a computer in an office doesn’t always make such progress clear. Well, perhaps. It certainly is satisfying to see the pile of uncut wood shrink.

But thoughts of Saint Benedict of Nursia are often not far from me. (Probably because I have his medal tattooed on me.) Saint Benedict of Nursia outlined a rule for monastic living that is still followed by Orthodox and Catholic monasteries today. Chapter 48 of this rule emphasizes the importance of daily manual labor. And the interesting thing is that before I even remembered the Rule of Saint Benedict, I was thinking to myself that manual labor can often be somehow cleansing for the soul. For me, it even takes on a kind of prayerfulness and meditation.

There should be no condescension toward anyone engaged in manual labor. Especially since many of these jobs, such as farming for example, are vital to all of our daily lives. Now this isn’t to say that manual labor can’t also be abused. There are plenty of examples of people who have to work two or even three jobs just to make ends meet. This is why the Rule of Saint Benedict stipulates rules about the amount of labor and intersperses it with prayer and devotional reading. Manual labor is good and prayerful but we are human beings, not pack animals. Anything good, in too great of a quantity, can ultimately be soul-scarring and destructive.

So, if you haven’t gotten your hands dirty in a while, I invite you give it a try. I know a large pile of wood that needs chopping 😉


~ by crossingthebosporus on August 17, 2012.

9 Responses to “The Virtue in Work”

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more. It’s my family tradition in fact, we’ve often gotten ourselves to wear we wear a white shirt but, we can’t keep our hands out of the machinery even then. I think it’s both good for the soul as well as keeping you in touch with reality.

    Sorry, I’ve got a woodpile of my own here. 🙂

  2. The Cistercians in particular emphasize manual labor in monastic life, the order of my heroes St. Bernard and Thomas Merton. I think if I were to follow a monastic vocation, I would be drawn most to the Cistercians.

    • Well, since they came out of Benedictine monasteries and practices, I guess you could do that. Or you could remember your Protestant roots and go back to the “source.” 😉
      Actually the Benedictines and the Franciscans are the only two orders I’ve had any experience with. From your blog I had you pegged more as a possible Jesuit, especially given your proficiency with languages.

      • Yeah, the Jesuits are definitely my other thought, but I didn’t think of them as monastic. My affection for the Cistercians is probably more hero worship and fancy than anything. I like to think of going back to my agricultural roots, but the truth is that the hardest labor I think I’ve ever done is moving furniture. Or mowing grass. I did mow with a tractor! That counts for something, right?

      • Try with a scythe sometime like we have to on occasion!

  3. Well chaps, sorry, but can’t do the axe thing – but I can bake cookies for those who can 🙂

  4. Ora et labora!

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