Tables and chess sets. Bookends and treasure boxes. All fashioned from good, solid wood, usually oak. Cut and shaped, sanded and smoothed, nailed and glued, polished and stained and lacquered, and sometimes enhanced with a velvet lining. The works of human hands. And boy, do they last.
They were made by my wife’s late Uncle Joe, a kind and gentle man for whom woodworking was more hobby than occupation. But he spent a good deal of time at it, and he took pride in doing it well — as is evident in the wonderful creations that today grace the homes of family and friends.
Like the little, dark brown lamp table that rests in my peripheral view as I type this. It’s maybe a foot high and a foot square, with a lower shelf for small books. Hardly imposing, and neither was Uncle Joe. But there is a noble simplicity and dignity about this little table, which speaks to the noble simplicity and dignity of Uncle Joe, and of the work he did.
Thinking of Uncle Joe reminds me of his saintly namesake who also worked with wood and, like Uncle Joe, raised a family: St. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, the patron saint of all workers and the principal subject of “Redemptoris Custos,” St. John Paul II’s 1989 apostolic exhortation.
“Work was the daily expression of love in the life of the family of Nazareth,” noted St. John Paul in the document. “At the workbench where he plied his trade together with Jesus, Joseph brought human work closer to the mystery of the redemption.”
And so Jesus — known as “the carpenter’s son” — most certainly knew about the role and the dignity of work from both his parents: Joseph, toiling as a carpenter, and Mary, maintaining a household.
“If the family of Nazareth is an example and model for human families, in the order of salvation and holiness,” said John Paul, “so too, by analogy, is Jesus’ work at the side of Joseph the carpenter.”
Most of us — I would hope all of us — have an innate desire to contribute in a positive way to the good of society, to help make the world a better place through the work we do, and not simply to earn a wage to support our families and pay our bills.
We work because that is a part of who we are, because that is who God, through his divine work, created us to be.
When we are without work — as I have been, on occasion — we feel less whole, like a part of us is missing — our dignity, our value, our self-esteem. Such times, for me, are times for prayer.
Not just a selfish prayer that says, “Lord, please let me find a job.” There is also a prayer of appreciation and gratitude:
“Lord, I am grateful you have blessed me with skills and abilities to do good work, and to know what it means to contribute to the world. Please, in my time of struggle, let me not forget that there are others without work who seek to contribute. Help them as well.
“And let me always appreciate and respect not only the work that others do, but the God-given dignity of each person who works in his or her own way — like Uncle Joe, and St. Joseph — to make the world better and more beautiful for us all.”
Nelson is former editor of The Tidings, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.