God sanctifies our labor. The Apostle Paul enjoined us to work with our hands (1 Thes 4.11) and provided the example, stitching tents as a common tradesman (Acts 18.3). Though we might mistake it as part of the Curse, work is a holy undertaking.
Sometimes the church makes this point in explicit terms, other times in subtler language.
Not long ago I looked at an icon of Archbishop Luke of Simferopol and Crimea, a recent Orthodox saint who lived from 1877 to 1961. Following the fashion, the image was timeless. It could have been painted a thousand years ago. But there in the icon — to my surprise — were surgical implements!
The archbishop worked as a surgeon and scientist. He was well known for his prowess with a scalpel and the quality of his research work, captured in his many articles and papers.
“I help people as a physician,” he once said, “and I help them as a servant of the Church. . . .”
It’s common in icons to see holy objects: scrolls, books, crosses, prayer ropes. But here were tools of a trade. Of course, in the rights hands, for the right service, those tools are seen by the church as holy objects too.
The very same day I noticed something similar in an icon of Olga of Alaska. Another modern saint, Olga was a native Yupik. Her husband was a priest. Though her veneration is mostly local at this point, icons have been made and circulated — many of which show her holding a bowl of water with a towel. Olga was a famous midwife where she lived, and the icon honors her work.
Here are some further thoughts about work from the Serbian monk Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica.
And here’s a short documentary on the remarkable life of Luke of Crimea. Definitely worth twenty minutes of your time, it’s one of the most compelling stories I’ve seen in a long while.