There is spiritual value to manual labor. Back-breaking work, on the other hand, destroys people. How do we practice the one without embracing the other? Let me get a few misconceptions out of the way first. I am not talking about hobbies. Some people do crafts as hobbies. And yes, there is some spiritual value in that. But this not what I am talking about when I mean manual labor. I am not talking about therapeutic value. Hobbies tend to have more therapeutic value than spiritual ones. It is good to take walks or hike in wild areas. A person can have some peace from distraction in such times. But this kind of recreation is also self-focused even within a group. Therapy and spiritual formation contain similarities. They are still different.
The Labor of Creating
Human beings are creative. Christians will say this is an attribute we share with God. We could just as easily conclude God is creative because we create. There is no good anthropological reason we create religions, social systems, methods of agriculture, or even statuary. We do. That is all there is to it. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” we are told. But I believe the preferred convenience of utility is the reason we invent gadgets and tools. Invention is an after effect of the creative impulse.
Humans create music and dance to it. Physical sensation is involved. We also labor to satisfy the need for physical sensation. Creating something manually for use satisfies if it works; and we suffer no ill effects from it. Humans captured fire and created electric lights for the same reason. The fire satisfies more senses than the light bulb. Electricity, though, can be used for many other tasks.
The human ability to imagine and design raw materials into new and permanent forms is important for human spirituality. Some humans are better at these tasks than others. I will never create a great piece of music. But I can put words together to help a person understand. But these are not manual labors as we think of them. All manual labor comes from the same spark of creativity that allow composers to do their work.
I took “Shop” in High School. Technically, it was known as “Industrial Arts.” Before that it was called “Manual Arts.” I only became competent in using the tools. I am not able carve wood, shape metal, or etch into either of them. My hands do not work that way. I did work in the textile industry and gained a trade of sorts. And there was something physically satisfying with accomplishing the tasks given me. Being able to say, “we did it,” was gratifying. Knowing what we did was to clothe people felt better.
People who make useful objects for other people can have a spiritual awareness in the quality or virtue of their work. Market economics holds that better quality of product at the best price as the definition of value. This make perfect sense from that perspective. From a spiritual development point of view, the value is in the labor. But it is not a labor theory of value. In building, the journey is the more important than the goal. How does one cope with setbacks? Character and spiritual development go hand-in-hand in the answer to this question. What serenity is kept and lost in difficult circumstances? Peace of the soul is found in the work for the sake of others needs.
Labor of Maintenance
Creating and building have the pitfalls of perfectionism and hubris. Maintenance is the more common manual labor. Clarity comes to the mind of the person doing such work. The actions of repair, cleaning, and replacing do not require great talents or skills. In our society, it is the lowest paid forms of labor. The spiritual giants, on the other hand, recognize the value. St. Benedict excused no one from kitchen duties. Brother Lawrence is also known for his spiritual labor among the “pots and pans.”
Maintenance labor is therapeutic. It is good for getting people out of their own heads. And it has practical value as care for what has been created and built. The most important aspect is the opposite of the therapeutic. Maintenance labor allows the mind to bring up long suppressed resentments. Drudge work brings out the best and the worst within us. The thoughts that seemingly come from nowhere expose our flaws. The practicing recognizing and dealing with those resentments brings about serenity in the life of the spiritual practitioner.
Learning to compare perfection and the good is best taught in maintenance labor. Saying something is “as good as new” implies perfection. “Good enough for government work” implies a lackadaisical attitude. Clean enough, repaired to working order, or replaced with a similar but useful tool bring us to the point of acknowledging our limits. Learning this lesson helps us apply it to other people doing the same chore.
The Apostles refusing “to wait on tables” is a problem for me. The idea they would, “neglect the word of God,” if they did sounds like a convenient excuse. (Acts 6:2) The effect, though, was training began for the next generation of leaders. St. Stephen, one of these servants, did not neglect the word of God either. It grew within him as he served. He was serene before the council.
Spiritual development has many parts. Manual labor is but one of them. It is only unimportant in societies that see greatness in the wrong places.