With the Labor Day weekend, we mark the unofficial end of summer. Barbecues, friends and family, a day at the beach, cool, crisp weather perfect for sleeping, and perhaps fireworks at night: all of these help us remember the joys of vacation, even as we prepare for the return to work. We look forward with great expectation to the new school year, the demands of family and professional life, and—as your pastor, this is my special concern—our parish life here at St. Mary’s.
The balance between work and leisure has not only been a practical concern for most of my adult life, as it is for anyone else. It has also been an intellectual one for me as a priest and as a student of philosophy. Aristotle writes (in the Nichomachean Ethics): “happiness seems to consist in leisure, because we labor in order to have leisure.” Amen, amen! My friends have always found it amusing when I describe myself as a “man of leisure.” Leisure, of course, does not mean laziness or idleness or sloth. It means real activity that is valuable for its own sake. The life of the mind, the joy of games and athletic competition, the arts: all of these give meaning and purpose to human life. Indeed, Aristotle’s word for leisure—σχολῇ, that is, skole—is the Greek term from which we get the word “school.” Parents, can you imagine asking your children after their first classes, “So, dear, how was your first week of leisure”? What kind of reaction would you expect? Sad, isn’t it, when we fail to associate study with the joyful attainment of knowledge, truth, and wisdom. These things are valuable, not just when we “get an A,” or are accepted into an Ivy League university, or score a six-figure job; those things will pass. The acquisition of wisdom, however, is valuable because it makes human life better, richer, more worthwhile, and it remains with us forever. Indeed, from the Catholic perspective, the leisure activity par excellence—activity for its own sake—is the worship of almighty God.
That said, it is also true that work is the means by which human beings attain these higher goods. St. Thomas Aquinas calls work a bonum arduum, a noble and worthwhile effort, with a dignity and significance all its own. In his profound meditation on work, Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II reminds us that work is uniquely suited to human nature. Through it, a person not only transforms the environment, but “he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being.’” History teaches us that work can be misunderstood and misused, diminishing human dignity as simply a means of production, and not as a spiritual end to be cherished and cultivated. Work, like any habit, must have as its goal the perfection and happiness of the person who undertakes it, in which case it results in moral excellence.
In choosing the cover art for today’s bulletin, I was torn between two beautiful images of Our Lady at work, but ultimately thought: Why choose? Both depict the Blessed Mother performing corporal and spiritual works of mercy: the first, knitting the “seamless garment” (Jn. 19:23) her Divine Son would wear to the cross; the second, teaching the Boy Jesus to read. These works remind us Catholics that the body and the soul are sanctified by Christ, and that care for both shows due reverence for the human condition he assumed—and saved.