Labor Day has come and gone. For most of us, it is nothing more than a national holiday. I must admit that I don’t give it much thought. It falls into the category of secular holidays. Unlike Christmas and Easter, Labor Day does not have roots in any religious tradition. Of course, both Christmas and Easter have their origins in the Christian tradition. And those two certainly have come to play a huge secular role in our nation’s life. They both have economic impacts that have huge implications for businesses. The same cannot quite be said for Labor Day, although every store I am aware of seems to have a Labor Day sale!
Personally, it is not very special for me. When I was a kid growing up on a farm, it was a great time to have three straight days to be involved in the harvesting. But I don’t have much to do with corn and beans anymore, except to eat them! So I can do whatever I want to do on Labor Day.
Since I am still working, Labor Day means a vacation day. What I would usually do on that particular Monday does not happen. No classes, no meetings---the college is a ghost town! If I want to labor, I can go to my building, but I will be all by myself. So I enjoy the Labor Day by not working!
I am sure many Americans are like me. We have celebrated Labor Day all our lives, but probably most of us have no clue about the history. We know it is a national holiday. We know there are sometimes small parades or festivities. It is often a time of politicians making their pronouncements about workers, the value of work itself, etc. But we don’t have much of a clue about the roots of Labor Day. So I was intrigued.
The first Labor Day was held in September in 1882 in New York City. It was organized and sponsored by the Central Labor Union. The idea quickly caught on and it spread to other areas of the country. Many states passed legislation to make Labor Day a holiday and the US Congress followed suit in 1894, making it a national holiday.
Although I do not think there is any direct link between Labor Day and spirituality, it is easy for me to connect those two dots. There is no question, but what the idea of labor is built into the Jewish and Christian traditions. I wish I knew enough about the other major religious traditions, but I would be surprised if they honored laziness and irresponsibility! In the Christian tradition labor was to have a role in human life as early as the time Adam and Eve got kicked out of Paradise!
Labor was seen as a responsibility and a virtue for human beings. Since the sixteenth century, Protestants and the Protestant tradition were either praised or castigated for emphasizing labor. It is not unusual to hear about “the Protestant work ethic.” Many in this country would claim that is at the heart of the American soul and it is what makes us great.
As a Benedictine Oblate---that is, a lay Benedictine monk---I am very aware of the motto that is traced all the way back to St. Benedict in the sixth century: Ora et Labora---praise and work. For the monk, Benedict, praise and work were the pillars of a godly life. In fact, the whole rhythm of life in a Benedictine monastery is built around these pillars. The day is organized around periods of prayer/praise, periods of work, and periods of rest. Our secular world might take a lesson from this kind of rhythm.
I have enjoyed the fact that the Latin word for “work” is labora. Obviously, we get our word “labor” from labora. You don’t have to know Latin to get that one! Let me extend it even more. We also get our word, “laboratory,” from the Latin word. A laboratory is a place for work. It is unfortunate it has become a term normally reserved for scientific types. Let’s spiritualize the idea of laboratory.
I would like to imagine the world in which I spend my time, my “laboratory.” For me the laboratory is my college---my study, my classroom, and all the other places I spend time in committees and with people. If I am Benedictine, then my laboratory is the place where my work is spiritual just like the other places I am in prayer and praise.
I like the fact that labor---work in the laboratories of my life---are just as much a spiritual concern and prayer, praise and other more typical ideas of “being religious.” Ora et labora---praise and work---are the twin components of the spiritual life. When I think about it this way, every day should be a Labor Day. And when I think about it this way, I am more eager to make it a special day.
It may not be Paradise, but it is what God wants from me until we are brought back into the full Presence of God. I don’t care that Labor Day is over. That is just an American holiday. I am delighted today is labor day---the day I will spend in work and praise in my own little laboratory---my life.