For many, the coronavirus lockdowns may feel less like a medical quarantine and more like an exile. But throughout history, exile has been seen as a divine catalyst for reflection, repentance, and renewed readiness. We should expect it to be no less so today.
So here on the Memorial of St. Joseph the Worker, we have the opportunity to learn from the exile of Joseph the Just, a working man who was called to take God with him into the unknown. In their details, Joseph’s crises were not the same as ours today: he faced the prospect of his child being murdered and, should he succeed in avoiding that, the challenges of supporting his family in exile. We have our own crises: most immediately, we face the crisis of coronavirus and the resulting crisis of widespread unemployment, but more generally in our culture, we face a deep crisis of manhood, and a crisis of misunderstanding the vocation to work.
But these crises—ours and St. Joseph’s—are only outer shells of one more fundamental, a moment termed by Hans Urs von Balthasar as the Ernstfall: the decision point where we chose—or fail to choose—to unite ourselves more closely to Christ’s availability to the Father. And in considering our own crises in light of St. Joseph’s example, we can learn to see, even here in our coronavirus exile, an opportunity to offer a more fundamental yes to the work of God in our lives.
Crisis One: Manhood and Fatherhood
If you want to substantiate today’s crisis of manhood, the evidence is legion, and it is found not only in the culture at large. A particularly glaring bit of evidence can be found in our Church’s recent sexual scandal. The scandal is often (and rightly) considered a crisis of transparency, of corruption, of power, and of politics. But none of these characterizations get to the core.
The more fundamental problem is that many men today—and many clergymen as well—simply don’t know what it is to be a man. More specifically, they have abrogated their responsibility as fathers. They simply don’t possess the zeal, courage, fortitude, prudence, discipline, and heroic fire to chase away threats to those they are entrusted with—be those threats found in others or, especially, in oneself. What’s more, there is a serious lack of male accountability—the sort where men hold one another accountable—and a serious lack of heroes to emulate (virtuous heroes being long out of vogue). What men have today is an emaciated image of manhood where effeminacy is considered non-threateningly quaint, responsibility is considered burdensome, and the sickly self-comfort of victimhood replaces the generative discomfort of challenge and adventure.
But when culture presents masculinity itself as toxic, it is difficult even to posit whether, if in throwing out the bathwater of historical injustices against women, we may have also thrown out the baby of masculine virtue. The controversy that such a statement will elicit is itself proof that it has become taboo to suggest that men, just like women, have a particular genius, and that this genius is part of the imago Dei.
Most men intuit something is wrong with the contemporary view of manhood and are looking for a way to cope. Their response takes many forms, some laudable and many not. Oftentimes, men simply wallow in their isolation in a life of video games or pornography, further degrading their ability to become men who are men. But even in such situations, there is a growing sense that they need to be doing something different, and they are desperate for someone to show them how. If you doubt there is a widespread hunger for a considered, sustained, and serious reflection on the vocation of manhood, consider the popularity of Jordan Peterson. Love or hate him, you can’t deny he is exploring a continent many men have been begging to explore.
However, it isn’t as though Catholics have been silent about the matter. There have been several organizations, publications, and curricula designed to help men be better men. And even when the aesthetics of such enterprises are gussied up in the superficial (and even patronizing) stereotypes of weightlifting, tweed suit wearing, pipe smoking, beard balm greasing, or mountain climbing—laudable pastimes all—at least there is an attempt to address the problem.
But what is needed is not simply curricula and conferences focused on the formation of men. What is needed is an integrated spirituality, a grounding of one’s manhood in the life and service of Christ. And to find a model of this, one need look no further than to St. Joseph, a man whose entire life was devoted to the (seemingly) mundane service to the divine invasion.
St. Joseph: Man and Father
Joseph is famously taciturn. Scripture says very little about him, suggesting that, in God’s providence, the silence itself contains the lesson. True silence is attentiveness, the willingness to listen, and availability. So in his availability, Joseph prefigures the availability of Jesus, whose availability to the will of the Father was, according to von Balthasar, the raw material out of which God fashioned the salvation of the world. Joseph’s availability provided the space, so to speak, for God to provide for Jesus and his mother.
Of course, Mary was also available to God, and so it isn’t availability per se that helps us recover the distinctly masculine spirituality shown to us by St. Joseph. While it could be said that Mary’s availability took the form of receptivity, the availability of Joseph took the form of responsibility. We know from scripture that Joseph was a just man. He rendered unto God what was due to God—which is to say, he did his duty. Joseph the Man willingly took up the responsibility and natural duties of a husband and father, and in doing so, he placed his responsibility in service of the mission of God. Dare we think that those seemingly mundane responsibilities were themselves therefore consecrated?
It is here in the notion of responsibility where we find a special corrective to the temptation faced by many men today: the temptation to pit rights against responsibilities, and to favor rights. And while true human rights must always be defended, responsibility is not opposed to rights. Responsibility is the willingness to put skin in the game in the proper use of one’s rights. Responsibility is the ability to respond to one’s God-given duties. What’s more, responsibility is a door behind which men find vocation to be images of God the Provider, God the Generator of Life. And in St. Joseph, we see that this responsibility need not take grandiose form. In fact, even in the most basic natural duties of a husband and father can a man discover the chain that links his availability to the work of Christ in the world.
Crisis Two: Work
A second crisis faced by our country and Church is the crisis of work. Setting aside for the moment the unemployment crisis brought by coronavirus, the truth is that we largely have a deep misunderstanding of human work, one the modern world has wrestled with in an acute way since the industrial revolution.
With the fall of Soviet communism and the rise of globalization, we’ve been lulled into thinking that the issue of work has been largely resolved. This is understandable when you consider the amount of extreme poverty that has been eradicated in recent decades—certainly something to be thankful for. But just because we’ve wildly improved access to economic prosperity, we shouldn’t therefore assume we’ve somehow licked the problem of work posed by the new things of the industrial and post-industrial ages.
Foundational problems of work remain, problems that continue to present challenges to the well-being of working people, families, communities, and—as our current crisis is highlighting—our nation: cronyism, worker alienation, blue collar disenfranchisement, lower class marginalization, the moral breakdown of working families, etc. Such problems have received renewed attention in the work of writers like J.D. Vance and Chris Arnade, as well as in the recent speeches of politicians like Marco Rubio, who has increasingly adopted phraseology from Catholic social teaching.
In fact, it is Catholic social teaching that gives us the framework we need to better understand and address the problems of work in the modern world. The problem, however, is that for the last thirty years or so we’ve applied this teaching, in broader Catholic education and public discourse, mostly to macro issues alone: the nature of economic freedom, how markets do and don’t work, the proper role of government, etc. The conversation about work has been mostly abstract and, it’s fair to say, mostly for white collar audiences. Of course, white collar workers are certainly no less important than blue, and it does not service to pit one against the other. But when the economic discourse is largely tailored for only one aspect of human work, certain distortions and accretions are inevitable.
We must remember that by ignoring manual labor in our considerations of human work, we arrive at very incomplete understandings of the vocation to work. Consider, for example, how manual labor grants you a particular—perhaps more intimate—understanding of our incarnational experience. When you work with both your head and your hands, when you encounter and shape the world in its immediate materiality, you are bound to consider work differently than how you would while creating, for example, abstract financial projections on a computer screen spreadsheet.
In recent decades, the Church has accomplished much in developing the theology of the body and applying it to human sexuality, thus offering the modern world a means of meeting the challenges of the sexual revolution. But as Jordan Ballor has recently suggested, what is needed now is a similar application of the theology of the body to human work, such as can offer the modern world a means of meeting the continued challenges of the industrial revolution.
But general problems of work aside, there is also a very practical crisis of work as well, one for which the symptoms were clear even before the coronavirus hit: there is a very serious lack of skilled labor in America. In what has been termed “the skills gap,” it has been estimated that 3.5 million skilled trade jobs will go unfilled by 2022 in the United States. It remains to be seen how this will be affected by changes in the labor market post-COVID, but whatever the circumstances, it is clear that the state of American manufacturing—and its importance to our supply chains—is begging for reconsideration by the American public. The causes of this skills gap are many and varied—not the least of them being an entire generation of young men being led to believe that skilled labor was a “second choice” sort of career—but suffice it to say that on the shop floor, employers have been clamoring for help. And our current educational system is largely unable to meet the challenge.
So without sufficient theoretical or practical entrées into a fuller understanding of human work, how are men to discover how their work is, in fact, one key to an integrated, masculine spirituality?
St. Joseph: Worker
Just as Joseph’s silence and obedience help us better understand the vocation to manhood and fatherhood, so too does his vocation as a craftsman help us calibrate our understanding of human work. We know from Scripture that Joseph was a tekton—a word translated as carpenter, builder, craftsman. His precise speciality is difficult to discern—some have suggested he may have been a mason. Whatever it was, we know that it involved the fashioning of raw material into things useful to others. This would certainly mean he was a man of calloused hands, bloody cuts, and sore muscles, but it would also mean he was a man of discernment, creativity, acute observation, and precise skill. In other words, it would mean his head and his body worked in concert to transform raw material into something better.
So far, we learn nothing about work that we wouldn’t learn from reflecting on any craftsman. What sets Joseph apart was his apprentice. In working with his apprentice, Joseph was graced to receive a flesh-and-blood experience of what is true for every worker in every place and time.
Joseph’s apprentice was, of course, Jesus himself. The ramification is mind-boggling. God himself—the fashioner of the very universe—humbled himself to take instruction from a human craftsman, humbled himself to bow to the creative will of Joseph, humbled himself to obey his father’s wish to take out the garbage. The lesson of Joseph’s workshop is that God collaborated. And he continues to collaborate. For either it is true or it is not that God, in every place and every way, is active in the sustenance of the world, in its continued creation. And if it is true, then it means that the working man—in his will, mind, and body—is a collaborator of God. Or, to formulate the idea with slightly more controversy, God is a collaborator of the worker.
The notion should bring with it tremendous fear and trembling, but it should also lead us to ask why God would do such a thing. Is it simply to fashion, through work, the world as he wants it fashioned? Or is it to fashion, through work, the working man as he wants him fashioned? “Work is for man,” wrote St. John Paul II, “and not man for work.”
The model of St. Joseph the Worker reveals to us the remarkable—and remarkably tender—humility of God that can be found in our day-to-day work. Like his silence, the seemingly mundane world of work is a place—perhaps a primary place—to find our vocation to let ourselves be formed by a God who works alongside us in every moment, a God so tender and humble, he’ll help us take out the garbage.
The Return to Work
As the 1980s power ballad has it, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. In our quarantine exile, men and fathers are certainly realizing that the importance, meaning, necessity, and even joy of work are more present to them in the absence of work. Certainly they will feel the anxiety that comes from not knowing how their families will be provided for. And they may wonder if they truly have “the stuff” to meet the challenge.
But the true question in this time between before-COVID and after-COVID is the question of our availability, the question of our responsibility. Now is the time to decide that we will be responsible, that when we men hear the call of God, we will, like Joseph, rise up and take Jesus and his mother with us into our exile. Because no matter where we then go, they will go with us.
After all, it isn’t true that exiles are forever. It isn’t true that all our heroes have been taken from us. It isn’t true that we have no more models to show us what a true, masculine, and integrated spirituality looks like. It’s only that our model is a very quiet fella, and he is, even now, working with his Son in silence to craft something better.
St. Joseph, pray for us.
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