On the Redemptive Value of All Work

In his book about his experience in the Russian labor camps, He Leadeth Me, American Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek writes about how work is ennobling. Although I read this book five years ago, I don’t remember it well, probably because I was pregnant at the time and very sleepy and mentally sluggish. This time I’m seeing so much that makes me want to pause, ponder, pray, take stock, and share. This chapter on work was one where I underlined something on every other page, whole paragraphs.

It’s especially effective as it works by contrasts. First, he describes the inhumane conditions in the work camps, the brutal, grinding, physical labor the prisoners are sentenced to perform in the camps. And he details how the prisoners despise the work and take no pride in it. Then, he describes his own response to the work what is surely the result of much reflection and prayer, but also that which is clearly the result of his Jesuit training and his deep conversion in the Lubianka prison where he was held for several years before he was sent to the Siberian labor camps. Work, he finds, even the most inhumane and burdensome work, is a path to God and can be ennobling to the soul who embraces it as such.

“Work was surely a curse under these conditions. The prisoners hated work, they hated the officials who made them work, and they hated the government that had condemned them to these cruel occupations. Only the fact that they had to work to get enough food to live on, to survive, made them report dumbly and mechanically each morning for the labor brigades and march off across the arctic wastes, arms locked behind their backs, to face another day’s quote of work. The urge to survive was what made them do it, the thought of survival was all they had to live for and all they lived by. They did as much work as they had to in order to survive, and avoided as much work as they could possibly avoid and still manage to survive. The work was not important, but the food was; and even the food was important only because without it a man could not survive for long. What was important was to get through the day.At the end of each work shift, a man counted the remaining days of his long term and thanked God that one more day had passed.

There was nothing ennobling about the work in the slave labor camps. Except for the need to work enough to get enough food to survive, the individual prisoner felt no sense of purpose in the work, experienced no sense of accomplishment. He did not share in the official desire to industrialize the Far North, to set new records of Soviet achievement, to tame the wilderness and tap the wealth of natural resources that lie beneath the frozen Siberian crust. In fact, the men in the labor camps took a certain delight in being able to sabotage the work whenever they could. . . . Far from taking pride in their work, they found in it a way to revenge themselves on those who had set them to do it.”

“In all the years I served in the Siberian camps, with few exceptions, I was assigned to the lowest work and the roughest brigades. That was my lot because of the charges on which I had been convicted. . . . So I came, during all those years, to know work at its worst— at its most brutal, its most degrading, its most dehumanizing worst. And I reflected a lot about it, as I said; I thought a lot about it, and I prayed much over it. What was work to me during those years, if not a punishment, if not a curse? . . . What was there ennobling about my work? . . . I couldn’t feel the sense of challenge, of self-sacrifice, of patriotism a Soviet citizen might feel who had volunteered to work for a year or two in the “virgin lands,” leaving behind a family and all that was dear to him to travel to the arctic in order to help build a factory, open a new mine, or complete a housing project. And even my work itself offered little in which I could take pride or satisfaction: it was the lowest, the commonest, the roughest labor, requiring no skill or thought, “just a strong back and a weak mind” as we used to say.

And yet I did take pride in it. I did each job as best I could. I worked to the limit of my strength each day and did as much as my health and endurance under the circumstances made possible. Why? Because I saw this work as God’s will for me. I didn’t build a new city in Siberia because Josef Stalin or Nikita Krushchev wanted it, but because God wanted it. The labor I did was not a punishment, but a way of working out my salvation in fear and trembling. Work was not a curse, even the brutish grunt work I was doing, but a way to God— and perhaps even in a way to help others to God. I could not, therefore, look upon this work as degrading; it was ennobling, for it came to me from the hand of God himself. It was his will for me.”

“My fellow prisoners, of course, were quick to ask me if I was crazy. They could understand a man working to overfulfill a quota if it meant more food, but not out of a sense of pride or accomplishment. . . . They asked me how I could possibly cooperate with the wishes of the government, why I always did my best instead of sabotaging the work, how I could help build a new society for the Communists, who rejected God and despised everything I stood for. Christian prisoners, indeed, even asked me if it was not sinful to cooperate with, or at least give the appearance of cooperating with, Communism.

I tried to explain that the pride I took in my work differed from the pride a Communist might take in building up the new society. The difference lay in motivation. As a Christian, I could share in their concern for building a better world. I could work as hard as they for the common good. The people who would benefit from my labors would be just that: People. Human beings. Families in need of shelter against the arctic weather of Norilsk, or people in far-off places elsewhere who would have a better life because of the natural resources I had helped to liberate from this frozen earth or because of the materials that the factories I helped build would someday produce. I could justify, therefore, my cooperation in this work for the good of all mankind, if it came to that; it differed little in that respect from any work any man anywhere might undertake. But there was more to it than that. There was the realization that work of itself is not a curse but a sharing in God’s own work of creation, a redemptive and redeeming act, noble of itself and worthy of the best in man— even as it was worthy of God himself.

There is tremendous truth contained in the realization that when God became man, he became a workingman. Not a king, not a chieftain, not a warrior, or a statesman or a great leader of nations, as some had thought the Messiah would be. The Gospels show us Christ the teacher, the healer, the wonder-worker, but these activities of his public life were the work of three short years. For all the rest of the time of his life on earth, God was a village carpenter and the son of a carpenter.”

“. . . My ministry did not consist solely in teaching, in healing, in administering the sacraments— no more than his life on earth had consisted only of the three years of his public life. I was set here in the midst of the labor camps to work as he might have worked if he had been here, to set the example of work he would set if he were in my place. For I was Christ in the prison camp. And part of my teaching had to be that work, all work, any work, has a value in itself. It has value insofar as it partakes of God’s redemptive acts. It has a value in itself and a value for others.”

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