This Labor Day weekend, the barn that stood as the monument to my family’s farm is being torn down. Built in 1870 with solid oak beams and wooden trenails, it served for generations by sheltering animals and hay. Opening the heavy, sliding door was the Narnia-gateway of my childhood—haystacks to climb, dark corners to explore, and newborn kittens to discover. While the farmhouse is linked inseparably in my mind to my grandma’s spic-and-span sphere of homemaking replete with Norwegian cooking, the barn brings memories of my grandpa whose deep tan reflected a life spent tending to fields and animals, making him look more Sicilian than Scandinavian.
Returning home for visits from college and later in life, well after my grandparents’ deaths, I was surprised to find the barn smaller than in my memory. No longer a place of mystery, with fresh eyes I could see the red paint weathering, the daylight streaming through its stone foundation, the isolation of its disuse. As the years continued to pass it was clear the barn would not stand much longer, and it was good news when my parents found a family in Texas who would reclaim the wood to build their own home.
I admit it is quite easy for me to find the barn nostalgic and romantic. The thought of its place standing bare above the small valley of the farm is a reminder of family members lost and of the impermanence of the present. I can’t help but think, though, that it is a place rendered sacred by labor.
In the first creation story, human beings are described as being made in the image and likeness of God. This is the story that begins Genesis, and in it we learn that God creates and calls that creation good. To be made in the image of God is to be gifted with the ability to create that which is good—and in that process we not only sanctify the world, but also ourselves. In other words, labor can be a virtue that cultivates holiness as we take up our call to live as the image of God.
We live in a world in which labor for many is meaningless toil. Unjust compensation, harassment, discrimination, and manifold forms of slavery militate against the image of God in the worker, exploiting and twisting the transformative nature of work. Rather than rendering the world sacred through creation, the vulnerable drown in waters of chaos. If we are made in the image of the triune God, then our imaging of that God cannot be individualistic. God’s image requires a communion in which we join together to seek justice for all who labor, a mission of solidarity in which all persons are holy sites.
Our graced capacity for creation requires as well that we ask about our own labor, whether it is the work we do professionally or the families and communities we build personally. How do we acknowledge that our daily activities are acts of co-creation with God—and when is that responsibility abdicated? If the harvest is plentiful and the laborers few, then our daily labors—on behalf of others and for ourselves—are also essential to building the kingdom of God.
thank you for providing us
with the gift to share our talents.
Provide our community, our nation, our world
the fortitude to provide work for all
which is decent and fair.
Make us faithful stewards
of your creation
to enhance the human dignity
of our global family.
We ask this in the name of Jesus,
who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit
now and forever.
Being Neighbor: The Catechism and Social Justice, 1998
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops