St. Joseph: A Contemplative-in-Action


The Feast of St. Joseph did not become an important feast day for me until I began teaching at Mount Saint Joseph Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school in Brighton, MA sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston [1]. As I became more familiar with the charism of the Sisters of St. Joseph and their dedication to service to the “dear neighbor,” I also became more aware of the important yet often unnoticed earthly father of Jesus.

Who is Joseph? We don’t know much about him and the little we do know we draw from the gospels, particularly the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew’s infancy narrative tells the story of the announcement of Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s perspective. Matthew tells us that Joseph is a righteous man. We are told that he traces his lineage to the house of David. We hear that he is a carpenter and he passes this trade onto Jesus. These quick yet telling glimpses into the life of Joseph shape Christian imagination about him: Joseph is a simple, humble, hard-working, devout Jewish man. I imagine him in his workshop, quietly and skillfully going about his daily labors, artfully crafting useful and beautiful objects. What did he think about while he was working? How did he view his work in relationship to his faith? Did he find joy in his work?

The story of Joseph’s dreams and encounters with the angel of the Lord give us critical insight into another important side of the carpenter Joseph. Today’s Gospel story recalls how an angel of the Lord visits Joseph in a dream and tells him the truth about Mary’s pregnancy and the expectant birth of Jesus. The angel then tells Joseph God’s plan for Joseph’s role in this unfolding narrative. Perhaps what should be most alarming to us in this story is that, upon waking, Joseph trusts this dream and then responds to this encounter with the angel. In this surprising encounter with God’s messenger, Joseph proclaims his own fiat to God’s salvific plan—not through words, per se, but through his action. Upon waking, he responds and “did as the angel had commanded him.” He takes Mary into his home and loving, caring, protecting, and providing for her and their new son Jesus—in spite of the seemingly scandalous circumstances.

The level of trust Joseph exhibits indicates his strong relationship with God. Now, as many spiritual writers with far more experience than I have recognized throughout history, this level of trust and openness to the Spirit of God’s word does not happen immediately. It comes out of a long, disciplined, attentive practice of prayer. We don’t just immediately “learn to pray.” Rather, we live into the rhythms of prayer and contemplation. It is an ongoing, often uphill, process. The fact that Joseph is not only able and willing to pay attention to the dream, but is also willing to trust the dream tells us something important about him: He is not just a carpenter, father of Jesus, husband of Mary. Joseph is a man of great prayer and faith; he is a contemplative-in-action.

Joseph invites us to consider the ways in which our own daily labors and our prayer lives feed one another. Do we arrange our days with work, rest, play, and prayer so that we are prepared for the surprises that God offers us? Or are we distracted and all-consumed with work to the point of exhaustion? Are we aware of others’ struggle to find meaningful and life-giving work that provides not only their livelihood but also sustains their spirit? Do we value the efforts of good, honest, manual labor or do we demean it? Are we able to find the balance between our own labors, rest, and nurturing the relationships in our lives?

Nothing showed me my own need for an integrated prayer and work life more than teaching high school. While I loved my job, my students, my colleagues, I also felt exhausted, limited, and certainly at times inadequate to do the demanding work that teaching requires. Prayer became a need in a different way than I had experienced previously. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that I came to relate to St. Joseph in a new way during my time at The Mount. He shows us that our labors are important. But so too is our time of resting and residing in the loving embrace of God’s grace.

The prophet-poet Wendell Berry speaks a great deal about the need for a renewed understanding of the interplay between our work, home lives, and spiritual lives that can bring deep, abiding, and humanizing joy. I offer this one Sabbath poem as an example of his insights.


Whatever is foreseen in joy

Must be lived out from day to day.

Vision held open in the dark

By our ten thousand days of work.

Harvest will fill the barn; for that

The hand must ache, the face must sweat.


And yet no leaf or grain is filled.

By work of ours; the field is tilled

And left to grace. That we may reap,

Great work is done while we’re asleep.


When we work well, a Sabbath mood

Rests on our day, and finds it good. [2]

Berry’s poem describes what it means to be a contemplative in action, to be in right step with the rhythms of life, work, prayer, and rest. Joseph the carpenter must have understood both the value of aching hands and sweaty face as well as the “Sabbath mood” that comes with honest labor. And Joseph the religious and righteous man also must have been a contemplative for he portrays the wherewithal to listen and pay attention to God, to the grace and the “great work that is done while we’re asleep.” The different aspects of his life, carpentry and prayer and family life, were integrated. Thus his Feast day invites us all to prayerfully consider how we ourselves, through our own “ten thousand days of work,” can become more contemplative and in tune with the nudges and the surprises God offers each of us through the meaningfulness we find in our daily labors.


[1] In 2012, Mount Saint Joseph Academy closed and through a merger with Trinity High School, formed the co-educational St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, still located in Brighton, MA.

[2] Wendell Berry, “Sabbath Poem X,” in A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, (Berkley, CA: Counterpoint, 1998), 18.

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