We often joke about the irony of not laboring on Labor Day. And yet there is something very fitting about resting on a day celebrating work. Work is ordered to rest, and rest has a theological primacy over work.

“Wait!” you say. Work and rest cannot be harmonized; they are contraries! It is the interminable demands of my work and the anxiety and distractions it entails that prevent me from quieting my mind and praying.

This is true; because of our fallen human nature, it is difficult to achieve the proper balance between work and leisure. Yet, such a balance exists, and Norwegian novelist and 1928 Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset aptly expresses it in her Ida Elisabeth. 

Ida’s friend has been complaining almost hysterically about the unending nature of toil: new laundry is piling up even as the previous piles are being washed, and no sooner has one finished a meal than another must be cooked. Ida maintains the opposite opinion, musing that “the very fact that [her work] was waiting to be done over again, as soon as she had finished a job of work, was no bad thing. … It was the good, happy moments when one had finished one’s work that recurred — when she had finished the morning’s work and put the rooms in order,” for example.

If we can rest in the joy of a job well done, then we will gain new appreciation for the work required to effect this. This equilibrium between work calmly completed, and completed work enjoyed, must have been what Adam and Eve enjoyed in the Garden — because pre-lapsarian life did include work. Adam was to “cultivate and care for” the garden (Gen. 2:15).

Even in the post-lapsarian world, work has great dignity. St. John Paul II explains in his encyclical Laborem exercens that man’s rationality, the faculty by which he is like God, is constitutive of his ability to work: animals do not “work.” Work enables us to provide for ourselves and our families, and it teaches us virtues like patience, discipline and foresight. Through work, man gains dominion not only over the world around him, but over the world within him: his soul.

In the end, however, what lies at the end of our journey is the rest of heaven. We will participate in the glorious and eternal rest of the Trinity in utterly actualized love.

Blessed William Chaminade wrote beautifully of St. Joseph, “How many times did he, like the lone sparrow, nestle on the roof of that holy temple of the divinity, contemplating this divine Child sleeping in his arms, and thinking of his eternal repose in the bosom of the heavenly Father?” Let us turn to St. Joseph, patron of workers, to help us both to sanctify our daily work by doing it for love of God and also to direct all our actions to the glorious repose God desires to give us in His bosom.

Sr. Maria Veritas Marks is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.