My grandfather was a scientist of significant accomplishment. He invented some laundry detergents(“All”), the fabric in use in most French drains – which likely surround your home – and the means by which most homes today expel radon, which seeps in from the depths of the earth, a silent demon come up from darkness that goes unnoticed for most until it kills some. He was even allowed in Russia during the Cold War to help them learn the simple system (which was, apparently, a lot simpler to invent than the fabric on a French drain). The Cold War wasn’t cold enough to keep sworn enemies from saving that which a home is pregnant with.
But no one tells stories of his inventions and accolades. We do, however, tell stories of him building homes, which he did “on the side.” When he wasn’t at work, he was building homes with his sons, my father and uncle, or planting trees, gardening, or looking for arrowheads. To this day each time my father and I install a new circuit in a breaker-box, he explains it – how it can kill me if I touch the wrong things and how it was my grandfather that taught him this. Coming from a farming family, like most of his generation, he never lost the sense that skilled labor steeped in dignity and worth doing because of its worth.
Today, on the feast of St. Joseph the Workman, considering the title in our current context, we can draw the truth forward to our moment – St. Joseph the Essential Workman. As with the humility and excellence of Our Lady, our father St. Joseph is of a man of tool and substance – wood, specifically – not only by happenstance but also as a lesson to us. The Church Fathers saw with the eyes of faith that everything that surrounded Our Lord’s earthly life was significant, and His earthly father’s work is no exception.
Our Lord was called a “carpenter’s son” as a form of insult. I recall being ridiculed as the son of a plumber, but I had a great grace of spending many days on construction sites, and I always recognized that there was a great dignity in the men that could build and construct, even if those that could pay them to do so did not recognize it – which seemed common. By placing His son in the care of a carpenter we see God not just sanctifying something but recognizing its essential quality – the quality of its essence – that workmen will always possess something we should recognize as imminently worthy.
Today, with so many sent home with the revealing if not insulting title of non-essential, we might do well to remember the dignity and necessity of skill and labor. We can send many jobs over sees, and soon it seems many tech jobs will be sent through the wire from here, but no one in China can strike a nail in your home for you.
This is why the first book being sent to Sword & Spade subscribers is Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew B. Crawford, which is a passionate and eloquent call for us to remember that maybe there is something in the essence of being a man that asks us to know how to do something. Stuck at home in many places, we can at least say that many men “have nothing to do” because they do not know how to do anything – they are unfamiliar with the work of the human hand outside of striking keys.
Within the holy family we have the most basic alongside the Most High; we see a builder of homes caring for the Divine Architect; we see a master of wood providing for the One who would redeem the world with wood. In this union of the highest truth with the lowliest occupation, we gain perspective and learn that that which is most basic to life is not, therefore, base, but is noble in its essence, the revealing root word of essential. The dignity of essential work does not change, and as Our Lord began the building of the new society, the Church, doing the work of a carpenter, so too we can know that any “restoration” of “renewal” of Christian culture or tradition, which we know to be lost, will also begin in essence of family life, which means alongside the essential work of loving fathers.
The work of St. Joseph was not heartless trade, like the buyers and sellers in the Temple driven out by Jesus (those “flipping” products for profit, divorced from the beginnings and ends of craft), nor was it glory and power seeking like the king’s and authorities ever-looming in the Gospels. It was foundational to a good life, figuratively and practically. No wonder Our Lord was willing to be known as “the carpenter’s son” (Matt. 13:55) even as He was making known His Divine Sonship as well. Such men are not steeped in modern mantras of leadership and best practices, but of wisdom and prudence. If we know anything of St. Joseph, its that he acted when he needed to act, doing what was right and necessary for his family and for his God, which were wondrously intertwined.
Because families are the basis of society, and because families need shelter, those who construct and provide are not merely means to the end of rain-free sleeping, but they make up something of the essence of family. Because of the reality of this world, from its created nature to its fallen state, God has ordained that shelter and provision be made for the helplessness of a mother shortly after birth, not to mention the infant. St. Joseph, therefore, is the essential worker who found and constructed shelter for his family. As the patron of the universal Church, it seems his work of sheltering and building continues in a new form. Many have called our time the time of St. Joseph. Considering that which is most essential, the power of this patron, alongside his example, might come into even clearer view.
St. Joseph the Workman, the essential worker, pray for us.
Jason Craig works and writes from St. Joseph’s Farm in rural North Carolina with his wife Katie and their five kids. Jason is the author of Leaving Boyhood Behind and Director of Program and Training for Fraternus, a mentoring program for young men, and holds a masters degree from the Augustine Institute. He is known to staunchly defend his family’s claim to have invented bourbon.