All work has a spiritual dimension because the human person who works in whatever capacity does so as an image-bearer of God. “While the classic Greek mind tended to scorn work with the hands,” write Berghoef and DeKoster, “the Bible suggests that something about it structures the soul.” If we derogate work with the hands, manual and skilled labor, in this way, we separate what God has put together and create a culture that disdains the hard and often dirty work of cultivating the world in service of others. The challenge that faces the church and society more broadly then is to appreciate the spiritual meaningfulness of all kinds of work, to celebrate it, and to exhort us to persevere in our labors amidst the unavoidable troubles that plague work in this fallen world.
This point—the need for a renewed appreciation of “the spiritual meaningfulness of all kinds of work” and “manual and skilled labor” in particular—reminds me of the following story that I recently reflected on elsewhere from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers:
Abba Agatho was asked: “Which is more difficult, bodily discipline, or the guard over the inner man?” The Abba said: “Man is like a tree. His bodily discipline is like the leaves of the tree, his guard over the inner man is like the fruit. Scripture says that ‘every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.’ So we ought to take every precaution about guarding the mind, because that is our fruit. Yet we need to be covered with beautiful leaves, the bodily discipline.”
Abba Agatho was wise in understanding, earnest in discipline, armed at all points, careful about keeping up his manual work, sparing in food and clothing.
Perhaps Abba Agatho’s saying can provide some guidance with regards to “exhort[ing] us to persevere in our labors amidst the unavoidable troubles that plague work in this fallen world.”
Manual labor figures prominently among the ethos of early Christian asceticism as one of many valuable disciplines. According to Abba Agatho, “Man is like a tree. His bodily discipline is like the leaves of the tree, his guard over the inner man is like the fruit.” No tree bears fruit apart from first growing healthy leaves. Nevertheless, one ought not to overvalue the leaves as if they were fruit. As (the Orthodox) Archibishop Paul of Finland, of blessed memory, wrote (speaking more broadly of all spiritual disciplines as leaves),
The fulfillment of [the] commandments of Christ which are contained in the Gospels, such as prayer, fasting, serving one’s neighbour, humility and refraining from condemning anyone else, can be seen as leaves of the spiritual tree. The gifts of the Spirit, which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, correspond to the fruits of the tree. (Gal. 5:22) They are the signs of a purified heart. The wisdom and difficulty of the spiritual pilgrimage lie in the fact that the leaves must not be regarded as fruits nor yet can one imagine that one can bear fruit without leaves; one cannot acquire the gifts of the Spirit without effort.
Thus “manual and skilled labor,” while also being an excellent employment opportunity and a means by which a person can “cultivat[e] the world in service of others,” finds additional spiritual value in that it also “structures the soul,” as Berghoef and DeKoster put it. Just as the leaves of a tree absorb the sunlight and CO2 necessary to the tree’s survival and its ability to bear fruit, producing oxygen as a byproduct in service to all other living things, so also those who, like Abba Agatho, are “careful about keeping up [their] manual work” as a matter of their occupations (such as “[p]ig farmers, electricians, plumbers, bridge painters, jam makers, blacksmiths, brewers, coal miners, carpenters, crab fisherman, oil drillers,” as Mike Rowe put it) have an opportunity in these “dirty jobs” to orient their labor toward producing more than the essential commodities and infrastructure of society (which is laudable enough) by using their labor to cultivate purity of heart and bear the fruits of the Spirit.