Work's A Curse - Or Is It?
"On the seventh day, having finished all his work, God blessed the day and made it holy,, because it was the day he finished all his work of creation" (Genesis 2:2-3, REB). "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it" (Ten Commandments, Holy Communion Service, Book of Common Prayer.)
I quote these two passages because they present subtly different versions of what "the day of rest" is meant to be about. The modern Bible translation doesn't actually say anything about rest, it just says God had finished his work of creation. The implication might be that he rested, and that is clearly what the later tradition in the Old Testament Law became, later installed in the Prayerbook, which is the version most of our English ancestors will have heard since 1549. But to finish working, and to rest, are not quite the same thing.
What prompted these thoughts was a rather incoherent broadcast from Gloucester Cathedral last Sunday morning on the theme (why must we have themes for Sundays, when there is a lovingly and laboriously crafted lectionary?) of "Sabbath Rest". It was a sort of anthology of all the mildly religious references to "rest" that Google could come up with. And it was most unsatisfying.
The item I found most irritating about it was the notion that Sabbath Rest is all about recuperation so we can go out and do the work of the Gospel in the rest of the week. But that isn't what God's Sabbath was about. He had finished. He had no more work to do. He was free. There's something rather Puritanical about resting just so that you can do more work. It's like those ghastly pills and potions advertised on the London Underground for things to give you more energy when quite clearly, if you need them, you're over-stretched to the point of being ill, and you need to be stopped from hurting yourself any more with over-work. Likewise, the Puritans whose heyday was in the 17th century but whose shadow is long in our culture, made Sunday a Sabbath not of rest, but of joylessness (and had obviously transferred the Jewish Sabbath to the Christian Sunday, an interesting early example of the inability of Fundamentalists actually to read Scripture). Rest, oh yes, but make your inactivity a virtue - in fact, don't quite rest, fill it with God-bothering prayer and reading and hymns (if the Puritans allowed them) and, of course, going to church. All good Puritans would turn in their well-deserved graves if one pointed out that they had made keeping the Sabbath into "a Good Work".
What was entirely missing from the broadcast was any remembrance of God's curse on the Man, just before he and the Woman (and presumably the serpent) were thrown out of the Garden of Eden: "on your account the earth will be cursed. You will get your food from it only by labour all the days of your life ... only by the sweat of your brow will you win your bread until you return to the earth" (Genesis 3:17-19). Flanders and Swann were more honest about this in their rather unlikely song "The First & Second Laws of Thermodynamics"
"Heat is work and work's a curse
And all the heat in the universe
It's gonna cool down as it can't increase
Then there'll be no more work
And there'll be perfect peace."
Our society is caught up in contradiction between these attitudes. On the one hand, we do indeed see work as a curse. Look at the way, alone of all welfare claimants, old age pensioners have been ring-fenced against both "Austerity" and inflation. The pension is to be paid - alongside, if they are lucky, other privately-funded ones - so that old age can be enjoyable, at least for a time. The Sabbath rest of the elderly is a reward for work done, and often felt by its beneficiaries as such - "I've worked and paid in all my life for this". Well, they might have worked, but what they paid into was the expenses of the generation before, now they are living off the present working generation; there never was a fund they paid into. All too often that turns out to be true of private pensions, too, alas. But this is not how the old age pension first came about. In 1909 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George, recommended an allowance of 5 shillings a week for single people, 10 shillings for couples, who were over seventy, and destitute. In other words, they had no other income, it was means-tested, not universal, and only payable if you had lived twenty years after the age at which most people were dead. I'm not suggesting we should return to those times, merely be mindful of them, and how our attitudes have changed.
On the other hand, there are those who see work as dignified and noble, and that to be denied work, by a mismanaged economy, disability, illness, or bad luck, is a terrible thing - or a disgraceful one. We saw this in the "Post-War Consensus", haunted by the Great Depression and the Jarrow Marchers, that there must be "Full Employment", which is a term from economics which means not that everyone is in work, but that there must be as many vacancies as there are people out of it. This was about ensuring the dignity of work for the greatest possible number (and was pretty good for the economy and society, too). We see its dark side now, with the punitive measures of the Austerity Regime to pressure disabled people off benefits and into unemployment, and all unemployed people to search like headless chickens on pain of reprisal, for work that doesn't exist. This is the "scroungers" mentality, one which condemns the "culture of entitlement", and sits a little uneasily with a government unusually heavily populated by millionaires who have done nothing but inherit their riches, and others who have made them without ever having, in the words of my late, hard-working, father "done a real day's work in their lives".
There is a perverse economic reality that all the best jobs are the best paid. You'd think, being heavily-subscribed, they would be low paid, and that the jobs no one wants, the dirty, and dull, and demeaning, and dangerous ones (ever noticed how many negative words begin with the letter D?), should be the highest paid, with short service and early retirement. But no, because economies do not operate under simple supply and demand, but through rackets and smoke and mirrors and anything to ensure the illusion that those who have lots have earnt it, and that they work very hard indeed. I don't personally believe the average cabinet minister works much harder than my postman. But I do think it must be a lot more fun being in the cabinet, never mind getting six times the money, and subsidised lunches and booze (and, if you're canny, a free house from the taxpayer).
And there's the key. The best work is really play. When we are enjoying our work, we are lost in it, we don't count the hours. It was only when I was really hating one job I had that I counted them - 72 hours one week, 84 the next - and this after my oldest childhood friend had died (and I wasn't burying grief in work, I was working with people who couldn't see how it mattered). This work was a curse indeed. Vicaring is an example of work as play. Many vicars boringly complain about how busy they are, which is a sort of defence mechanism because they know they are gloriously unregulated, and can, if they wish, do almost nothing. I've only known a couple of them who achieved this. But the work is a wonderful combination of tedium and thrill. For some, writing a sermon or doing the accounts, is the tedium, for others, the thrill; for some it is pastoral visiting, or teaching, or calling into schools and hospitals, community centres; or sitting in the study, reading, and learning, and deepening their wisdom for the next foray in the pulpit or the Bible class. The blend of toil works for so many different kinds of people because there is an element of the right kind of play for everyone. What is Sunday, if not dressing up, play-acting, learning lines, and giving a performance? It's more than that, but it is not less than that.
When children come out of school - their work - they don't, generally, want or need to rest, they want to play. They want the freedom to engage with the world and their friends on their own terms for a while, to make up stories, live in imaginary worlds, to make things, to be energetic, to strive to win - play is full of striving, and it's fun. And the modernists tell us that children learn more from play than they do in their lessons, and when you look at their concentration at a game, or the intensity of their knowledge of the different kinds of sharks (for instance), their attention to details and rules, you can well believe it.
This is why the Puritans - ancient and modern - got it wrong. Sabbath Rest isn't about holy indolence and God-bothering, it's about play, and for those whose work is dull and drear, that play is the most important part of their day or their week. Of course we must rest if our minds and bodies are tired by our labours. But what will refresh us is our playtime. Play is what frees us from the curse of work.