Man’s life is neither a purely exterior life nor a purely interior one. Man is composed of body and soul and, by reason of this dual aspect of his being, has a corresponding activity in his interior as well as in his exterior life. Moreover, man does not in general lead his life in solitude, but in the company of his fellow men and in mutual dealings with them. Hence, his is a mixed life, both interior and exterior.
Thus, too, did Saint Joseph in various ways devote his energies to outward action as well as to the interior life. He was not a hermit, not even one of the Essenes, of whom there were many in the Holy Land. On the contrary, he lived in continual interaction with men; above all with the members of the Holy Family, of which he was the head, support, and protection; with his fellow townsmen also, among whom he dwelt and plied his trade. This necessarily brought him into contact with many people. Saint Joseph, too, made frequent journeys, going several times every year at least to Jerusalem for the chief festivals.
The flight from Herod, undertaken at God’s command, took him away from his own country as far as Egypt, where he was obliged to sojourn for some time. In this connection the pilgrim’s staff, with which ancient art represents the saint, has its appropriate signification. Finally, Saint Joseph was a laboring man, not only in mental and interior work, but in the ordinary exterior, material toil of his hands, by which he had to earn his own living and support the Holy Family. This circumstance is usually represented by the artists of old by means of an axe and an adze, even at the manger of Christ; they are symbols of Joseph’s occupation as a carpenter.
For various reasons the external life of Saint Joseph was a well-ordered and perfect life — first, because of the motives that led him to engage in external works. They were the duty of his calling and God’s will, which he was not at liberty to resist; again, he was inspired by his love for his family, for Jesus and Mary, and frequently by love for his fellow men and by his noble desire to be of service to them and assist them. Never did the monotony of the work of his vocation, or disgust for it, or tepidity and depression of spirit and heart, or — passing over the quest for pleasures — curiosity and sensible consolation drive him to seek the company of men and the world. Surely the journeys to Bethlehem for the enrollment and through the desert to Egypt, were far from being pleasure trips.
According to the fundamental principles of perfection and sanctity, exterior activity should come forth from the abundance of the interior spirit; it is supposed to be the overflow of one’s love for God and for men. It expects man in his external works to give rather than to receive.
Secondly, Saint Joseph’s active life was well-ordered and perfect according to the manner and means of his leading it. He was not so preoccupied with external affairs that the care of his interior or his watch over his conscience or his union with God suffered any injury. His exterior activity not only sprang from his interior spirit, but his interior life accompanied, ennobled, and elevated the active by his thought of God and his love of God. In this way his external life amassed a whole treasury of the sublimest virtues. Thus, his exterior life in no wise interfered with his interior. On the contrary, his inner life enriched itself by means of the difficulties, inconveniences, and sufferings that accompanied the external occupation; it enriched itself through the innumerable degrees of merit gained, through the increase of his love for God and through the consolation of having made his fellow men happy.
This is indeed an important lesson that Saint Joseph teaches us here. We are all bound to lead the active life; to lead it properly, we must all labor, and labor in a correct manner. And here we must avoid two mistakes. Sometimes we labor too little. The mistake in this case consists in idleness, in wasting time, in a lack of earnestness and perseverance in devoting our life, our energies, and our talents to the glory of God and the good of our fellow men. Often, however, the mistake is not in really doing nothing, in the omission of all occupation. There is also a busybody idleness and honorable laziness. It consists in useless occupations, in applying oneself to matters that lie outside one’s vocation and state of life and are of genuine usefulness neither to us nor to our neighbor. Such work is really no work at all, but one all-engrossing round of amusement, pastime, play, and sport. It is very much like the labor of a canary, which preens its feathers, flits from branch to branch, does its little share of chirping, eats and drinks, and feels quite satisfied. One long round of visit after visit to this club and that, of entertainment after entertainment, of boring oneself with this monotonous pastime and that — and then to expect a deserved rest: Is that work? All this is not work; it is hardly more than doing nothing at all.
Work in its proper sense is only that which is prescribed, useful, and corresponding to one’s calling in life. All else is merely an empty effort to escape ennui and killing monotony. Such activity, however, cannot stand before either God or reason. We must reflect earnestly, in the presence of God and of our conscience, how we spend our time, our lives; how we use our energies and talents, whether in truth something that can stand muster before God is accomplished by our manner of life. He will one day demand of us an account, not only of the abuse of time, but also of its nonuse.
For anyone who respects his dignity as man, it is a shameful thing to eat his daily bread without having earned it, to take it easy and spend his time in uninterrupted recreation, while round about us numberless persons must toil at grinding and galling tasks, and while Christ, too, and His Blessed Mother and His foster father had to procure their sustenance by hard labor. Bread that is not earned is considered stolen bread, at least according to the inspired Word of God: “He that will not work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10).
We should furthermore examine whether, after fulfilling our own obligatory tasks, something may not be done for the benefit and assistance of our neighbor, for the solution of great problems, and for the relief of the urgent needs of the time by our participating in good works and cooperating with others in charitable enterprises. Does not the commandment of the love of God and of our neighbor exert its binding force perpetually? If we all did our part to labor for the benefit of mankind, the needs of our times would soon find a solution. We may all contribute a considerable share if we only wish to do so. Let us at least do what we can. He who does what he is able to do, does enough.
There is another danger, however: that of doing too much. We labor too much when we engage in external occupations at the expense of our interior spirit, at the expense of our conscience and the things of God; when we are so engrossed in external activities that the more elevated, supernatural motive and intention are neglected; when we do our work without placing our confidence in God; when we wear ourselves out like slaves and beasts of burden, and meanwhile lose every idea and trace of higher and eternal values.
Work understood and done in the true and Christian sense, for God and our soul’s salvation, is man’s duty and honor, the necessary condition of his proper development and happiness for time and eternity. Our portion of Heaven will be precisely what we have acquired for Heaven by our labor here on earth. Understood in any other way, work is a luxury, a detriment, a perversion of all reasonable and Christian intelligence; it is, as our present age amply testifies, a cruel idol, a real Moloch, which seizes a man, body and soul, in its fiery clutches and devours him. Work, in the last analysis, is destined for man, and man is destined for God. Work is not itself the end, but only a means thereto. In order that we may not be demoralized by our external works, we should set aside a definite time during the day for prayer and recollection, and withdraw awhile from other occupations.
In this regard Saint Joseph is a most appropriate model, especially necessary for the present time, which too often and in manifold ways worships labor as an idol. Our saint, combining wisely and in proper measure the interior and exterior occupations of toil, is a timely example for the laboring classes as well as for apostolic men. To him belongs by peculiar right the grace of bestowing the happy faculty of properly combining the interior and exterior activities of our lives. Devotion to Saint Joseph will procure this grace for us.
Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Father Meschler’s The Truth about Saint Joseph: Encountering the Most Hidden of Saints, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.