Blessed Are the Sweaty


This week I’d like to thank my dogged readers
for reading about my dogs, and all the other rococo digressions I squirted onto the page in the course of considering the Seven Deadly Sins and Opposing Virtues, because this week we’re done. Fittingly, since I began the series with Sloth, I put off Diligence to the end. Procrastination isn’t so much an art as a science, in the old sense of the word that predates Descartes, which means a quest for knowledge of the cosmos and one’s self. (Since that high-strung Frenchman redefined “science” as the project of making man the “master and possessor of nature,” we learned to sniff condescendingly at “knowledge work” that doesn’t involve white coats, beakers, and electrified fetal pigs. That’s how theology traded its crown as “Queen of the Sciences” for the little paper hat called “Religious Studies” and learned to ask, “You want Christ with that?”)
But in the old sense, procrastination is a scientific experiment that reveals what most troubles us — since it’s literally the last thing that we get to. If you’re like me, you put off organizing your house till the last possible moment — for instance, half an hour before your guests arrive. Once I’ve shoved the last neglected dish into the washer, the final sock into the sack, as I step back I learn something about myself: Cleaning the house induces panic attacks because the thing I most fear is disorder.

Scratch my surface Gemütlichkeit, and underneath you’ll see a panic of anarchy, an unholy terror of rats, mobs, and bandits. No wonder the thing that drew me first to the Faith was the Summa, the edifice of apparently crystalline perfection that is the Church’s deposit of Faith, her treasury of theology and apologetics. (Okay, all that and the Crusader armor I used to gawk at in the treasury room at New York’s Met. No wonder that between writing articles such as this one, I while away the hours conquering and reconquering the Holy Land through Medieval Total War.)
As a high-strung teen in the roiling, crime-soaked New York City of the 1970s (see Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam and you’ll understand), I took peaceful refuge in the carefully thought-out defenses of the Faith found in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, whose sandy, cracked black volumes survived in our public library. I owe my faith not to the Bob Dylan songs we sang at folk Mass, or even the scorching sermons of our old Irish pastor, but the dogged Diligence of the men who, over the centuries, patiently answered every heresy, laid down firm limits to reckless speculation, and spent their lives setting in order each iota.
I like, really like, the fact that the Church doggedly resists accepting miracles, views up-and-coming Marian apparitions with a skepticism that shames Christopher Hitchens, skewers superstition, and sneers at phony mysticism (which is to say, with John of the Cross, most of it). It helps keep the supernatural firmly in its place — at the top of the pyramid, of course, but set up high in plain sight of the sun, instead of sneaking around in caves, in the whispers of fortune-hunting fortune tellers, or secret traditions slipped through tangled codes for the enjoyment of elites. The Faith is at once a mystery and a massive cell-phone transmitter, and I like to think of it sitting on top of the Chrysler Building.
I put off Diligence for last because, of all the virtues, it wears the least perfume. Its odor of sanctity is honest sweat, wafting through the subway car at day’s end as you schlep back from the city. The Book of Genesis says boldly that scarcity, like death, comes to us as punishment for sin. Absent the Fall we still would have worked, St. Thomas teaches, but every task would have felt more like a hobby. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors wouldn’t have teetered on the brink of malnutrition, and when we built our cities they needn’t have had enormous walls to keep out ravening hordes — or slaves to build the walls.
We might well have lived in the earthly paradise imagined by Karl Marx, whose real enemy wasn’t the bourgeoisie but something much more fundamental: what economists (the scientists of scarcity) call the “division of labor.” On the Rock Candy Mountain to which Marx offered to lead us, he promised each could be a philosopher in the morning, a poet in the afternoon, and in the evenings . . . perhaps an eye surgeon. This fantasy was what attracted so many beaten-down workers and hungry intellectuals to embrace his messianic system — an Eden, rebuilt on the ruins of a pulverized civilization, populated by a bold new creation, “socialist man,” who’d shed like an old, dead skin the faith, the art, the traditions of the past that belonged to another species. The New Man would look back alike at factories and cathedrals as we do at artifacts of the Neanderthals. All this in service of Sloth.
The essence of sin is to shuck off the duties of the day, taking refuge in wishful thinking or the assertions of the ego. To deny one jot or tittle of the implications of the Fall, to pretend we can reverse it by political or scientific techniques, is to take once more the fruit the serpent offered Eve, which Adam lazily ate. It would be very nice, now, wouldn’t it, if we didn’t have to trundle off daily to jobs serving other people’s needs, merely to make some dirty money? If we could keep on for decades noodling around on our pet projects, not worrying whether anyone appreciated them — while organic snacks grew on ficus trees, health care fell from the skies on the just and unjust alike, and our houses cleaned themselves so we could focus on the window treatments? Likewise, if sexual love was all about clean young fingers entwining around a martini, and never had to drag those paired romantics into the grubby world of diaper buckets, crusty dishes, and teenaged hysterics. We crave such a magical world and wield our technical or biochemical gadgets, endlessly seeking the spell that will uneat the Apple.
To nail a virtue means rediscovering one solid square foot of Reality. The idea that work can sanctify wasn’t original to St. Benedict, but the way he said it helped make Western Christendom a healthier, holier place. If we think of our work as a prayer, we can find ourselves fulfilled by digging a ditch, and digging it as well as ever we can. Likewise in answering e-mails, baking casseroles, bathing squirming toddlers who accidentally urinate in one’s face — and even, though the blood drains from my face as I say it, in grading student essays. Any work that isn’t a sin (liturgists, I mean you) can serve to sanctify.
And the best way to do that, indeed to do anything, is to turn our gaze away from ourselves, to think of the customer whose decent needs we hope to meet, the family we’re supporting by our work — and most of all, I think, the excellence of the thing itself. A wall well made, a meal lovingly crafted, a coruscating essay that really obliterates its target — all these can be, if only we make them, Platonic ideals that glow in our souls, which we pursue through all the muck and mire of their making.
As we sweep up the sawdust from the shop floor, we might even think of St. Joseph, the patron of workers. He wasn’t some pale, emasculated figure forever holding a huge stalk of lilies. He was an independent contractor, a skilled Jewish businessman who probably haggled with the best of them. Our Lord no doubt learned from him His skill at winning arguments, His joy in a job well done. We can see in each of His miracles and parables a human delight as well as Divine intention. Could we harness a little spark of that in our daily drudgery, we’d each be a little less likely to shrug, and slump, and turn in stuff we think of as “good enough for government work.”


John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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