The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary...
Perhaps it was unwelcome for her, an announcement interrupting her in the throes of work. But somehow when I envision the Lord’s “declaration,” I imagine Mary peacefully ready.
Today my husband and I have tried to incorporate the Angelus into our daily work routine. It’s a feeble attempt to punctuate our days in the imitation of the nuns and monks, but it’s seldom a welcome suggestion. The automated reminder on our desktop pops up each noon with an uncanny ability to butt into our moments of “brilliance” like an awkward third wheel. Grumbling out of my office chair, jarred by the harsh turn towards the ethereal in a moment where I am obviously “killing it,” I mumble the words with all the vigor Catholic guilt can muster. Little of this short moment my husband and I share lit by the bluish glow of our computers in a dark, editing-friendly room resembles the tranquil peace of Millet’s rendition of the Angelus, nor the sanctity.
Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord.
This inspired the Christian monastic tradition of “ora et labora” (pray and work) usually ascribed to St. Benedict. It was the idea that work and prayer were partners, that contemplation and action should be combined and sanctify the other, something heavily practiced by devout Christians through the Middle Ages into Modernity. There were orders, like the Cistercians, who applied it directly to farm work. Their labor inspired a movement towards land reclamation “from rot and agriculture development in Western Europe.” Some orders, like the Humiliati produced woolen cloth with wheels in a period before the Industrial Revolution. And for at least 700 years lay men and women throughout Europe paused their largely Agrarian labor at the ringing of the bells, 6:00 a.m., noon and 6:00 p.m. to incarnate the Lord into their daily labor.
There are many times I wish I were like the two farmers in Millet’s painting. It sits in our living room and I find myself daydreaming as I gaze on their charmed bucolic life. Humble man and woman pause, hands clasped in prayer, their pitchfork and wheelbarrow temporarily dropped, and a potato basket sits at their feet. The bells of the distant steeple calling them to a dusk prayer.
In my reverie I can imagine that their work was simple, their duties clearly laid out for them, that imbuing their labor was much easier than imbuing my own with humble devotion. My generation has become one with increasingly grandiose expectations for what work is supposed to fulfill. About 60% of millennials are currently open to a new job opportunity and are by far the most likely generation to switch jobs. The “gig economy” has made part-time positions, side hustles and temporary gigs more mainstream. And studies reveal that for the majority of millennials, “work isn’t living up to expectations,” that this generation values money less, the goals are different: “what matters most is that they are doing something inspiring that they feel passionately about."
For Catholic millennials this becomes even harder as we have the lofty expectations that work will “fulfill the potential inscribed in our nature,” or “prolong the work of creation,” and “make legitimate use of our talents” contributing to the abundance that will benefit all (CCC 2428). And sometimes, the complaint goes, it just doesn’t: When you’re doing busy work, when you’re just satisfying the client, when you’re underemployed, when you’re taking a job to support your family that you’re not at all interested in. It seems so unrealistic to “be God’s handmaid,” to try to imbue work with some sense of Godliness.
And the word became flesh.
Millet claims that the idea for his painting came to him because “I remembered that my grandmother, hearing the church bell ringing while we were working in the fields, always made us stop work to say the Angelus prayer for the poor departed very religiously and with cap in hand.” For decades Millet’s explanation “held up,” however recent studies revealed a more complicated history for this farming couple. Salvador Dali, who fell in love with this painting at his art school believed the couple’s stance and the hue of the painting depicted a scene of mourning, not merely a prayerful ritual. Experts were doubtful until he urged the Louvre to review it. The Louvre x-rayed the painting revealing a shape painted over that resembled a child-sized coffin next to their potato basket.
There is no uncomplicated era. In each day we may face what is actually the relative ease of mind-numbing work. We may believe God is far from the tedious minutiae of life. The questions “What is the point? What is the meaning of this?” maraude us. Mortality may uncomfortably sit poised next to us as we click on keyboards or shred paper or drive trucks, and yet somehow the Word, the continuation of the work of Creation, is as inseparable from each of these minutes as we are from our own flesh.
Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Casey McCorry is a digital associate for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a documentary filmmaker, wife and mother.
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