The country people on the first of May go gathering flowers for Our Lady’s crown. The Maypole is raised and with ribbons gay the children dance around.
Such are the traditional celebrations of Mayday, the first of May, dating back to the time when labor meant, for most, their own home farm or workshop, and when men had masters rather than ‘employers’.
Things are different now, of course.
I could go into the question of labor and economic change, the benefits and consequences of the industrial society, the ill-judged upheavals that created it and the even worse ones that reacted to it, the whole sad, stupid tale of the past three hundred years or so.
But honestly, I think the habit of doing so is part of the problem.
We children of the Enlightenment have a tendency to think in universal terms, to speak of ‘humanity’ in general and to look on society as a project to be worked on and corrected. We cling continually to the idea that if we just tweak this and that, enact a reform here, a suppression there that everything will be so much better and more just. And it’s understandable, given that the tweaks and reforms of past generations have made such a godawful mess that it’s hard to argue that some editing is not in order. We’re like the over-confident self-taught carpenter who slowly destroys his house while trying to repair the damage he’s done putting up a shelf.
This universalism – “world peace”, “end world hunger”, “save the earth”, and so on – has its advantage. Namely, that the end goal is one that no individual can either achieve or judge. If all environmental issues, for instance, were miraculously solved tomorrow, no one would be able to confirm that, because no one would be able to both examine the whole world nor form a clear judgment of what ought to be happening in each case.
I call this an advantage because it means that an endeavor that couches itself in universal terms can neither succeed nor fail. Communism, for instance, can never be considered to have failed, because it is conceived of as a world-wide ideal. One can (and many do) always say that it needed more time or a better playing field or better human material, and that in any case it is worth everything to bring it about, because to do so would be such a triumph for humanity.
So it is that the labor movements and the political religions that go along with them, the things we unhappy moderns associate with May 1st, are ubiquitous. They will never either triumph or go away until or unless the whole of society undergoes another shift.
But fortunately, we can ignore these things. For today is also the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, and he shows us a different path.
St. Joseph was not a revolutionary. He had no grandiose schemes for reforming the world, and yet it was in his house and under his care that the one meaningful change the world has ever known took shape. And this was done, not through looking out upon the sorry state of humanity, but by looking down at the duties under his hand. He worked diligently at his trade to provide for his wife and foster son, guarded them with prompt and decisive action when needed, and passed on what he knew to Jesus.
That was it, and that was all that was required. Such, indeed, was how all those who labored in the days of the Maypole understand their vocation, and we, who are their heirs, ought to do likewise.
For when we come before God, He will not question us about the state of the world or of what we tried to do for mankind. Instead, He will ask us how well we performed the duties that were given to us; our daily work, the care of our families, the instruction of our children.
Saint Joseph is an eternal reminder that it is in these daily tasks, these private duties, that we render our service to the Lord. These should be in the foreground of our hearts, whatever else we may be called on to do.
O Glorious St. Joseph, model of all those who are devoted to labor, obtain for me the grace to work conscientiously, putting the call of duty above my natural inclinations, to work with gratitude and joy, in a spirit of penance for the remission of my sins, considering it an honor to employ and develop by means of labor the gifts received from God, to work with order, peace, moderation and patience, without ever shrinking from weariness and difficulties, to work above all with purity of intention and detachment from self, having always death before my eyes and the account that I must render of time lost, of talents wasted, of good omitted, of vain complacency in success, so fatal to the work of God. All for Jesus, all through Mary, all after thine example, O Patriarch, St. Joseph. Such shall be my motto in life and in death. Amen.