Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. -John 12:24
This is the second of two articles on the nature of work. Click here for the first.
In 1776 the British regulars were under siege in Boston. The poorly outfitted, undersupplied, and inexperienced New England militiamen had surrounded the city for almost a year. With powder running low General Washington and his war council devised a daring plan: in a single night they would fortify the unoccupied heights of Dorchester with heavy artillery recently brought from Fort Ticonderoga by Colonel Knox. The scheme involved much preparation; portable bulwarks had to be constructed, heavy barrels of sod and hay were needed, 60 tons of shot and cannon were to be made ready for transport over an ice covered bay, and all accomplished without the least hint given to the enemy. When the sun rose on March 5, General Howe, commander of British forces in Boston, was dumbfounded. “These fellows” he gasped, “have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months.”
That’s an epic tale; it’s dramatic, clandestine, and full of the sap and uncertainty of reality. It’s the sort of story we (or at least I) want to be a part of; it’s the kind of work we want to do. But life isn’t like that; it’s mostly commonplace and composed of paltry occupations. Take moving for example; it involves things like cleaning up unknown grime left by the last tenant or (for the less prosperous among us) piecing together used particleboard furniture. Moving is a work of descending. And so is life.
But then (as I suggested in Work, Part I) there are times in the humdrum and monotony of life when we intuit something lasting, something solid, something real. To use Plato’s analogy, it’s as if the immediate things, what we often term the “real world,” are but ghosts or shadows of the actual real-ity that, while invisible, is more lasting and (one might argue) solid than what is seen. Here’s a passage from C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce that gets at Plato’s idea by speculating about heaven.
“At first…my attention was caught by my fellow-passengers… I gasped when I saw them. Now that they were in the light, they were transparent—fully transparent… smudgy and imperfectly opaque when they stood in the shadow of some tree. They were in fact ghosts: man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air… I noticed that the grass did not bend under their feet: even the dew drops were not disturbed.
[Then] I saw the whole phenomenon the other way round. The men were as they had always been; as all the men I had known had been perhaps. It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison.”
Plato’s influence on Lewis is beyond obvious; it’s explicit in The Last Battle. Yet many will quickly point out that Plato would not have been entirely comfortable with the physical or terrestrial flavor of Lewis’s thinking. Plato was, of course, no friend to the material world. To say something “matter-s” to him would have been derogatory, and to say that it “real-ly matter-s” would have been nonsense. And that’s why I think Lewis’s description is an improvement—it explains those significant and weighty inklings that surprise us as we work in the midst of matter.
Plato’s knowledge of the unseen and eternal world led him to reject the immediate one as utterly temporal, but the same knowledge made Lewis love what is seen all the more (see Work, Part I). And isn’t Lewis’s the nobler response? Isn’t the mark of magnanimity the ability and willingness to condescend in order to bring up? Who is the good parent, master, or farmer? He who “gets down on the level” of his child, dog, or field and brings about a man, a companion, or a harvest.
Lewis makes it clear in Miracles that the Biblical narrative affirms his deviation from Plato. The Christian story begins with a prince in rebellion against his King, both warring for the same territory, the same peoples; one for the purposes of rape and repine, the other jealously intent on marriage. But it soon becomes a story of descending. Withholding brute demonstrations of His power, the King trades His robes of light for the faded flesh of man and sets about the monotony of human life: drags Himself out of bed, washes His face, goes to work, comes home, fixes the plumbing. And still he descends: born an earthly bastard, has no honor among His neighbors, suffers contempt and persecution by the religious and political establishment. And still He descends: endures desertion by His closest friends, allows Himself to be easily arrested, gives no reply to false accusations, holds fast the breath of life as He is tortured, humiliated, and murdered. And still He descends, to the dregs of creation—to ge-henna, the dung heap, hell itself.
As we know, the story does not end there; Christ suffered death and overcame that we too might be resurrected. But the promise goes further. God invites us to be like Him, to descend and (in a sense) suffer by participating in the redemption of creation. Paul’s remarks in Romans 8 suggest that creation’s emancipation will be triggered by man’s salvation. Christianity claims the good life is found not in abandoning the creation (as Plato argued), but by occupying it. God’s invitation is to descend into the muck and mire of life, that one day we might rise as Christ did, and that with us as with him, the creation might rise as well.
As Christians we’re told that we are engaged in concealed warfare with the ruler of this world. Perhaps that explains those infrequent and ephemeral glimpses of reality that surprise us in the midst of our work, glimpses of a beam of real light reflected off something that really matters. It strikes, fills, and passes through us, as if through a vapor. We are indeed part of an epic tale, no less dramatic, no less real (possibly more so), because it’s clandestine. The glory of our labor is unseen perhaps even to us, but maybe it also goes unnoticed by our enemy, who on the dreadful day of the Lord will find the revealed work done by a seemingly poorly outfitted, undersupplied and inexperienced lot, more eternal, more solid, more unassailable than anything his host of darkness could have anticipated in an eternity.