Work of More Than Human Hands

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While Gideon was marching his tremendous battalion off to lay waste to Midian, God drew him aside, saying, “The troops with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand. Israel would only take the credit away from me, saying, ‘My own hand has delivered me’” (Judges 7:2).  To ensure that the miracle of the conquest not get diluted in the sea of twenty-two thousand brawny soldiers, God whittled the number down to a humble three hundred, not one of whom would dare to ignore God’s overwhelming contribution to the victory.

Like Gideon we live in constant danger of failing to give credit where it is due.  So long and powerful has become the human reach that we unreflectively believe that our own hand has delivered us everything.  Arrogance is a potential consequence of this belief, but far worse, and far more common, is a generic ingratitude that simply takes everyday miracles for granted because it claims them as its own, just another product of human ingenuity and industriousness.

This danger crops up even in our Catholic liturgies.  I’ll cite only a single example, but one that rankles me enough that I want to take pains here to expose it.  At first glance, its innocence would seem to prove its innocuousness.  However, having inspected it more closely, I remain convinced that dispelling it would boost our humility, increase our justice and radicalize our wonder at the marvellously mundane miracle that is creation.

As a priest, I take special delight in performing certain actions of the mass, the first being the offertory.  To bless God for a goodness that manifests itself in the generosity of the earth fulfills an instinctive need in me as I contemplate the bread and wine on the altar.  To then honor human involvement in the elaboration of these gifts also rings pleasingly true.  Here the dignity of human labor seems to glint in the sun of divine creativity.  To leave it at that, however, and to go on as if the fruits of the earth were exclusively works of human hands dangerously distorts reality.  It takes credit away, overlooking the many other “hands” that put time and effort into the final product offered up to the Lord, God of all creation.

The failure to appreciate and publically acknowledge the contributions of other collaborators stems not from ill-will or pride, but simply ignorance.  Our understanding of the vast team of creatures necessary to produce bread and wine was limited, and therefore artificially anthropocentric, at the time of the liturgy’s composition.  Today, thanks to biology, ecology and physics we have become aware of the complexity and copiousness of our colleagues.  Microbiology has opened up a parallel, albeit pinhead, universe ceaselessly expanding at the rate of our ability to probe the infinitesimal.

More microorganisms inhabit a gram of topsoil than humans dwell upon the planet.  According to researcher Christopher Jones, “collectively, soil microorganisms play an essential role in decomposing organic matter, cycling nutrients and fertilising the soil. Without the cycling of elements, the continuation of life on Earth would be impossible, since essential nutrients would rapidly be taken up by organisms and locked in a form that cannot be used by others.”[1]  In a word, agriculture, of every variety, would quickly grind to a halt were the countless bacteria, fungi, protozoa and their co-workers to go on strike.  Even hydroponics, the method of cultivating plants in a medium of nutrient-enhanced liquid, would stagnate in the absence of microbial output.

Our utter reliance on the dutiful service of microbes usually gets masked by our chemical dependencies. We tend to assume that the bags of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus shaken out across the land do all the agricultural heavy lifting.  Yet without microorganisms to process, transfer and deliver these substances to their intended vegetative destinations, our harvests would be disastrously paltry.  Microorganisms do the most basic of all farm labor: soil management.  They build it, stabilize it, keep it healthy and make its wealth available to crops.  Were this not done, agriculture would never, so to speak, get off the ground.  The fact that they go unpaid and unacknowledged does not in the least reduce their indispensability.

In the soil union are other members a little higher up the pecking order, such as earthworms, spiders, sowbugs, moles, voles, mice etc.  They too put their diminutive shoulders to the plough, aerating, loosening and enriching the soil through their everyday livelihood pursuits.  Eating, digging, digesting, they make the earth more hospitable for their photosynthetic partners.

Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received this bread we offer: fruit of the earth, work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.  In light of the brief résumé of soil science above and in keeping with the Christian ideal of honesty, we ought to admit that the transformations of wheat into flour and finally baked bread constitute just the very last stages of an extremely laborious process employing literally billions of workmates.  The living energies spent in producing wheat are neither accidental nor insignificant and mostly non-human.  To be sure, we lend a hand, but the real work is of a dizzying number of assiduous creatures.

All the more so with the accompanying wine.  In this case, microorganisms play crucial roles not only in the production of raw vineyard materials—“fruit of the vine”– but also in their elaborate processing.  Being unleavened, the Eucharistic bread used in the Roman Catholic mass relies less on microbial support than its leavened brethren.  Wine, however, due to its fermentation, relies entirely on the diligence of diminutive vintners.  A whole host of diverse yeasts and bacteria apply themselves to the must and juice, converting their sugars to ethanol.  The difference between mere grape juice and cabernet, or any other vino, is owed completely to the dedicated efforts of innumerable alcohol manufacturers.  No yeast, no fermentation. No fermentation, no alcohol.  No alcohol, no wine.  No wine, no Eucharist, as “It is absolutely forbidden”, stipulates #927 of the Code of Canon Law,” even in extreme, urgent necessity, to consecrate one matter without the other”[2].

It may be protested that we stretch the concept of work too thin by trying to make it cover single-cell organisms without perceptible consciousness, reason and will.  Humans, with their institutions, mission statements, five-year plans, payrolls, pensions and income tax truly work, whereas other, less sophisticated creatures simply carry on instinctually, slaves to their genetic coding.  But if we content ourselves with a basic and indisputable definition of work, it will be difficult to deny it to our wee collaborators.  After all, work is just making a living.  And that is precisely what fungi, bacteria and protozoa do as they transform sugars into alcohol and dead tissue into humus.  They put effort into the act of procuring food, shelter and protection.  In fact, they were doing this in Eden, long before humans had to roll up their newly-stitched sleeves and get down to the sweaty business of making dough.

We, therefore, do nothing for our assumed greatness by hoarding a merit that, strictly speaking, belongs to a much larger community.  Should we attempt to justify our uncharitable attitude by clinging to the conviction that the dignity of human work glorifies God in some exclusive manner, we need only cast a corrective glance on sacred writ to recall that praise is at once the prerogative and duty of every atom of creation. The Book of Daniel runs the inventory:

“Bless the Lord, all rain and dew;

sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, all you winds;

sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, fire and heat;

sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, winter cold and summer heat;

sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, dews and falling snow;

sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.

Bless the Lord, ice and cold, et cetera (Daniel 3:64-69).

 

Catholic Social Teaching has long stood behind the right of workers to organize and unite.  There is, as has been sung throughout the decades, power in the union.  By acknowledging our mite mates working beside and even inside us, we increase this power of praise exponentially.  Indeed, as Pope Francis reminds us in Laudato si, “everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth”(#92).

What would it cost us, when offering up bread in wine at mass, to declare them proudly the “work of many creatures”?  One extra syllable could buy us a great deal of humility, gratitude, solidarity and friendship with our non-human colleagues.  Plus, at the end of the day, it proves more biblical.  “For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light” (Luke 8:17).  The behind-the-scenes toil of our collaborators is coming ever more to light.  We do well to celebrate it openly.

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[1]  http://www.futuredirections.org.au/publication/under-our-feet-soil-microorganisms-as-primary-drivers-of-essential-ecological-processes/

Greg Kennedy, SJ is assigned to the spiritual exercises ministry at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph, Ontario.

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2 Comments
  • Paul Baker
    Posted at 07:06h, 22 August Reply

    Thanks Greg. All the creatures of the earth thank you too! A very informative and insightful presentation. I think “the poet” should write more prose!

  • Peter Bisson, SJ
    Posted at 12:00h, 22 August Reply

    Thank you Greg!

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