Over the past few years I have had the privilege to get to know and spend time with an Orthodox hermit. Fr. Gregory and I don't always see eye to eye, but over the years his prayers and the wisdom of his words have worked on me.* His words are making more and more sense me. One of the words Fr. Gregory often gives young men and women who are looking for career guidance is to avoid teaching, business, computers and anything that is done at a desk. He says that the lines of employment that are most conducive for salvation are farming, craft work and, if necessary, the trades. Of course, he realizes that not everyone can receive this word. Some people are called by God, it seems, to teach or manage money or even (Lord have mercy) to write and edit. Others are constrained by life circumstances in a specific career path. Still others just don't have the courage to change their lifestyle (I find myself in this camp more often than not).
Nevertheless there is a great deal of wisdom in what Fr. Gregory says, even if very few can hear it. The wise Sirach in Ecclesiasticus warns, "Sin is wedged between selling and buying" (27:2). And St. James warns "not many" to become teachers, for theirs is the stricter judgment (3:1). And certainly anyone who works with computers and communication is all too aware of the sins swimming in that pool.
However, there are also positive reasons why working with one's hands is good for the soul. One of the most important reasons is that working with our hands keeps us connected with our body and thus keeps us aware of our weaknesses.
As a priest and wordsmith I spend a lot of my day sitting in a soft chair reading, writing on a computer, or talking with parishioners. It is oh so easy for me to spend hours on end lost in a world of ideas, blissfully contemplating the strengths and weakness of abstract subtleties. I can have my opinions, my reasons, and no one can prove I'm wrong. When my parishioners disagree with me, I can magnanimously allow them to be wrong. I can even disagree with the saints, or with the Bible: after all in the Orthodox Tradition no one is infallible, so maybe St. Paul didn't quite understand X, Y, or Z (as well as I do?). In the abstract world of ideas the only criterion is plausibility, and my ideas are always very plausible to me.
However, in the world of hammer and nail and wood, in the world of soil and seed and snail, what is plausible to me is irrelevant. The wall of my little shed, which in my mind should be straight, isn't. No amount of argument will change it. I made a mistake. I didn't think clearly. I didn't handle my tools well. The humiliation (once one works through the baser reactions) is liberating. The splinter in my hand, the sore muscles in the morning, the pulsating fingertip kissed by the hammer, all of these keep me aware of my body, of my weakness, of my dependence. I take the wall down and measure again, and again, and again. The second wall is straighter. Lord have mercy.
Fr. Gregory advises those of us who do not work with our hands for a living to work with our hands as a hobby. It's good to make plants grow. It's good to eat what you have grown and nurtured. It's good to remember that you are in a body. And it is good be humbled by reality. This also is for the salvation of our souls.
*After I had visited Fr. Gregory several times and we were developing a friendship, he asked me to take a walk with him. He let me do most of the talking. Toward the end of our several mile walk he said that it wouldn't be right for him to hide his real thinking from me. So he began to tell me some of the things that he believes are true (about nonviolence, simple living and a few other theological matters). He chose topics that he knew I would struggle with. When he finished, I didn't know what to say. After walking along silently for a while, I finally said as we approached the hermitage, "I'm sorry but I cannot yet accept much of what you said, but will you still love me anyway?" Fr. Gregory gave me a big hug, and we have been friends ever since. I keep going back, and he keeps talking to me and praying for me. I feel a lot like the young man who came home from college and remarked: "It's amazing how much Dad has learned while I have been away."