The ‘hidden power’ of manual work


Martine Gilsoul

Doctor in Educational Sciences, Emmanuel Community

‘The guards were of various types. Some were terrible, like Captain Poljakov, who would fly into a rage if he saw a flower embroidered on the uniform, but there were also some human ones.’1 Kommunella Markman recalls the years passed in the gulag camp with a certain positive viewpoint, surprisingly, convinced that her experience gave her the possibility of truly knowing humanity: ‘You can never believe that you have understood someone…the human being can always surprise you… For example, women! It’s impossible to imagine what women are capable of! They returned from work exhausted but they tidied their hair because they wanted to be beautiful. They wrote letters, embroidered handkerchiefs; we didn’t have a house, or a private life, we had no hope, but we had life. And we had friendship and love. How many married after the camp! […] I understood that the NKVD was defeated because there was no way it was going to manage to strip the humanity from man.’


One could say a lot about the lives of these brave, beautiful women, but I want to stay with her first statement: How is that embroidery could have this power to infuriate a guard? Could it be for the freedom of this act? For beauty where there was no place for it? Is it that they had used so many means to destroy the prisoners’ dignity? How then, could these women, deprived of everything, obliged to do very heavy work, find the strength, after hours of inhumane work, to embroider? Did this activity hide a special ‘power’? Did they find some relief in it?


Since I entered the world of Montessori, I have come to realise the importance of working with the hands, and not just for children! Maria Montessori considered the hand to be an organ of the spirit. The American sociologist, Richard Sennet, a disciple of Hannah Arendt, though at a distance from her in his vision of work, studied at length the benefit of manual work. Summarising his thought, it can be said that Sennett arrived at the conclusion that when the hand is divorced from the spirit, it is the spirit, which pays the price2. Manual work thus has a value that is very often neglected, it is seen as a waste of time or as less interesting. This also means that manual work allows us to be more in touch with reality (true reality, in three dimensions and not the fiction of games on a tablet) and that gives us the possibility of being in touch with ourselves. By dint of manipulating so many touch screens we have forgotten that we have gold in our fingertips.

For some years I have accompanied a group of young women who spend time in Rome as part of their studies. Once a month we meet to speak about women (anthropology, sexual differences and topics related to female life). For the November meeting, having heard the Gospel on the parable of the talents, I had an idea that seemed simple to me almost to the point of triviality: to ask each of them to find at least two talents in herself. I didn’t think it was going to provoke such a crisis in some of them! Tears! ‘I don’t have a single talent!’ ‘It’s impossible!’… Was it possible that such capable young women, so full of life, could have this reaction? What was going on?


I left that meeting worried. Then I thought about the conversations we had had, and I realised that the more the years pass by and I see these young people change, the more I see, year after year, their difficulty in speaking about themselves. In the theological, spiritual plane they are unbeatable (I learn a lot from them), but in reference to their humanity they are under construction, it could be said that they lack the foundations. It is as if they don’t know who they are, as if they don’t know what they like doing, or what they do well, launching immediately into generic discourses on the problems of society… So, I ask myself what is the ‘efficacy’ of a theoretical discourse that isn’t sustained by the ‘flesh’, which doesn’t have roots in life?


A dear friend of mine, who is now a bishop, once said to me, ‘With the young people of today it is necessary to first teach them to be men and women, and then go on to the spiritual.’ How true it is! With these young women, I started making them reflect on their deepest desires. How can they love themselves if they don’t know themselves, if they don’t know what they are capable of? Edith Stein said precisely this when she wrote the woman runs the risk of losing her ‘form’ and dispersing when she is not fully committed to a work or activity. I think that we have all experienced the great risk we run when we want to do everything and we end up not achieving anything. It is important to objectivise, asking ourselves what we like doing and what helps us to have more confidence in ourselves and to share our talents with others. It doesn’t matter if I have received two, five or ten talents, but it is my responsibility to make them bear fruit.


There often exists for us the temptation to forget about ourselves in order to help others. It seems to me that in doing this, we disregard Jesus’ commandment: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ How come we always forget these last two words? And then when I do something I enjoy, I am attacked by guilt. There is no selfishness is taking some time for oneself, rather, we see that women who allow themselves a pleasure every so often are more capable of opening themselves to others. I have various friends - mothers and grandmothers - extremely busy in different areas, who have found it of great help to take a course in manual activity: ceramics, découpage, sewing or something similar. One of them said to me that on leaving she felt better, full of energy to give to others. On my birthday, she signed me up for a course of ‘building with card’: in the Montessori method a lot of boxes and different trays are used, which aren’t cheap. It was a day which did me a lot of good! Not just for the healthy pride of having made a very beautiful box (with a lid) but also because working with the hands is relaxing, the precision has meaning and gives security. So, let us again take up crochet hook, recipe book, pen (to write letters), scissors and needles. Let’s ask our grandmothers how it’s done. Let’s rediscover the use of our hands. Get to work!

1 A. Bonaguro, M. Dell’Asta, G. Parravicini, Vive come l’erba... Storie di donne nel totalitarismo, [Live like the grass…Stories of women in totalitarianism] La casa di Matriona, Milano 2015, p. 71-74. After a history lesson during which she was impressed by words on justice, Kommunella founded, with five classmates, an underground terrorist group, ‘Death to Beria’ which wrote flyers and posted them on walls. In 1948, when the group no longer existed, its members were arrested; she was then 24 years old. Following 5 months of investigation she was condemned to 25 years hard labour and 5 years of deprivation of civil liberties. She was freed after 8 years.

2 R. Sennett, Ce que sait la main. La culture de l’artisanat, Albin Michel, Paris 2010.


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