For many of us, the notion of taking our whole selves – body, mind and soul – to work is ludicrous. We reserve our souls for home and church, and not for the loud, chaotic and profane workplace.
But theologians, spiritual writers and psychologists agree that it’s better to live an integrated life – even at less than perfect jobs – than to try to maintain a work persona that is all business and no soul. At the very least, we will live a cramped and limited life for 40 hours a week. And at the worst, we will fail to be of real service to others or even to ourselves.
Psychotherapist and author Thomas Moore offers a telling anecdote in his book, Care of the Soul, about a client who hated his job. The client had grown depressed after years of working there, but had been unable to leave.
“Have you ever thought,” I asked him one day, “of being where you are, of entering fully this job that you’re putting your time and energy into?”…
“You’re saying,” he said incredulously, “that I should go to this stupid job as if my heart were in it?”
“You’re in it, aren’t you?”
He came back in a week to say that something had changed in him as he began to take his “stupid” job more seriously.
Spirituality at Work
The fact is, we spend too much time in and at work to leave our hearts and souls at home. If we restrict our spiritual selves to home and/or church – seeing work as somehow fundamentally different from real life – we leave the best part of ourselves behind. We watch the clock. We grow bored and impatient. We become unhappy. We drift away from who we are meant to be to ourselves, to others, to God.
The noise escalates as 23 three- and four-year-old students tumble into the preschool room of Our Lady Academy, talking, laughing and even, sometimes, crying. They mob Sister Stefanie MacDonald, OSB, a quiet and gentle Benedictine Sister who loves peace and quiet … but loves the children even more. She takes a deep breath, prays Cassian’s words – “O God, come to my assistance: O Lord, make haste to help me” – and throws her arms around each of them, listening, smiling, wiping their noses and tears.
“One of the most important things I do for myself is recognize that I am not in control,” Sr. Stefanie says. “God is. That helps me be ready to recognize the little joyous moments throughout the day, from the first time a little girl zips her own coat to when a little boy asks another boy if he’s okay after a bump. There are many amazing opportunities to thank God for the world God created. I really can see God working here in these ‘wow’ moments.”
And as Sr. Stefanie recognizes the blessings surrounding her, she finds herself, to borrow from the poet Yeats, able to bless.
“I share my spirituality with the children,” she says. “For example, I play Gregorian chant at rest time, which calms and quiets them. Before religion class we sit in silence for a few minutes, which helps put them in touch with God.”
While such overt sharing of spirituality is appropriate in Sr. Stefanie’s Catholic classroom, it would not be appropriate in very many workplaces. What is appropriate is practicing our spiritual values, as Moore suggests in the March-April, 2011 issue of Spirituality and Health, “without external signs of the religion.”
Sr. Helen Carey, OSB, agrees. “Our deepest values call us to certain practices, actions, attitudes and dispositions,” she says. “Whatever we do, we have the opportunity to be good Christians. Whether we are at our job, on a walk, at a bar or at home, we are called to do good and worthy work.”
But is “good and worthy work” always possible?
“There’s a lovely story in A Reader in the Spirituality of Work by Maxine, a cashier at a supermarket,” Sr. Helen says. “She says compassion is the most important tool of her job. She makes her job good and worthy. She makes it her ministry.”
Taking the Beauty of God’s Creation and Giving it Back, Beautiful
Making our job a ministry is, perhaps, easier said than done. Wherever we work – at home, in the garden, on the job – it can seem like drudgery. But that is an attitude that is within our power to change.
“The job might seem like just a job, but it’s what we bring to it that makes it a ministry,” Sister Mary Core, OSB, says. “When we are aware of God’s presence we will bring something more. When we say, How can we see God? How can we be Christ for others?, we begin to change the way we speak, the way we use tools. It becomes ministry. It becomes sacred.”
Imagine working in an commercial-sized kitchen for 40 years, as did Sisters Anne Newcomer and Norberta Vandersnick. Despite the long hours and hard work – Saturday was butchering day, summers were spent canning fresh produce, and every morning, noon and night meant preparing another meal from scratch – they loved and viewed their jobs in the monastery kitchen as their ministry. Why?
“We’ve talked about it many times,” Sr. Anne says. “We both enjoyed cooking because we knew if we fed the Sisters well, they would teach better, and if we fed the students well, they would learn better. We loved serving them that way, although it was hard work.”
“We tried to take the beauty of God’s creation and give it back, beautiful,” Sr. Norberta adds. “It was a joy to make people happy there.”*
“Taking the beauty of God’s creation and giving it back beautiful” is what we are called to do wherever we work, whether at a quick store, in a factory or at a university.
“My job and spirituality are about service and advocacy,” St. Ambrose University professor of social work Katie Van Blair says. “I think of the hymn, Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me. This seems to be congruent with my understanding of the way Jesus lived. My entire job is an expression of that.”
At the End of the Day: Justice, Charity and Peace
Bringing our spirituality to work is work. It requires both attention and intention. It requires practicing our spiritual values even when inconvenient – say, turning the other cheek when insulted by a bar patron, or taking the time to tie yet one more small shoe. It requires remembering who we are and who we are not.
“I have a prayer on my desk that I love to begin my workday with,” Sister Sheila McGrath, OSB, says. “It says, Good Morning! This is God. I will be handling all of your problems today. I will not need your help. So, relax and have a great day! It helps remind me of my place. That God is God and I am not. I can extend myself and my hospitality to all I encounter throughout the day. I can offer peace, joy and calmness that is, I hope, contagious.”
Benedictine Novice Jackie Walsh says awareness of God is key to her job at Benet House, her volunteer work at a local food pantry, and her monastery assignment as community room housekeeper.
“Each personal encounter is an opportunity to use the gifts I’ve been give to help make the world better, one person at a time.,” she says. “Sometimes I’m more successful than others, but I have to keep trying. The effort helps me be more compassionate, understanding and patient. I may never see the fruit of the seeds I plant with my words and actions, but I must keep planting to help God’s plan unfold, for me and those I meet.”
Indeed, through all activities – work and otherwise – we are called to “assist one another to lead holier lives.” Pope John Paul II continues, in his 1981 Encyclical on Human Work, Laborem exercens (in which he quotes from the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium), “In this way the world will be permeated by the spirit of Christ and more effectively achieve its purpose in justice, charity and peace.”
And that – not money or prestige – is our final purpose, after all.