In what sense can we actually capture a sense of sacred to the work we do? Is there a fool-proof way to break down the dichotomy of work and prayer, as if they were opposed to one another?
I’d be quick to guarantee that there is no fool-proof solution or technique to achieve anything! I’ve yet to discover life to co-operate like that. Anything worth achieving or any new “place” worth arriving at has involved trial and error but mostly persistence, perseverance and commitment. Unfortunately, that is often discouraging news in a era that prefers instant gratification. However, aren’t their some signs that at least some people are growing disillusioned with the lure of “instant gratification”? What’s more gratifying than eating? We can enjoy it at any stage of immaturity or maturity; but in the last few decades we’ve seen the persistence of “slow food”, more and more cooking shows, or people bothering to prepare meals from fresh food, all much more labor intensive than “fast food”. So we may have something to build on to make it worth considering the first step.
The first step is simple: we must be conscious that even the sacred can infiltrate the work place. That first step, like all the steps that follow, will vary from person to person, from temperament to temperament. Some may see the possibility in a flash of intuition; some will be touched by it in the very nature of a certain job; some will be caught by the new idea; some will see it manifest in the conduct of another person. St. Benedict, in his Rule, reveres the senior monks–or nuns; isn’t the basis for that respect clear to many of us when we first encountered an old monk or nun, self-contained and dignified, contently going about the details of his or her job? It’s not an up-tight perfectionism that catches our attention but a mellow steadiness that’s so much more than dogged routine. Cleaning a piece of equipment, ready for the next day’s job, suddenly looked like a sacred, if relaxed, ritual.
Any of these approaches–intuition, hands-on experience, thinking things through, dynamic example or even application of devotion in practice–might be triggered by one of my favorite passages from the Rule, Chapter 31: Let him regard all the utensils of the monastery and its whole property as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar…What an insight! And how consistent! If, as Benedict writes elsewhere, we are to be aware always of the presence of God; if the monastery is the workshop where we employ the (moral) instruments of good works; if we are running towards that deifying light, if we are to greet each guest as if he or she were Christ…well, of course, the pots and pans, the crow bars and saws, the light bulbs and extension cords (quite honestly, I’m not to sure about the computers, but that’s my hang-up) that keep all this going would be on the same level as the sacred vessels of the altar. They, too, participate in that sacramental transformation of the elements that make up the monastic life.
Whatever our entrance into this sacredness–thinking, doing, intuitive insight or so forth–we are necessarily engaging our imagination. That’s not the same as pretending, though we often use “imagination”, “imaginative” or “imagining” to mean “make believe”. But it isn’t that. Imagination is not fantasy; imagination is perceiving a possibility as an image. The image may even be conceptual; it could also be visual or aural; but the image we find in our imagination can serve as a blueprint for realizing in the concrete something that wasn’t there before. Have you ever imagined acting relaxed with someone around whom you feel up-tight? It’s not unusual to confide to a friend, “Oh, I hate being around her: she make me so up-tight!” Of course, she does nothing of the sort; she has no power to make me uptight. I’m just not admitting that my reaction to her manner is becoming uptight. If I imagine myself acting relaxed in her presence, I may discover a new way of acting. I may discover that she has no power to make me uptight; I may even stumble across why I react with an uptight manner around her–and it may have nothing to do with her. That is an imaginative exercise that produces a concrete result. It’s a creative exercise.
If I look at work as a means to get a pay check; if I limit work to the minimum energy I put out to get the maximum I’m entitled to, my narrow imagination would not allow the possibility of anything sacred in my work. I may also overlook a beautiful setting, a congenial co-worker, a creative opportunity. I’m not advocating acting like Pollyanna or Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (OK, anyone under 65 probably does not know what I’m talking about, but you can check them out on Google); some jobs are drudgery, some work places are dreadful. But is that all they are? And if they’re just conventionally average, am I missing some delightful perquisites that are also part of the workplace? If I expand my imaginative exploration of possibilities at work, I could even bring, through attention, devotion, commitment, creativity and investment of my self something of the sacred to work, even the most prosaic work. That won’t bring me fame or fortune but it could bring depth, insight and freedom to what I do.
On the other hand, were I to approach a job with perfectionism, never letting good enough be good enough, I can drain all the joy and spontaneity out of it–and all the sacredness. I would be using the job to validate my own abilities and standards, publicizing what I can do rather than what I can discover in the job. I may risk discovering that it’s a boring unfulfilling job without my perfectionism which cushions me from that realization. That all adds up to trusting in my self-sufficiency which can only lock me into myself. I would never discover the sacred were I to persist traveling along that path. The sacred interrupts not only the routine but the self-absorbed. It invites responsiveness. The English Benedictine author, Mark Barrett observe that, yes, good planning is the foundation of good teaching, but a great class arises from knowing when to throw away the plan. It’s a magical collaboration, to use my words, between the prepared teacher and the surprised student, a moment in which the roles are exchanged back and forth. A crabbed perfectionism would never allow that freedom which produces those sacred moments breaking into our small lives. This cross-fertilization of ideas and experiences generates a positive spin on the notion of taking up my cross. That ancient Roman punishment meant the condemned carried in public his identifying accusation–“King of the Jews” being one of the best known, most ironic and thoroughly revelatory. My cross tells me who I am and how I’ve interacted–criss-crossed, if you will–with the people and world about me.
If I take up my cross, not as a self-dramatizing martyr but recognizing the contradictions and exchanges of real life, I could find myself growing spiritually through the limits and frustrations of my work. Patient people are not born that way; learning to be patient is only the result of learning to bear challenges and problems because losing my temper doesn’t dissolve the frustrations. Carefully dissecting and dismantling the frustrating obstructions can change the situation, and that’s patience in practice. The cross is a graphic image of the contradictions at “cross purposes”. If I take them up as a given of life, I can learn to work with them. It’s being surprised by them and refusing to own them that trip me up. If my imagination allows me to accept that (unpleasant) possibility in my work, I can learn how to roll with the unpleasantness. Unless I insist unpleasantness shouldn’t happen to me! But I could exploit that discovery to discover that Christ goes before me carrying those contradictions; he’s there bearing them with me. Thus, this does not have to be a dead end. I may have to make some hard decisions, once I understand the “landscape” of my job; I may even need to change my job, but finding the sacred in it, could open a dead-end up, into a gateway.