In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go through the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
T.S. Eliot 'East Coker' Four Quartets
These words from T.S. Eliot's poem are words for Lent. They describe the pattern that is so deeply embedded in our Christian faith: to rise to new life, it is necessary first to die. To experience Easter Sunday, there must first be Good Friday, and Easter Saturday. As Christians, we commit to follow Jesus on this way wherein there is no ecstasy, in the wild gamble that from time to time, resurrection will burst forth from the shadows to renew and restore us.
It may seem a strange leap, but it's this pattern that Paula Huston invokes in her chapter on work in this book 'The Holy Way' that I'm using throughout Lent. Her term for good work is 'right livelihood' - work and labour that is done from the best of motives, with love at its core. For this author, to find her true work, her 'right livelihood' took her through a path of having to displace work from the centre of her life, to destroy the idol that work was for her, in order to be able to see clearly what her work could be in God.
Huston tells the story of how at a young age she had a strong yearning, a motivation to reach or create a better world. As a very little child she longed to go to school, as she sensed that there she might learn what she needed to reach beyond her dissatisfaction with the world as it was. There was something of a vision there, motivating her, even though it was unformed. However, once she started on the path of achieving, achievement itself became the end and goal of her striving. She became the straight 'A' girl, needing to be the best.
As she got older, she realised that being exemplary included more than just scholastic achievement - it also included being an exemplary mother and wife. She ended up juggling her combined need to be the best at her job, a renowned writer, and a reliable and present mother. All of which left her exhausted, anxious, frustrated, and feeling under-appreciated. She writes: 'Increasingly I felt driven by something I could no longer control - something that had become more habit than vision. That original nameless longing for a better place had become so weakened by the long years of focusing on the means and ignoring the ends that the chances I'd ever find it had almost disappeared.'
What had happened for Huston was that the various spheres of her working life had become idolatrous. That is, her persona, her identity, her sense of worth, and all her waking energies were tied up in her success. She was far from 'right livelihood.'
It was through her meetings with the monks at the monastery where she went on retreat that she learned to change this pattern. And for her, the path to change was one of rest and then renunciation. She learned to work from a place of 'Spiritual Sabbath' - which is to say, the place of calm, rest and connection with God. She began simply by resting each evening with a glass of wine watching the sunset. This was different from the discipline of solitude that we talked about last week. This was simply rest and pleasure. A moment to step off the treadmill. She did this for four months.
Then, she was encouraged to write a list of all her obligations, all the responsibilities and duties in her life, and to reduce it by half...which for her meant turning down speaking opportunities, reducing her teaching schedule (and her pay) by a third, putting off her next book. As she did that, she noticed the fear - what would people think? What would happen to her career? How would she maintain her reputation as a reliable and productive person? These were real fears. As she followed through on the reduction of her 'list', she was shifted away from the centre of her world, of her active achieving life, and shifted away from the centre of her self. She says 'work had pretty much defined me...there wasn't a whole lot there, really, when you took the straight 'A's out of the equation...Would I simply disappear?'
The problem for this author wasn't that she worked hard, or was successful. The problem wasn't that she felt passionate about her job. The problem was that she was owned and controlled by her work. Rather than exercising her gifts in the service of God, and any real sense of vocation, she worked to succeed, and she succeeded in order to feel alive. She was enslaved by a habit of work for the sake of work.
The Christian Saint that she draws insights from in this chapter is Aelred, a Cistercian monk and abbott in the 12th Century. He was a busy man, running several monasteries, and called on to advise and mediate various affairs of Popes and monarchs. But he also knew, 'how to plunge his hands into soil and carry stones on his back, how to stop when stopping was needed, and how to discern what it was God had created him to do.'
Aelred worked from a vision of God as love. He believed that at our core, as people made in the image of God, we are all manifestations of that divine love. When we live close to that core, we move ever closer to the eternal 'sabbath rest' of God, which we read about in the book of Hebrews. In Hebrews 4 it says: 'So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God's rest also cease from their labours as God did from God's.' While this 'rest' exists as a promise, as a 'not yet', there are ways that we can live now from within that promise, experiencing even as we work and labour, 'rest to the soul, peace to the heart, and quiet to the mind.'
Whatever we do, there is a way of doing it as 'right livelihood', or as driven, dissatisfied, alienated slavery. And the difference is in who we work for, and with what vision. Do we work to stave off our own fears and compulsions? Do we work to find personal success and renown? Or do we work to contribute our labour to the good of this world, as people who carry God's love into every task?
The monk Aelred drew on the apostle Paul's metaphor of the body when talking about right livelihood. He wrote that no useful work is better or more worthy of honour than any other kind of work, for "each of us has his own special gift from God". Our gifts and talents are offerings that we make for the common good of our community and our world. We live in a society that rewards some jobs way more than others, with a discrepancy that I personally think represents systemic evil. How contrary to the idea of each of us as God's gifted creation, with something specific to contribute, is this fact that those who work cleaning our toilets are paid so meanly compared with those who use them. The message this sends to us and our children is that there are only some forms of work that are valuable, and only some people and some gifts that contribute to the wellbeing of our world.
What Huston discovered when she gave up some of her work tasks in order to gain perspective on them, was that it's not the famous achievers or the household names that ultimately sustain the world. Up to the elbows in dirt in her garden, she began to value the 'anonymous chores' - the cooking, cleaning, building, transporting, record keeping, drilling and digging acts that enable life for those who enjoy the limelight. And she realised that, as a creative writer, she could begin to see her craft, her art, as something done for its own sake, and for the value of what she created, not for the personal glory that it brought her. So she didn't need to fear a bad review, or even people ignoring her work, because she didn't need to invest her personal sense of worth or achievement in the thing she made. She could see herself more as a craftsman from past ages, who laboured on cathedrals, knowing they would not live to see the finished building.
When we see our work as our gift to be shared, rather than our special virtue to be recognised, we are set free from constantly having to court and sustain approval, and free from our own ambition. We are set free to love. We can love in a way that we can't do when other people represent competition, interruption, or a connection to be used in furthering our goals. And for all of us, whatever we are doing, our real work is to love.
If we would find our vocation, we must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy. To work from freedom and love, we must renounce work as an idol. To enter the rest of God, we must learn to labour from the place within us where God's image of love is strong. It is only in simplicity, freed from the drives and compulsions of our habits, that we can discover what our gift from God is, and how we are to use it in the service of others.
So, in practice, how do we step on to this way?
- We can honour our work with prayer, whatever we are doing. Whatever task, in whatever context, we can pray for God's presence and blessing, and seek glimpses of where God is in the midst of the working day.
- We can notice our relationship to rest - is it something we allow ourselves? We can practice Sabbath in whatever way works for us. Huston's Sabbath was a daily appointment with the sunset and her balcony. From that simple task of resting came the other insights she needed.
- We can ask ourselves in what way our work is a contribution to others, and in what ways it is serving ourselves. Are these aspects in balance?
- We can search our motivations and ask 'who is doing this work?' - is it the self that knows itself worthy in God, with love as our core and our goal...or is it the self that needs to succeed in this world's terms, and needs to be recognised?
- We can aim to have some aspect of our life where we work with our hands. Work done with the body reminds us that we are embodied people, and honours our body as a gift. Especially for those of us who spend many hours a day at a computer or a desk, thinking or talking. Can we honour the time spent in the garden or cleaning, or cooking, or fixing something, as also our good work?
- We can take time to join in the work of children, which is to play, and delight in this world.
- We can develop a practice of meditation, in which over time, we discover who we are when we are not doing anything, when we are not defined by our work, or social position, our relationships, or the personality that we think is us.
Jesus offered us an easy yoke. Not an easy life, but a life where our burden of work is shared with him. Through prayer and simplicity, there are rhythms that we can step into that are joyful and freeing, compared with the demands of our ego, our culture, and our compulsions. For some of us, to pick up this yoke will mean to renounce the heavy, but attractive yoke that we've been attempting to carry by ourselves. This is the discipline of Lent, as we look forward to the celebration of Easter, the eternal sabbath rest of God.