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Daily work: A mystic’s training ground


Editor’s note: Recently the National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company announced that Praying, our sister publication on spirituality, was ceasing publication after 16 years. We are determined, however, that those who gave life to Praying will not be strangers to the NCR family. We have invited Rich Heffern to contribute occasional reflections for this space. Praying subscribers familiar with Heffern’s wise, gentle voice know what a gift his essays will be to the pages of NCR.

Once I took a year off to build a small house in the country. I would work mornings at a nearby sawmill, offloading trim and stacking it for sale to the nearby charcoal factory. Instead of cash, I would take my salary in oak and pine lumber that I used to build the house. Afternoons I would gather rocks for the foundation, work on framing the walls, nail down planking or apply shingles to the gabled roof.

Looking back now, it seems one of the most blessed and productive times in my life. And I have a small house in the pine forest to show for all my blood, sweat and tears. My wife and I long ago named it Scamper Hall from the nighttime sounds of the flying squirrels that find a home high in the attic in the winter.

While building the house, I would spend some afternoons working in the communal garden on the parcel of land I occupied. For a whole month, I did the hard double-digging required to establish an organic garden in raised beds. Once the beds were in place, the task was to haul in the horse and cow manure, the sand and sawdust that would improve the clay soil. Then it was time to plant: zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, okra, winter squash, carrots, onions, even peanuts. As I worked those long summer afternoons, I was serenaded by bluebirds in the nearby pasture. Evenings after the work was done, I’d sit near the garden sipping a beer, listening to the whippoorwills’ chorus.

This time was the real beginning of my serious training as a mystic, I am convinced. There was something deeply satisfying about the nearly direct connections between my labors and my eating from the organic garden, and staying warm in the winter because of the insulation I’d carefully installed in the walls. I can recall many evenings lying abed, deliciously tired from the day’s work, and profoundly satisfied with what I had done that day. The efforts of my muscles and the sweat of my brow had contributed directly to my needs, to my livelihood and to the well-being of the small community in which I lived, unmediated by paycheck, Social Security garnishments, boss or necessity for marketing what I had crafted. It was, quite simply, one of the most profoundly satisfying pleasures I have ever experienced.

The garden work was particularly rewarding. Among other things, gardening teaches groundedness and interdependence — and therefore wisdom. The first story in the scriptures is about a garden. Christ’s resurrection is celebrated in a garden and, in one account, he is disguised as a gardener. Gardens are a rich metaphor for life and renewal and hope.

Julian of Norwich, a medieval mystic, wrote this eight centuries ago:

Toil and sweat, and turn the earth upside down
and seek the deepness and water the plants in time.
Continue this labor and make sweet floods run
and noble and abundant fruits to spring.
Take this food and drink and carry it to God
as your true worship.

All our work, whether immediately rewarding or disconnected from direct reward, can take on some of this grounded quality. All it takes is some quiet reflection from time to time, bringing the work we do to the praying we do. Most of us spend most of our time in our work. Whatever it may be, our work is one of the key arenas in which our spirituality is lived out, enacted and enfleshed. It is where we shape the world in which we want to live.

Creativity, enthusiasm about life, acceptance of self and others, living gracefully, perpetually learning from life, giving more than taking, optimism, peacefulness, courage regularly demonstrated: these are the characteristics of a person who is whole. Daily our jobs challenge us to develop and practice these qualities.

Satisfying work is true eucharist, a genuine thank you for being here on the earth. We can’t all be gardeners, of course, yet showing up at the office to turn over the ground of discontent, futility and insecurity, to build a better world in the pursuit of daily bread can also yield an abundant harvest of integrity and meaning. The bottom line: Our work is holy. Look with fresh eyes at your daily efforts and see them for what they are: the most sacred endeavors.

Rich Heffern is author of Daybreak Within: Living In a Sacred World, (Forest of Peace Publishing).

National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 1999