Beauty in Work

“Finding Beauty in Our Work,” Susan Ryder

Hildegard of Bingen:
A person becomes a flowering orchard. The person that does good work is indeed this orchard bearing good fruit. Whatever humanity does with its deed in the right or left hand permeates the universe.

Jesus: By their fruits you shall know them.

Tao Te Ching: In work, do what you enjoy.

Bhagavad Gita: They all attain perfection when they find joy in their work.

Ecclesiastes 3:22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that a person should enjoy their work.

Dorothy Sayers: “It is not primarily a thing that one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he (or she) finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction.”

Jane Goodall: “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

Excerpt from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
“Speak to us of Work”
Always you have been told that work is a curse and labor a misfortune. But I say to you that when you work you fulfill a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born, and in keeping yourself with labor you are in truth loving life, and to love life through labor is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret. All knowledge is vain save when there is work, and all work is empty save when there is love; and when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.

And what is it to work with love? It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth. It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house. It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit. It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit.

Often have I heard you say, as if speaking in sleep, “he who works in marble, and finds the shape of his own soul in the stone, is nobler than he who ploughs the soil.” But I say, not in sleep but in the over-wakefulness of noontide, that the wind speaks not more sweetly to the giant oaks than to the least of all the blades of grass; and he alone is great who turns the voice of the wind into a song made sweeter by his own loving.  Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms from those who work with joy.

There is a well-known parable about a man who comes upon three manual laborers who are working hard in the hot summer sun. The man watches them work together for a moment, side by side, and then asks each one, in turn, what they are doing. The first one answers gruffly, without turning around or stopping his work, “I’m laying bricks! What does it look like I’m doing?!” The second one answers with a brief glance backwards, “Just making a living.” And the third one stops, smiles at the visitor and then proudly surveys his portion of the brick wall, and says, “I’m building a cathedral!”

This being Labor Day weekend, it seemed like a good time for us to think about work in connection with our worship theme of what it means to be a people of beauty, as we consider the beauty that can be found in our work – our cathedral building – and what it is that makes our work beautiful, and meaningful. Or maybe for some, a more accurate question would be what is it that keeps us from finding the beauty or meaning in our work – and what can we do about it? We’ve all known people who, no matter what type of job they have, are like one of these bricklayers. In fact, I’m sure we can personally relate to one or maybe even all of them in our lives. When I worked at Disneyland right out of high school, standing on my feet all day in the summer heat, dealing with tourists and a psycho supervisor, my attitude was much like that of the first bricklayer. “I’m selling overpriced burgers to impatient tourists while wearing a ridiculous outfit, what does it look like I’m doing!?!” In seminary, working in a Yarn Shop to support us when we were first married, I was more like the second bricklayer, working for a living to help feed and house us. Now, in our ministry with New Covenant Community, most days my attitude is more like that of the third bricklayer, the visionary cathedral builder. I was recently contacted by someone from More Light Presbyterians, who want to feature our congregation in an upcoming newsletter. As I was telling her NCC’s story and going over some information to share in the article, she was amazed by all that we have done and continue to do – so much so we had to edit it down quite a bit. She asked, “How many members do you have?” I answered, “About 60.” She was amazed – so was I! It was a worthwhile exercise to review our congregation’s history, and an honor to affirm my part of such important work being done.

I’ve often wondered if it would have been possible to be more like that third bricklayer even back when I was working at Disneyland or the Yarn Shop. I suppose it’s about attitude and perspective, as well as some maturity thrown into the mix. The hardest one for me would be to turn fast food service at the Magic Kingdom into cathedral building – the Yarn Shop is a little easier. People were coming in for yarn or other needlework to create something of beauty for themselves or a loved one – realizing that I was helping them choose the right type and color of yarn for them to knit a sweater for their first, long-awaited grandbaby could have helped sway my annoyance at their inability to “just pick a color!” into pride at assisting them to get it just right. Disneyland food service in Fantasyland, hmm … instead of impatience with the family of 5 trying to figure out what food they wanted from, may I say it, a very limited menu, perhaps I could have seen myself as rescuing a tired and hungry family, who’d saved all year to come to Disneyland, from hunger and a day-ruining meltdown? Yeah okay, I gotta work on that one.

Back to our parable – it could certainly be said that the third bricklayer saw himself as doing meaningful work creating something of beauty, while the first one did not – even though they were both doing the exact same job. So what was the difference? Attitude, outlook, and perception colored and affected the experience of their work. Or another possibility is that the third man experienced bricklaying as a calling or vocation, while the first two did not. It’s the difference between working to live and living to work. People engaged in meaningful work, for the most part are able to see the bigger picture, and either love their job, or make the best of it by acknowledging what it provides for their family, even if they’d rather be doing something else. Those who are engaged in work that isn’t meaningful for them may see their job as a means to an end, a way to pay the bills and provide food for their family, and that is what keeps them going. But if there is absolutely no passion or joy in their work, for some that can be enough of a soul-killer that they need find something else to do for a living rather than let their job continue to crush their spirit.

Wendell Barry, the poet farmer, says, “There’s drudgery in all work,” and he would know because he is a farmer. But he loves being a farmer and is able to find meaning and beauty in it – and for him that raises the drudgery to a new level of giving, sacrifice, and generosity. He wrote this in 1988.

LAST DECEMBER, WHEN MY GRANDDAUGHTER, KATIE, had just turned five, she stayed with me one day while the rest of the family was away from home. In the afternoon we hitched a team of horses to the wagon and hauled a load of dirt for the barn floor. It was a cold day, but the sun was shining; we hauled our load of dirt over the tree-lined gravel lane beside the creek—a way well known to her mother and to my mother when they were children. As we went along, Katie drove the team for the first time in her life. She did very well, and she was proud of herself. She said that her mother would be proud of her, and I said that I was proud of her. We completed our trip to the barn, unloaded our load of dirt, smoothed it over the barn floor, and wetted it down. By the time we started back up the creek road the sun had gone over the hill and the air had turned bitter. Katie sat close to me in the wagon, and we did not say anything for a long time. I did not say anything because I was afraid that Katie was not saying anything because she was cold and tired and miserable and perhaps homesick; it was impossible to hurry much, and I was unsure how I would comfort her. But then, after a while, she said, “Wendell, isn’t it fun?”

Yes, there is drudgery in all work. But, if there is only drudgery, then that’s a problem. There should also be meaning and beauty and joy – and even some fun. So when one is in a less than perfect working situation, we might ask ourselves how we can lessen the drudgery and increase the joy, find some beauty in it, and make our work more ennobling and creative. And if we cannot see any way to do that, we may need to begin looking at alternatives, even if that means a change in salary and lifestyle. There is drudgery in any kind work – aspects of a job that can be overwhelming and tedious – for me that list would include most Presbytery meetings, dealing with unpleasant people, getting along with partners in the building, and some boring administrative tasks. But if we can appreciate that all of it – even the drudgery – come together to help build something beautiful, perhaps that can help our perspective.

What does liking or not liking our job have to do with beauty, you may be asking yourself? Well, one definition of beauty is being able to find something good, or uplifting, or valuable in something. Being able to do so in our work is where beauty fits in. Which brings me back to my original questions, as we consider the beauty that can be found in our work – our cathedral building. What it is that makes, our could make, our work beautiful, meaningful? Or maybe for some, a more accurate question would be what is it that keeps us from finding the beauty or meaning in our work – and what can we do about it? How can we make our work more meaningful, no matter where we are and what we do? How can we invite beauty to be part of what we do – either by finding it or creating it? I invite you to share with the rest of us about your work. I know many of you are retired – but perhaps you can share some insight from your past experiences, or, if you are like most NCC’ers, whatever new endeavor you are engaging in.