Years ago we were blessed by the presence of a lovely Swiss woman who came to the Hermitage as a working retreatant several times a year. She had a beautiful, warm smile and exuded a reverence and love of life that was infectious. We welcomed her back with enthusiasm each time she passed this way.
During one of her sojourns with us we had an unusually full
Saturday. I was feeling overwhelmed and conflicted about all that I had said
yes to for this particular day. St. Joseph’s Barn was full with weekend
retreatants, Gathering Room in Hanby Center was being used by a day group and
there was a group of volunteers coming to work in the woods. Was it possible to
“create an environment of attentiveness to God” with all of this going on?
After Morning Prayer our friend came to me and asked for her
marching orders for the day. I told her about the various groups that were
coming and what each required. I said I was feeling anxious about all that the
day held for everyone. She paused, thinking deeply about what was needed, and
then said, “That there would be harmony.” As soon as she spoke those words I
was overcome with a sense of calm. Yes, that there would be harmony. Above all,
this was the work of our day, holding the intention of harmony for each person
and purpose that we were expecting.
That there would be harmony has become my prayer in similar
times of unsettledness, whether that be internal or external. And I am always
comforted by the beautiful spirit of God within our friend who first uttered
the prayer into being.
For many years I’ve pondered the idea of working comtemplatively; what does it mean, what does it look like, what does it feel like? These questions bring to mind Jim Schwartz, the carpenter who renovated St. Joseph’s Barn in the late 1980’s. I wasn’t here when he was doing that work but I did observe him many years later doing repairs here. Jim worked with a smile and a song. He took his time, working ever so carefully and thoughtfully. He stopped working every day to eat lunch. As quitting time approached, he cleaned up his work site and headed home. He came back the next day and the next until the job was finished. Jim didn’t work to be done with his work, he worked because it is a worthwhile part of life.
Through pondering, noticing and practicing, I have identified three qualities that begin to define for me what it means to work contemplatively, presence, care and perseverance. First is being present to the work with a singular focus. This means releasing all the other wonderful things that I could be, and perhaps would rather be, doing. Indeed, these things will have their time of attention, but not right now.
Second, is exercising great care with the task at hand. This usually requires the elimination of hurry. I recall wiping the kitchen counter while cleaning up after a meal and I was moving so fast that I bumped the peanut butter jar and sent it flying across the room. Now my work increased; I had a much bigger mess to clean up (and more peanut butter to buy).
Third, is persevering in a task instead of quitting along the way for something more enticing. There’s an ancient Rabbinic saying that goes, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” This suggests to me that getting the job done is not the goal, rather doing the work is the goal. And in doing the work we will most often come around to getting the job done.
In the early years of my being at The Hermitage I had the thought that work could be likened to what Jesus said about the poor, “the poor you will always have with you.” Work we will always have with us. What an abundance of opportunities we have to practice working contemplatively.