What a great week! It’s been exactly what I needed!
I returned home Sunday evening from teaching in Jacksonville, Florida. They were long days with classes beginning at 8:00 AM and continuing until 6:00 PM. It was a good group – but the schedule was intense.
Monday, I sorted out some things around the house and did chores like laundry. I also took a few cat naps. Following the example of our house cat, my day was punctuated with 20 minute naps. Clearly, cats know how to live! Tuesday, I washed and detailed my car. I arranged boxes stored in the garage. Then I swam laps for a half hour at the neighborhood Y. Wednesday, I mowed the lawn, did some weeding, and cleaned up some other yard debris. I’m writing on Thursday morning. I’m not sure what the day will bring, but after I write this essay, I’m looking forward to more fun.
“Fun?” you ask. Yes, I’m viewing the work I’m doing as fun, as a needed break from my regular routine.
I teach at a university that schedules classes on a quarterly basis. Most universities use semesters. We have four quarters resulting in week long breaks at odd times of the year. This week, I’m on break between quarters. During the quarter, I spend lots of time in my head, engaged in mental activities. Part of the mental engagement is related to teaching. But the more thoughtful aspects are related to reviewing and approving dissertation topics for my department, designing curriculum, and working directly with doctoral students whose dissertation committees I chair. At the end of the day, I often find that my mental capacity is spent but that my body isn’t exactly tired.
This week is a real treat for me. I don’t have to engage in deep thinking, trying to understand how best to engage in research or how to communicate a complex idea to someone else. I can give those skills a rest and do real work.
As I mowed the lawn yesterday afternoon, I thought of Benedict’s rule for monks. Known as the father of Western monasticism, Benedict wrote a simple and practical way for people to live together in a community that would support their spiritual pursuits. The rule, or way of life, is a balance between prayer and work. Living in sixth century of the Common Era, Benedict understood that it wasn’t healthy, balanced, or beneficial for an individual to focus only on spiritual growth and development. Healthy balance comes from being grounded in real life. That’s where work comes in. Physical work enables us to engage ourselves in practical, tangible ways with the world immediately around us. Engaging in work, in labor, keeps us in contact with the pulsations of life in very ordinary ways. For example, working in the yard gets me out of my head and causes me to focus on the signs of the changing seasons, the growth of plants, and, perhaps most importantly, my own sense of self as an embodied person. Engaged in work, I experience my body very differently than when sitting at my desk in front of a computer screen or when sitting in meditation.
Living about 1100 years after Benedict, a French monk explored the importance of work for the spiritual dimension of life. He reflected on peeling potatoes and scrubbing the kitchen floor. Brother Lawrence, in a wonderful little book called The Practice of the Presence of God, explored how he experienced wonder at life and the mystery of the Divine while working in the kitchen. The short book begins with his initial encounter with the Divine. One winter, sitting near a tree, he had a simple realization. While the tree appeared dead, in reality the essence of life was at the heart of the tree and would again appear when the tree budded in spring. This realization was overwhelming to him as he considered the amazing resiliency of life as a gift from the Creator. Brother Lawrence’s experience was based in the tangible reality of sitting next to a tree. Later, as a monk, it was through engagement with life by way of kitchen chores that he came to understand something about the mystery that holds all of life with great care.
The essence of a balanced spirituality that nurtures each dimension of our lives is found by deliberately living in a balanced way. An over-emphasis on spiritual practices can take us away from the tangible aspects of reality and result in a lack of integration. Benedict’s solution was simple and effective: do some physical work. Physical work is a blessing because it brings us back into ourselves and grounds us in reality. With our feet planted on the ground, we are then about to grow toward an integrated wholeness of body, mind, and spirit.
Well, that’s enough thinking about spirituality for right now. I need to get back to some real work. I’m looking forward to it! Right now, it’s the best thing I could do for me, those around me, and for the spiritual dimension of my life.
© 2011, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.