The Month of September, c.1400 (fresco), Italian School, (15th century) / Castello del Buonconsiglio, Trento, Italy.
In 1988, my wife, Judy, finished law school at the University of Notre Dame — I’d been teaching literature across the road at St. Mary's College — and received a job offer in Seattle. We chose to make the move across the country even though it seemed unlikely that I would find work teaching full-time.
During this period, I found myself asking a lot of questions about work: why do we work, what is “good” work, and what meaning does work give to our life?
This eventually led to the publication of a book, Work and the Life of the Spirit (Mercury House, 1999), in which I collected writings from classical to contemporary authors on the nature of work. These myths, poems, sermons, letters, essays, and other works of literature are an exploration of historical and cultural differences in the way work has been experienced throughout human existence. Even more importantly, the writers I selected also offer perspectives that invited me and readers to think about work at a deeper level than the prevailing view of work as a means to an end.
One thing I learned in this process is that good work, whatever that work might be, involves discipline.
Discipline is a word with negative overtones for some. But at its roots, it connects to the idea of instruction and to the word “pupil,” from the Latin discipulus, which gives us our English word “disciple.” A discipline is how we disciple ourselves. It’s a way into truth, and thus more deeply into Christ. Raising children can be a form of discipleship; so can housecleaning, cab driving, or making a beautiful cappuccino.
Each discipline is a way of knowing something of the truth and beauty that is Christ. As such, it requires a kind of surrender. We offer ourselves to our work; it is the way we “attend,” which suggests both service and attention.
Who knows this better than artists, who — usually for little or no pay — demonstrate a profound sense of discipleship to their craft, spending weeks, months, and even years perfecting a single work? Consider, for example, the famous parable of the woodcarver by the fourth-century Chinese writer Chuang Tzu. The story demonstrates the extraordinary degree of “dying to the self” required for good work. I quote here from the translation by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who connects Chuang Tzu's writings to St. Paul's teaching on faith and grace.
When Khing, the woodcarver, is asked his secret to making a beautiful bell stand of precious wood, he replies:
“I am only a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days
I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.
“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.
“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand and begin.”
Or consider these reflections from the contemporary writer and farmer Wendell Berry, who describes the work of tearing down an old building and constructing another. Berry’s own prose beautifully embodies the good work he also does with his hands:
“The next afternoon I cleared the weeds and bushes off the building site, and with that my sadness at parting with the old house began to give way to the idea of the new. ... Unlike a wild place, a human place gone wild can be strangely forbidding and even depressing. But that afternoon’s work made me feel at home here again. My plans suddenly took hold of me, and I began to visualize the new house as I needed it to be and as I thought it ought to look. My work had made the place inhabitable, had set my imagination free in it. I began again to belong to it.”
In the Genesis narrative, God tells Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you. ... By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.”
True enough. And yet, as Berry reminds us, good work also feels good; it does bring a reminder of home, of how it feels to belong. It’s not just the comfort, but the beauty, that matters: that which speaks of order, justice, community, connection.
Here’s one more example of work as discipleship, beautifully rendered by the 20th-century American poet William Carlos Williams. Williams made his living as a pediatrician in the days when doctors did house calls. His poem “Complaint” begins with the struggle of work, then moves quickly to a place of deep care and love in the midst of suffering and labor:
They call me and I go.
It is a frozen road
past midnight, a dust
of snow caught
in the rigid wheeltracks.
The door opens.
I smile, enter and
shake off the cold.
Here is a great woman
on her side in the bed.
She is sick,
to give birth to
a tenth child. Joy! Joy!
Night is a room
darkened for lovers,
through the jalousies the sun
has sent one gold needle!
I pick the hair from her eyes
and watch her misery
“Here is a great woman” — I find in this context a faint suggestion of “great with child,” a phrase that evokes the language of the King James Bible and reminds us of Mary, “great” with the Christ child. The labor of this woman, who is likely poor, makes her truly great. Her work is a kind of poetry, as the work of the poet and doctor is a kind of giving birth.
And birth to what? All of our good work, this poem suggests, gives birth to the Christ child; it is all a form of incarnation. We know it as we ourselves are transformed by the discipline of the work we do. How often do we too begin our day with complaint? I pray for us all that our initial “complaint” might lead where it does in the poem: to the transformation that comes with this imaginative entering into the life of a New Jersey woman, taking us at last to the culminating word, compassion.
Here, if anywhere, we see the fruits of good labor.
Doug Thorpe is a professor of English at SPU. Read more selected writings on work in his anthology, Work and the Life of the Spirit. Thorpe also recommends Parker Palmer’s book, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring.