The Work of Contentment
Kh. Krista West · August 5, 2008
Kh. Krista reflects on the relationship between work and true contentment.
Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”. I have received quite a lot of positive feedback about the podcast I gave recently entitled “Clutter, Confusion, and Contentment” and I would like to speak a little more about this topic.
As many of you know, I just moved into a new house, something I haven’t done in eight years and wasn’t exactly expecting to do at this point in my life, so it’s taken me a little by surprise. I’ve learned quite a bit about myself, both good and bad, over the last five months of flurried activity. One of the bad things that I’ve learned about myself is that I’m a sore loser. Before we had our new house dropped in our laps, I was looking forward to what I kept telling myself would “finally” be a summer. I was counting on lazy days in the yard reading a book, relaxed mornings drinking tea while watching the birds, catching up on fun activities with my daughters.
I should stop right here and give a little background information: I have this really crazy expectation of summers—I expect them to be just like when I was a kid. Round about March, I starting dreaming of whole days to do nothing and that that is somehow the “normal” of summer. Summer comes around, the weather turns nice, and there should be nothing to do. It’s a fairly ironic situation, since I had one of those childhoods in which I had to grow up fast, so I left much of childhood behind at a far earlier age than many other children. Add to that that I’m not particularly nostalgic, so I don’t really look back to childhood with fondness or regret. But, oh those summers! They get me every year.
When summer’s here, there’s a pervasive sense in the air that we somehow “deserve” time off. That summer is a time for play, enjoyment, entertainment. That these are the things that make us truly content and happy and if we just get enough of them during the summer months, then we’ll be fueled up for the rest of the yearly grind. And, for many people, it is a wonderful time to relax and be with family and this I commend highly. But, sometimes, there seems to be an unbalance in how we live—that we gorge on relaxation during the summer and overload ourselves with work and responsibilities during the rest of the year.
The last few years have been busy ones for me—my daughters are growing up, there is an increasing demand for my work as an ecclesiastical tailor, and I’ve had more opportunity to travel for work. All of these things are wonderful jewels in my life, but even a basketful of jewels gets a little heavy, so I was counting on catching up on some down time this summer. Then, wouldn’t you know it, we decide to move! House selling, house buying, realtors, boxes—argh! As soon as they pounded that “For sale” sign in my old house’s lawn, I saw my summer trickling down the drain like the water at a public fountain on Labor Day.
And this is where the sore loser part comes in: Was I happy that we were moving to a larger home with more space for just about everything we needed (how many people could hold a hafli in their garage, I ask you?!), was I content that I was going to have an opportunity to have a new, light-filled workshop? Well, I was shaking my head “Yes”, but in my heart, I was saying “No, no, no!—There goes my summer!”
In reality, there went not only my summer, but every day off and evening I had as well as I packed, then unpacked, painted, ripped up carpet, and became an unpaid laborer in my own home. Evenings spent knitting and relaxing evaporated and a day hiking with my family became a thing of the past. I had always considered my “down” time to be vital to my mental health, but here I was with literally weeks at a time where the only time I had to sit was 15 minutes in the morning as I drank my tea. I looked at my lawn chairs the other day and realized I hadn’t even sat down in one since last year.
The first couple of weeks found me seriously grumbling in my inner heart—frustrated, overworked, and ready to throw in the towel. This was too much! But this funny thing happened along the way: I’ve become happier and more content the more work I had to do. The weekend I stayed up til 1 in the morning painting the family room found me truly focused and prayerful during that Sunday’s Liturgy. This sweet calm has stole over me and I attribute it to the work.
I’m “finally” content and I find it delightful and humorous that the very thing I was looking for—peace of mind and peace of heart, has come in the exact time I least expected it. You’ve all heard of C.S. Lewis’ book “Surprised by Joy”; well, I feel as if I’ve been surprised by contentment.
And this contentment is a direct result of physical labor. My hands are a mess, my knees ache most nights, even my toenails are scraped up from painting and installing baseboards, but my state of mind, my state of heart, is better than it’s been in years. Which leads me to believe that there really is something in work directly benefiting our spiritual lives. Monastics know this—they lead lives devoted entirely to prayer and work. At my local monastery, they host visitors, cook, clean, do laundry, bake pastries, and make incense, candles, and soap. All of these things are very labor-intensive and you would expect someone who does this kind of work day after day, month after month, year after year, to look like a drudge. But it’s the exact opposite at the monastery—the sisters never seem to look tired, in fact, their contenances have a calm and peace about them that is rarely seen on the faces of people who work half as hard.
Over the years, I’ve watched how the sisters work and how they have such a peaceful approach to work. They have shown me by their example that work is prayer when you approach it with a willing heart. A little over a year ago, this was demonstrated to me personally in my parish: after years of babies-in-arms, I had been slowing taking on more and more responsibilities, although nothing of huge moment. I made coffee, I was on the usher schedule, and like many khourias, I just sort of generally knew what was going on if there was any sort of question like who’s bringing Holy Bread or is the Smith’s new baby being churched today. I’ve always found these responsibilities a natural part of my life, but there seemed a point in which each Sunday found me doing more work and less praying. At least, that was how I originally thought of it.
Then, there came a Sunday in which from the moment I walked in at 9am for Orthros, I was approached by people for various little needs non-stop until just before Communion. After the second or third request, I was beginning to feel stressed, since I was like a human ping-pong ball in the Liturgy—how could I pray with all this running around? But about halfway through this Khouria Marathon, a picture came into my mind of the sisters quickly, but calmly going about their business at the monastery, walkie-talkies in hand (I just love the walkie-talkies!)—and it dawned on me, “Hey, this IS my prayer!” Making coffee, ushering, helping little John clean out the candle bins—all of this was a glorious parade of community that enveloped my life. It wasn’t a drudge or a chore, it was a blessing, especially given the fact that I’m much better at prayer of the hands-on variety than the meditative kind.
This past week in the Prologue on August 3rd, there was a wonderful meditation for consideration. Here is the latter part of it, which pertains to work:
“St. Cosmas was pondering one day on the words of the Lord Christ, when, in Gethsemane, He asked His disciples if they had a sword. When His disciples said to Him: ‘Here are two swords’, He said to them: ‘It is enough’ (Luke 22:38). Being unable to explain these words himself, Cosmas decided to go through the desert to the distant monastery of Pirga, to the famous Abba Theophilus, to ask him. It was only with great difficulty that he reached his goal. Theophilus explained to him: ‘The two swords denote the twofold state of a godly life: labour, and a mind steeped in thoughts of God and in prayer. He who has these two is perfect.”
Before this summer, I really bought into the modern fallacy that there’s such a thing as “too much” work. I need “me” time, I need “down” time, I need a vacation, I need a break. But, we’re living in a time and place in which we have more leisure than ever before, so it’s a bit of a stretch, at least historically-speaking, to tell ourselves that we need less work and more play.
I’m beginning to believe that not doing enough work actually stymies our spiritual lives—we’re holding back on work and consequently, we end up holding back our spiritual lives. It’s a spiritual cause and effect—work with a willing heart and you end up praying. Work becomes a gateway to our spiritual life.
Work also leads de facto to community since when we are looking for work, we tend to work alongside others. Washing dishes at church, doing laundry with our kids,—doing work almost always puts us in the path of other people. And as our Faith so beautifully teaches us, community is crucial for our spiritual life. If living a Christian life just required living by ourselves on a little island, well, then most of us would do just fine, thank you very much! It’s the having to work out our salvation in the company of others that is so messy and frustrating yet is so spiritually beneficial.
My daughters are at the age where they are really beginning to work out their independence. This has resulted in a fair amount of arguing and squabbling at my house, something that really makes me heartsick. I’ve prayed about it, talked with other mothers, discussed it endlessly with my husband, all to no avail. Recently, I felt as if I needed to just accept it as a normal part of their development, a decision I was definitely unhappy with. But, then, we moved, and suddenly, my girls went from a few daily chores, totaling about 30 minutes, to whole afternoons of work. They loved the new washer and dryer with all of its gizmos, so they started doing laundry. I was busy unpacking, so they made lunch. And, I began to notice that when they worked, there was definitely more harmony. My husband and I began doling out work whenever we heard any squabbling and it’s had a twofold effect—my girls are arguing less and my house has rarely been this clean! I must admit that they usually began the assigned work with a less-than-willing heart , but they almost always end up laughing and singing together. There’s something in that, I think, that all of us can learn from.
So why does work work? I think there’s several reasons:
Work, even the most mundane work, requires some use of our mind. If you load the dishwasher, you’ve got to figure out where to put everything, if you fold laundry, you sort. Work starts by taking up that “front” part of our mind that seems to go around trolling for little problems, dissatisfactions, tiny distractions. This is the part of our mind that “mulls”, that “holds grudges”, and generally gets up to no good. If you’re still seething over the encounter with the rude grocery store clerk, this is where the mental action is. But, if you’re working, you just don’t have the same focus for all of these little distractions. You’re keeping your mind on your work and it doesn’t have time or energy to get into trouble. My dad’s routine way of asking me if I’m working is, “So, ya staying out of trouble?”.
Next, is what I like to call working hard or hardly working? Work takes work, and the best work is really physical. Caring for children fits the bill nicely, as does housework, painting, building something, scrubbing floors—all of these kinds of work are really absorbing, because they don’t just engage that “front” part of the mind, they also engage the body. You’re sore, you’re tired, but you learn to ignore it.
This is when the good stuff begins to happen. Once that “front” part of the mind is engaged and your body is engaged, you’ve now put to work the two parts of you that normally just stand around and block your nous. The mind and the body are kind of like two really tall, outgoing people standing in front of one really short, rather introverted person. Once you’ve got the tall people moved out of the way, your nous or the “eye of your heart” as its sometimes called, can start seeing. If the two tall people are always standing around in front of the short person, the short person’s view is constantly blocked.
Now, I’m certainly no expert and I’m always in awe of anyone who talks about constant prayer because it sounds like a country I really want to go to, but haven’t found the map yet. However, I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life in a profession that is rather physically demanding—lifting bolts of fabric, crawling across my cutting table to reach a tricky spot, maneuvering yards of fabric through a sewing machine—and I’ve learned a thing or two about work.
I’ve learned that the more I work, and the more physical the work is, the more peaceful I am. That when enough work gets piled on and you reach a breaking point and feel completely overwhelmed, that’s just the beginning of the journey and that there’s another place beyond. A place where the nuns I know seem to live all their days, in work and prayer and contentment. I’ve also learned that work is a good thing, contrary to what our society will tell us. That it can bring us together in community, and bring us closer to union with God. That it’s a path and a way. That I when I reach my dotage and review my life, I would rather say I had a life “well-worked”, then a life “well-lived”.
I tried to buy a lawn chair this last week, a chaise lounge chair, to be precise. OK, I thought, in the last five months, I’ve ripped out carpet, pulled 130 staples out of my old stairway, painted, shlepped yard debris more times than I can count, painted again, and installed baseboards, all on top of raising children, making vestments, and being a khouria. If anyone deserved a chaise lounge chair, then it was me, I thought in justification. So after church, I took my girls to Target to look at lawn chairs. I tested three or four, found one I really liked and then saw the $70 price tag. “$70 to sit in my back lawn?”, I thought to myself, “Why, I could buy at least two cans of paint and some paint trays with that!”. So, I headed out empty-handed.
I guess the moral of this story is that contentment takes work. Contentment’s not sitting in a lawn chair or necessarily just “hanging out”. It is possible, in fact it might even be easier, to be content smack-dab in the middle of our lives. In amongst all the work of child-rearing, church services, grocery shopping, and laundry. Our true spiritual path just might be found amongst the weeds in our garden or taking out the garbage.