by Demi Prentiss
It’s not uncommon, especially for those of us in the church / non-profit world, to think of our work as our ministry, or at least a major part of it. While much of the time the work is life-giving — sometimes even empowering — all of us face times when there’s more tedium than uplift. The results seem to stagnate and the issues seem insurmountable. The sense of call to our work can fade, and motivating ourselves can get harder.
We all know how the spiral starts on its downward path. The lack of enthusiasm starts to slide toward irritation — minor, at first, because of drudgery or overload or sheer weariness. And, as the irritation grows, the frustration builds, as we notice that the harder we push, the less we accomplish. Soon, the frustration upgrades to actual pain – the pain of not seeing results, or not completing what seems so easy for another, or suddenly recognizing that none of our work is any good at all. Ever. To anyone. And there we are, trapped in anger and sadness at simple mistakes, hearing every innocent remark as targeting our failings, unmasked as the pitiful, incapable wretch we really are. We begin to believe that Genesis spoke truth in identifying work as the curse of humanity.
Brother Lucas Hall, SSJE, recognized this pattern in himself, as he struggled writing a sermon highlighting the story of Mary and Martha. His reflection on the story and on his frustration led him to an insight:
Work is not bad. Even the most contemplative among us must work. But work serves an end. Even the holiest work of your life is not your purpose. It facilitates your purpose, and your purpose is encounter. The welcoming of the eternal, living God into your midst.
The good news is that each of us, in our daily work, inside and outside our home, has the opportunity for such an encounter. In every person we engage — and deep within our own hearts — we have the opportunity to meet Christ. Expanding our hearts to respect the dignity of every human being liberates us from focusing on what we believe we need to accomplish.
As Thomas Merton wrote to a young Jim Forest:
Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.
—Thomas Merton, “Letter to a Young Activist”