June 21, 2016
Every moment and every event of everyman’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. – Thomas Merton, “New Seeds of Contemplation”
Meaningful work. I count it a grace that most of my life has been filled with meaningful work to do. I am grateful for health that allows me to sweat over tilling a garden, or splitting a pile of firewood, or sprinting down a corridor in a hospital to visit a loved one. I am grateful for a mind still sharp enough (but not that sharp) to articulate a thought into action and a dream into a plan.
Work that means something is meaningful work whether it is repairing a car, stitching up a patient, or cleaning a house, or helping feed a friend.
In my teens I remember many days standing on the wet, concrete floor of the dairy barn looking out to the pastures as the morning sun began to warm the sky with color and light. I gazed longingly and hopefully for something more.
Growing up on a dairy farm there was always work to do, and to be candid, I rarely appreciated it. Everyone knows that cows have to be milked twice a day, every day, but there are so many other chores. There were endless miles of barbwire fences that needed to be repaired or replaced, leaving hands and arms nicked and bleeding. My shoulders still ache with the memory of digging holes for fence posts. Cows not only needed to be fenced in, they some times needed to be found. When a cow gave birth, it is not uncommon for the cow and calf to go into hiding in the woods. This seemed to happen a lot on Friday evenings, just as my brothers and I were planning to go out on the town. Instead cruising with our friends, we wandered out into the woods until we could find the missing members of the herd. Each year barns had to be painted, manure had to be shoveled, hay had to be bailed, and pastures had to be cut.
Most of my growing up years was spent gazing beyond the barn looking longingly and hopefully for something more.
Reflecting back through those many decades I am learning that the “more” that I was searching for was right “there.” I am not romanticizing farm life, nor am I regretting subsequent decisions that led me off the farm. Rather I am acknowledging that all we have is now, just now.
Meaningful work is not reserved for the poets or preachers. It is approaching each task as a sacred moment, an opportunity to experience and thereby express higher notions than just “getting the job done.”
There are days, many days than I care to admit, that I worry a bit about what kind of work I will do in the future. Will I ever be able to retire? Will I even want to retire? Will others want me to work with them; for them? I don’t have answers to such questions.
I just have now. And I have work to do. And I am thankful that in some small way I get to participate in the holy vocation of life through work.
My favorite poet and essayist, Wendell Berry, wrote the following poem titled, “The Real Work.”
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.