Some of the most powerful practitioners of spirit and work I know have simply brought their spirit to work without any discussion or fanfare. That was the reality of my grandmother, though I did not appreciate that fact until after many days of struggling over a definition for spirit and work while writing Work with Meaning, Work with Joy: Bringing Your Spirit to Any Job (Sheed & Ward 2003). Here is that definition.
Grandmother’s Kitchen and Garden as a Model for Spirit and Work
From my Grandmother Mary Stephenson Lee’s kitchen comes a picture of what it means to work with meaning and joy. Although she often served “store-boughten” bread, at least once a day the hand-hewn bread trough was pulled out of a cupboard and placed on the countertop to the right of the sink. Into it were poured her ingredients. In the time-honored Southern way, no measuring utensils were used.
Mixing the ingredients was easy, but kneading the dough took hard and skilled effort. Starting at the front of the trough, Grandmother would press down with her palms while she rolled the dough away from her body, stretching its mass past several breaking points. Then gracefully, her fingers gathered the dough back toward her for many more cycles of fold and stretch, gather and reunite.
For Grandmother, the bread trough was a place of prayer. Here she worked out many of her troubles and worked in her blessings. Here she enfolded matter with meaning, then made it ready for transformation into a new form of love.
Grandmother’s spirit was also worked meaningfully into form in her garden, where she retreated after clashes during her seventy-two-year marriage to a man as strong-willed as herself. Whatever thoughts she worked out as she pulled weeds, she mostly kept to herself or to Grandaddy, but her gardens flourished for as long as she could tend them. So did the marriage, until her death at the age of ninety.
Everyday Creativity Is Another Venue for Spirit and Work
Southern women were once trained to keep their hands busy, even while visiting someone else’s home. “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” was one popular saying. “A rolling stone gathers no moss,” was another. For Grandmother, busyness took shape through crochet. It was always fascinating to watch her take a plain ball of thread and turn it quickly into something else: doilies, large and small; a thick mat in popcorn stitch to keep Grandaddy’s hair oil from staining the fabric of his rocker; tablecloths; bedspreads. Beauty.
She tried to teach me this craft. I learned enough to know that crochet is based on very simple maneuvers that can turn into complex patterns by subtly changing the way thread meets needle. I also learned that patience and an even rhythm made all the difference between my lumpy messes and Grandmother’s elegant creations.
One of my most precious legacies from my grandmother is her dough trough. Another is her King James Bible, bought sometime in the 1920s and used at least into the mid 1970s. Held together with electrical tape, it bears the marks of decades of loving use. In its pages are various photos, clippings, and other items. Many people tell me that they also place items in their Scriptures as a way to pray over all they represent. While writing Work with Meaning, Work with Joy, I sometimes put the chapters of my book into Grandmother’s Bible as a way to pray that these words from my mind and the meditations of my heart do her the honor she deserves.
Some of Our Best Spiritual Teachers Are People Who Challenge Us
My relationship with Grandmother was often difficult. I could be as stubborn as she was determined to direct me, particularly after my mother—her daughter—died when I was just thirteen. In many ways, our relationship was also a microcosm of the upheaval in the ’60s and ’70s. She stood for tradition, and she was not interested in talking about the things that most fascinated me, like diverse forms of spirituality, art, psychology, the civil rights and women’s movements. To her and countless others like her, spirituality was meaningful only in the context of religion.
There were long periods when I thought Grandmother had nothing more to teach me, or that she could not possibly understand a spirituality that was meaningful to me if it was expressed differently from hers. Yet, the harder I tried to express the most basic meaning of spirit and work, the more memories of Grandmother interrupted my thoughts. By embracing these memories and praying over their meaning for many days, a new framework for talking about spirit and work evolved.
Authentic Spirit at Work: accessible, ordinary, practical
To be authentic, spirit at work has to be as accessible and ordinary as Grandmother’s bread trough and crochet hook. It has to be as strong and pliable as bread dough, so it can withstand many cycles of stretching and breaking. It has to be as simple to understand as basic crochet stitches, yet even more capable of being crafted into complex forms.
To be useful, spirit at work needs to be practiced until it becomes both a skill that can be engaged with minimal or no rational thought, and an opening of our consciousness to new wisdom that surpasses current understanding. Spirit at work has to be relevant to the task of the moment, while anchoring us in the eternal. It needs to be enfolded in the most authentic teachings that we know, then unfolded into our work.
What about you?
How do you now enfold spirit into your work?
Who models spirit and work in your life as simply as solidly as Grandmother does?
What can you learn from Grandmother or your own role model?
Work with Meaning, Work with Joy: Bringing Your Spirit to Any Job is available wherever books are sold.