By Pam Shellberg and Sister Denise West, OSB
Sister Denise West and Pam Shellberg, director of spiritual nourishment at Holy Wisdom Monastery, enjoy regular conversations together about all things spiritual and Benedictine. In this blog post, they share a recent conversation and invite you to join them by leaving comments below.
Sister Denise began the conversation:
“If God does not build the house,
in vain do its builders labor.” (Psalm 127)
These lines grabbed my attention during midday prayer not long ago. It struck me that it had something to do not only with work but also with balance.
Our programming focus for 2023 has put balance in the front of my mind these days, but I’ve been thinking about living a balanced life as long as I’ve been at the monastery (for the record, seven years). It’s one of the things I fell in love with during my six months as a Benedictine Sojourner – the rhythm of prayer, work, study and holy leisure. I’ve been trying to ‘achieve’ this experience of peaceful balance ever since.
I’m often caught grumbling about how out of balance I feel. It seems like I have too much to do and not enough time. Work feels burdensome.
There are times, though, that although my to-do list is long, I imagine myself swimming down a gentle river with the ‘things I need to do’ floating along beside me in the current. No burden at all. I feel peaceful and balanced internally.
The amount of work can be the same, but my experience of it is different.
If God does not build the house,
in vain do its builders labor.
It may seem obvious, but it’s taken a while for me to grasp that my attention must be oriented around the abiding presence of God. When God truly comes first, everything shifts. Work takes its proper place, my ego takes its proper place. Everything is fine just the way it is.
Balance isn’t a goal to be achieved nor an end in itself. It is the fruit of a properly ordered life where Christ is central and all else comes second.
Pam Shellberg: “When God truly comes first, everything shifts. Work takes its proper place, my ego takes its proper place.” These sentences shine a bright light on the struggle I often have to keep work in “its proper place.” It seems like orienting toward the abiding presence of God (or love, or Spirit, or our “ultimate concern” as Paul Tillich named it) is, for me, often more easily said than done.
‘Work’ especially seems to have a power to disorient me, to draw my attention from God’s abiding presence. When I see my work in terms of my job, a structure is imposed by the job’s schedule and work gets privileged on my calendar. The desire to be financially secure has certainly moved me to prioritize my work so that I don’t compromise job security. Most jobs have an evaluation system of some kind. Concerns about success and failure – and surrendering to external measures of those – do hook my ego, subsequently influencing my sense of self, identity and purpose.
Your thoughts about the ego taking its proper place invited me to a more imaginal reading of Psalm 127. If the house is ‘me,’ not my work or its tasks, then the verse suggests that any labor to build myself or to build myself up will be in vain; without being oriented to God’s abiding presence and the reality of being beloved, continually created in and for grace and mercy, any work framed by my ego is in vain.
Denise: Your comments move me deeply, Pam. I easily enter into the metaphor of house as ‘me.’ If God does not build me up, all my life is in vain. My thoughts go to two places scripturally:
Whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt 16:25) and Philippians 2:7 where Jesus is said to have ‘emptied himself.’ These two ideas, losing oneself and emptying oneself, making space for Christ to live within, have endless appeal to me.
Do you share a sense of carrying around the baggage of personality, willfulness and stubbornness along with the desire for security, esteem, and power/control (see Thomas Keating)? Do you ever experience these things as a burden? I find relief in the promise of freedom that comes from the Christian call to let go of all the things we humans do to find satisfaction in life: achievement, making a difference, the pursuit of happiness. Not that these things don’t matter, but I believe they are meant to be the fruits of a life centered in Christ, not ends in themselves. (The same as with balance).
American culture is extremely work-oriented. Our identities are so tied to our work, and we are encouraged to find meaning in our work. I think we’re encouraged to place work at the center and all else fits in the periphery – even family life, even God.
Pam: I do share that sense of carrying around all that baggage, Denise, and yes, I have experienced them as a great burden, for sure (especially willfulness, and desires for security and control). Your reference to Philippians 2:7 is really helpful to me here. In that letter, Paul invites the Philippians to have “the mind of Christ,” demonstrated in that beautiful hymn of Philippians 2. I hear in that hymn praise for how Jesus emptied himself of claims to power, status, and privilege – all claims that were legitimately his to make as God’s son; not only does he not exploit the legitimacy of those claims, but he voluntarily relinquishes them – in service of a new, different, unimagined and unimaginable resurrection life. This emptying, this kind of voluntary relinquishment, is quite the opposite of ‘building a house,’ isn’t it – that having this mind of Christ is the real work of living fully in God’s abiding presence.
I come back to wondering about balance and Benedict. That the structure and discipline of work, prayer, rest and holy leisure keeps work in check, and all the ego hooks lose their sharpness.
Denise: Yes, and ‘discipline’ is definitely needed!
I have one last thought. In the Benedictine structure you name – work, prayer, rest and holy leisure – they are not all equal. I’m discovering that for me prayer, some kind of space for God and presence with God, simply must come first. Otherwise, all is in vain.