An intelligent and accessible book that invites readers to sympathetically consider contemporary work and spirituality at individual and organizational levels. There is a wealth of wisdom waiting to be made available and made relevant to those currently at work. This book will help those interested in engaging actively with the wisdom within religious traditions to survive and grow in work, to get saner perspectives on work and to find power to act in new ways. This book is for those who are struggling to make more sense of their lives at work, whether with a Christian or other religious commitment, or with none. It will also be relevant for teachers, students, professionals and clergy with an interest in the area of work.
Greg is a spiritual companion / director / lecturer, facilitator and writer. He holds a Master's in Spirituality.
He is being invited by the national radio station in filling the 'Thought for the Day' slot at 6.40am every morning so many will be waking up to his words of wisdom. Greg has been a member of the Board of Directors of Mt.Sion for the past four years. He is proud to be a past pupil and now lives in Dublin. He was a guest at the Presentation Brothers General Chapter in Waterford in 2005 and presented a paper on lay spirituality.
Why this book?
Work is a four-letter word! Spirituality conjures up images of tree huggers, crystal gazers and other touchy-feely types. Religion suggests fundamentalists, a subject better avoided in polite conversation. So why would anyone want to buy or even borrow a book which deals with all three? And having acquired it, why would anyone
want to read it? This chapter explains. Work in this book means paid employment. This is not intended to undervalue unpaid work, without which society could not survive. However, work as paid employment has many distinctive characteristics. Work, as paid employment, is also a huge element in many lives. From childhood people ask what one would like to be (do as a job) when one grows up. Years of education and possibly specialised training leads one to the start of ones first full-time job. The job takes up the single biggest portion of waking life for many people. A period of work can lead one to varying degrees of identification with ones chosen work. The job pays a wage, which allows one to make spending choices in life. Not only does work account for a large slice of a life, but a lot of people work. In Ireland two out of every three people aged between fifteen and sixty-four are employed at any one time. The average for the EU and for the US is lower than in Ireland, but still more than three-fifths of their populations are employed 1). This illustrates compellingly the time and energy devoted to work.
From before recorded history there is evidence that people were drawn by the desire for something more than the daily round, something transcending and somehow making sense of life, sometimes called the spirit, sometimes God. This desire has been manifested by religious traditions, which have persisted over centuries and millennia. Estimates of the numbers committed to a religious tradition in the world now vary between sixteen and seventeen out of every twenty people on the planet, or between 4.6 billion and 5.6 billion. There are estimated to be
approximately one billion people who do not subscribe to a religious tradition (2). Religious traditions have had things to say about all aspects of life, including work. In the contemporary world there is an emphasis on spirituality. And there is a whole genre of writing on work and spirituality.
When one looks at what people do with their time, their energy, their passion and their commitment, work, spirituality and religion are three high energy topics. Therefore, the interaction of the three might be expected to produce some interesting outcomes, to say the least. There is an assumption in much existing writing on the topic of work and spirituality, to paraphrase the pigs in George Orwells Animal Farm, that spirituality good, religion bad. This is not necessarily so. Spirituality and religious traditions each have good and bad
This book tries to do three things. First, it undertakes a sympathetic overview of work, spirituality and religious commitment at the present time. Second, it invites the reader to explore the wealth of wisdom in religious traditions, especially as it pertains to work. As this wisdom is based on the experience of those with religious
commitment, an outline is given of seven avenues for engaging with a religious tradition as a believer might. Third, it encourages religious traditions to take seriously the notion that the spirit is alive and well and waiting to be discovered and engaged within the world of work.
Answers, solutions or directions in relation to ones immediate workplace problems are not dictated in this book. Instead one is given frameworks for engaging with the world of work as one finds it, drawing on the accumulated experiences of people whose wisdom is waiting to be discovered in religious traditions. Questions are posed and tools are given for one to explore ones own responses to these and related questions, taking account of ones own experience, but in the company of others who have gone before.
Two points of view need to be challenged at the outset. First, of course the technological world is different to the world that preceded it, and of course the pace of change is phenomenal. But there are fundamental aspects to what it is to be human, which mean that, for instance, poetry and plays written in the sixteenth century can still
speak to people today and throw light on what it is to be human. People with religious commitment have lived and have had to find ways to physically and spiritually survive during periods of massive upheaval in the past. Some have left accounts of their conclusions. Two figures in Europe spring to mind: Gregory the Great, Pope in Rome as the Roman Empire in the West collapsed about him, and Julian of Norwich, who lived in a time of the terror of the Black Death and seemingly endless war. It is mistaken to think that such figures have nothing of relevance to
say to the internet age.
Second, there is a huge emphasis on the individual and this has many healthy aspects when it comes to the spirituality of work. Slavish following of instructions is out. Finding and appropriating ones own perspectives on life is in. However, the individual may be cornered into the situation where they feel that only they, themselves, alone can find their way through life and through work. This too is mistaken. There are friends, family, lovers, teachers, maybe even colleagues and bosses, who can help one along part of the way. There are also many friends, living and dead, who can speak to us through the wisdom contained in religious traditions.
One is not alone.
Who this book is for
The spirit can be found in church and in religious traditions if one gets beyond the surface distractions. This may be hard to accept for many people who say I am not religious, but I am spiritual. The spirit also moves outside the camp. This may be hard to accept for those who have a religious commitment and regard much of the
secular world as beyond the reach of God; these are the pragmatic atheists whose God is so small, weak and predictable that God only acts in a particular place or time or with a particular group. In any event this book is addressed to believers, fellow travellers, agnostics and atheists alike. Each can see an element of the truth and
each has a unique contribution to make in finding our way forward together as the human race, especially in the world of work. The problems facing us collectively in the world of work are too huge for any group to have the luxury of ignoring the creativity, energy and insights of those outside the group, who are also trying to grapple sincerely with these problems.
How the book is organised
Part One surveys the real benefits of the recent interest in work and spirituality at a personal level and in Chapter 1 also describes some of the pitfalls. Chapter 2 sympathetically and critically looks at how organisations deal with spirituality and religion. Chapter 3 considers the antipathy to religious commitment in society and in the workplace. It advocates a more understanding approach to religious commitment. It portrays religious traditions as resources which connect believers to the accumulated wisdom of many generations, and which develop and add to that wisdom in dialogue with new situations.
Part Two (Chapters 4 to 10) focuses on ways and means which can help one engage with the wealth of Christian spiritual traditions in particular. With suitable adaptation they can probably be helpful in accessing other traditions also. These resources are prayer, spiritual direction, worship, Jesus Christ, prophetic stance, scripture and
Part Three looks at how the institutions (churches) set up to pass on and develop religious traditions can do just that in the context of work. Churches should listen respectfully to the experiences of workers (Chapter 11). They should reflect on those experiences drawing on the wisdom in the traditions (Chapter 12) and should engage in robust conversations with their own believers and the world of work generally. These conversations will on occasion need to be critical, but they also need to build up hope and lead to action (Chapter 13). Finally, a number of conclusions will be drawn in Chapter 14. In particular, three initiatives to growth are offered: beyond individual concerns to a bigger story, beyond an instrumental spirituality to an openness to being surprised, and beyond the workplace to find a new balance between work, spirituality and religion.
1. Eurostat table, Total Employment Rate % EU 25, based on Labour Force Survey at: http://epp.eurostat.cec.eu.int and US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Table A-1. Employment status of the Civilian population by sex and age: USA at: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t0l.htm. Both websites accessed on 29 September 2005.
2 The UN official estimate of the worlds population in 2005 is 6.646 billion. However, three different estimates of world religious commitment use varying total figures. The total religious, non-religious and percentage religious for the three estimates are as follows: http://www.adherents.com/Religions, By, Adherents.html (5.56, 1.1, 84%,); Encyclopedia Brittanica http://www.zpub.com/un/pope/relig.html (4.66, 1.1, 810%,); and http://www.religioustolerance.org/worldrel.htm (5.26, 0.9, 85%); all websites accessed on 18 January 2007.
PERSONAL TRANSFORMATION, WORK AND SPIRITUALITY
A monk in the desert went to visit a wise old Abba seeking advice. He told the Abba that he prayed as well as he was able, fasted as well as he was able and gave alms to the poor as much as he could afford. He asked the Abba what more he could do. The Abba held his arms aloft and flames shot from his fingertips. The Abba said: `Why not be totally transformed? This story was told to a particular monk by a particular wise person to encourage the monk to step beyond his own cautious boundaries. However, it has a general appeal in todays world of work. One does a job one is reasonably competent at. One enjoys it some of the time, or most of the
time. The money one earns helps one have a reasonable degree of comfort and pleasure in ones life. If only there was more. If only one could be more. Many workers have a genuine and practical desire to make more of their working lives. For some workers this desire for more goes beyond working hard, undertaking training and positioning themselves for advancement. The desire touches into the spiritual and a desire for personal transformation.
In a work context there is a whole range of ways that this desire can be sparked. Questioning may start paradoxically after the worker has achieved a life-long ambition, after one has arrived where one always wanted to be. After striving for so long to get there, arriving can have a disorienting effect, and there may even be a
level of disappointment. More obviously, the impact of redundancy or realising that one is no longer a favoured child of a new post-merger corporate family can set up questioning which goes deeper. The realisation that ones work decisions taken in good faith have had serious unforeseen negative consequences for actual people may
also make for an unease that fuels a spiritual questioning. A sustained experience of highly stressful work entailing long hours, cutting one off from family, friends, hobbies, spirituality and any context against which to gain a balanced perspective on life may eventually come to an end. This can leave the worker disoriented, not
just in relation to work, but in relation to their deeper selves and their lives in general. Hitting the glass ceiling as a woman, or realising that one will not be promoted or will not seek further promotion in ones career may also result in deep reevaluation of the meaning of work in ones life. Significant and enduring interpersonal problems with a boss, a colleague or a staff member, or being posted to work which is objectively unpleasant and/or personally offensive to ones values may set the spiritual questions rolling. An experience of the vocational commitment of those in the caring professions can throw ones own commitment to work and the value of ones work into stark relief and raise many questions. The normal vicissitudes of life such as serious illness, break up of a significant relationship, death or prolonged illness of a loved one, serious debt problems, or the realisation that one has destructive, addictive habits can all lead to a general spiritual questioning, which also encompasses work issues. Mid-life is another time when questioning of the place of work in ones life can tip into the spiritual.
This all suggests that spirituality is a response to stress or dysfunction. However, one can have a sense of vocation about ones job, feeling that one is making the world a better place, and in so doing is becoming a better person oneself. This is not confined to the typical vocations of doctor, nurse and teacher. It can include the manufacturer who produces a useful product, or the administrator who provides a useful service. One may have chosen an area of work, not only because of ones natural skills and talents, but also to be of service. This can flow from and be
contained within an ongoing spiritual life. For instance, one may regularly review decisions made and actions taken at work from the perspective of ones spiritual life.
Then there are those people who never appear to have any deeper questions about work. Appearances can be deceptive. It is difficult to know what goes on behind a persons hall door, and it is all the more difficult to know what is going on behind the smiling or frowning face at work. It might be comforting to believe that everyone, at some stage, has some deeper questions about work. In other words others struggle with meaning, service, fairness and so on. I believe there is far more spiritual questioning about work than is visible on the surface. Such questioning remains below the surface for a variety of reasons. The most obvious reason is that modern workplaces generally do not facilitate work colleagues baring their souls to one another. However, a word of caution is necessary about making this a universal. A real danger with contemporary internalisation of the spiritual and the divine , a healthy development in many ways , is that one creates others in ones own image and
likeness. One knows what is happening in others lives in terms of ones own experiences only. `Really they are in denial or resisting. This denies others the common decency of an independent adult existence, with views of their own, sometimes contrary to ones own perspectives.
One aspect of the story
Workers are interested in spirituality and work. They are reading books. They are questioning. Inner life is questioned. Personal relationships are the subject of questioning. Work life is questioned. Questioning is a feature of society today. This questioning gives rise to a multiplicity of answers, even in a single neighbourhood. This is liberating. It is possible to find support for ones own view of life in a community of interest, rather than being confined to the community where one physically works or lives for endorsement of ones spiritual beliefs. Modern information and communications technology, developed transport systems and historically cheap air travel all enable individuals to join networks with like-minded souls. Workers can join real and virtual groups that form to read and study particular spiritual books. All this questioning is a sign of immense energy and huge life. There is an intensity to a period of searching. Searching may also seem distressing. With hindsight, losing ones way or becoming painfully disoriented in relation to work and life can also be seen to have been a time of life lived to
the full and leading to new beginnings. This questioning, this life and this energy are good.
People are also writing books on work and spirituality. Many of these are available in very accessible language. They do not use obscure technical terms. They often use language which people in the workplace can understand and relate to from their experiences in work and from the language used in work. There are even books which are about spirituality and work, but almost never use the word `spirituality. This means that workers are not put off and can engage with the ideas and the practices outlined in the books. In addition, the books are available in bookshops both real and virtual at relatively modest prices. This too is good.
In the not too distant past people were considered normal if they acted on the basis of what an authority figure, such as a boss, a parent, an older sibling, or even a priest or a pastor, said. Hard as it may be for us to appreciate, it was possible to become a mature and well-integrated adult in that time. However, it was also
possible to remain relatively immature, and act in childlike obedience because `father or `Father said so. In contemporary culture things are very different. People want to make up their own minds. In societies such as the ones we live in now, where things change at a vertiginously fast pace, it is not possible for a single authority figure to have all the answers worked out in advance. Therefore, it is good that workers have tools to engage with work and spirituality issues for themselves and take responsible adult action as a result. The variety of books and
other materials on work and spirituality draw on wisdom from many diverse traditions. Some draw on the findings of behaviourist or depth psychologies, others on the thoughts of philosophers or sociologists. Some draw on the insights of one or more of our great religious traditions, while others eschew any particular tradition, using the language of poetry and literature instead to awaken the contemporary worker. In this way the wisdom of the different ages and of different cultures are packaged, re-branded, popularised and made accessible to wider
audiences. This would appear to facilitate the worker to live with some surface knowledge of others in the multi-cultural and multi-spiritual world of work. This is usually better than no knowledge of the plurality of views about work and spirituality currently in vogue.
Most of the books on spirituality and work start with changing oneself. This is a great antidote to seeing everyone elses contribution to the mess, while disregarding ones own particular ways of hindering rather than helping. It is
difficult and sometimes painful to become more aware of the impact of ones own actions at work. It can be liberating and empowering when, through this awareness, one becomes freer to choose how one acts. Changing oneself seems reassuringly within ones grasp and more manageable than grandiose plans to change the whole workplace, or the whole economy, or the whole world. Of course as one gets older one can smile wryly at younger ambitions to become a better person. Bloodied by personal experience, but unbowed, one perseveres, with more modesty at least, and hopefully with more wisdom.
A final great benefit of the current wave of books on work and spirituality is that many take spirituality from a remote realm into contact with the gritty reality of daily paid employment. Spiritual times, places and experiences are of course important. But they can become precious, not just in the sense of valuable, but in the sense of fragile and too delicate for the full light of day. Many of the books on spirituality and work argue that one can bring ones spiritual self to work. What is much more, they strongly suggest that in the cut and thrust of work one can find the spiritual. This is profoundly important. The spiritual finds one where one is. Many people spend a lot of time at work. Even though one may flee to the safety and familiarity of workplace systems, rules, procedures and practices to escape the ambiguities and ambivalences of a spiritual life, one is not immune to the spiritual in the workplace. Indeed the spiritual seeks one out in the workplace.
In summary, there is a growing interest in work and spirituality, fuelled by books in accessible language and at modest prices. The books encourage adult engagement with real workplace issues, leading to responsible decisions and action. The books draw their inspiration from diverse traditions, which suits the multi-cultural
workplace. They focus by and large on changing oneself. Most profoundly they say that the spiritual can be brought to work and can be found, or more importantly can find us, in the workplace.
Another aspect of the story
In work a problem is something that is fixed or that needs to be fixed (1). Many of the books on spirituality and work follow through on this pragmatic approach and offer ways to fix the bigger spiritual problems in work. This fixing has a familiar ring to it. The boss does not want to hear about problems, but about solutions. Demands
for solutions and offers of solutions abound. It is so reassuring that the same rules apply to the spiritual life. Or do they? Even work is not always as straightforward as it seems at first. Complex work problems may have solutions, but they are too costly, too difficult, or unknown at this point. Because action is required a partial solution is undertaken instead, which gives rise to more problems, most of which might have been foreseen if anyone had taken the time to reflect before acting.
The spiritual is a different story altogether. It may first appear as another resource to draw on to survive the setbacks, to overcome the obstacles and to thrive and prosper in the workplace. There is some truth in this portrayal. However, one soon sees spirituality is not a resource like the internet, or a mouthwash, that can be tapped into or poured out when needed and turned off or put away when not needed. When one gets beyond the first euphoric steps on the spiritual path, the falling in love phase, one sees that, like any lover, the spiritual appears to have a rhythm and flow of its own. It appears ultimately benign, but cannot be turned on and off with a switch. At this stage many lose interest. Those who persevere begin to realise that it is a blessing to find the spiritual in the workplace. However, ultimately it is a far bigger blessing when one is found by the spiritual in the workplace. When this happens it is usually more than one has asked for or imagined. This can be exciting and challenging. But because it is not what one has planned it can be ignored and forgotten.
The books on work and spirituality tend to emphasise the importance of the individual over authority. This is a good point, leading to more mature adult engagement. It is hard nowadays to even frame this valuing of the individual over authority in any kind of negative or even cautionary way. There is an illusion that the individual is the ultimate reference point. Yet one cannot live without taking so much on authority. One assumes that the stuff in the tube with the new label will actually clean ones teeth and not cause ones gums to rot, on the authority of the
manufacturer and possibly the regulators. By and large one observes the rules of the road in order to avoid collisions, injury injury and death. It would not be possible to function in our societies and our workplaces if one did not take countless other things on authority. Electricity can kill. One knows this from ones parents and teachers, and possibly from newspaper reports of fatalities. Therefore, one treats electricity with care. To live an ordinary life, so much must be taken on authority every day.
In the area of the spiritual and work, authority is a bogey word. It is one of the things which turns people off institutional religion and helps convert them to being spiritual. The scope for self-deception by the lone spiritual seeker is large. In things spiritual the lone consumer or the lone reader is not always right. In Chapter 3 it will be
argued that religious traditions are repositories of the wisdom of those who have grappled with the spiritual over thousands of years. If one is to learn from that experience one has to find ways of appropriating at least some of that wisdom on the basis of authority. By not addressing this issue and assuming that the individual can rediscover everything for oneself, books on work and spirituality do not serve workers. People are left to needlessly re-invent so many wheels. The whole set of tensions between tradition and authority on the one hand and individual freedom on the other are indeed fraught. Ignoring them means that potentially fruitful points of exchange and insight never even appear on the horizon. Opportunities for spiritual growth by individuals and by spiritual traditions are lost.
Paradoxically, while setting the individual up as the measure of all things, many books on work and spirituality are addressed to the leader or chief executive. They tell the leader or aspiring leader how to get other people to follow their vision for the organisation. They teach the senior executive how to fill the authority role they have in the organisation drawing on their inner resources. Such books have little to offer the subordinate employee. If the employees do not like the current vision it is prudent for them to shut up or ship out. The option of quiet
compliance may not even be available in organisations where passionate commitment is expected.
In addition to emphasising the individual over authority, the books on spirituality and work confine spirituality to the individual level. Problems with this approach will be seen in the next chapter at the level of the workplace. Further problems with this approach will be highlighted in Chapter 3 in relation to religious traditions in society. To anticipate the argument: by focusing entirely on spirituality as a personal option and personal experience, spirituality has its critical teeth pulled, and the individual as a spiritual (or a religious) person is marginalised and disempowered.
Despite the interest among individual workers in non-dogmatic books on work and spirituality, spirituality is far from a universally acceptable brand in the workplace. Consultants find that they must sanitise their language if they are to get a hearing or retain credibility in the workplace. Spirituality may become creativity and practices such as meditation may acquire more technological sounding names. It is important to address workers in language that they can hear and from which they can benefit. However, by limiting language, the personal stories that can be told or what can be expressed are also limited. The language used is often the language of the workplace, with all its pragmatic overtones, or the inoffensive generalities of a bland pop psychology. This language confines the discussion and exploration, and brings a set of cultural assumptions to bear, which do not always allow the spiritual to be explored in any depth.
The plethora of books on spirituality and work, coming as they do from writers who are closer to the workplace than to any religious tradition, highlight a gap in church teaching and practice. Theologically some of the religious traditions may accept that the spirit is to be found everywhere, including in the workplace. Practically, however, there is little or no follow through on this. People are finding something in these self-help books. These books work from the practical conviction that the spirit is alive in the workplace, and may need a little cooperation to help individuals transform. There is a profound wake-up call for spiritual traditions in this message.
One response from within religious traditions is the following argument. Many of these books give a privileged place to personal experience. This encourages a syncretist approach: two parts Buddhist, one part Christian, mixed to a Native American rhythm. However, the gathering and mixing is not always as conscious as that. The use of the specialist word syncretist rightly suggests that this is often an argument made from within a spiritual tradition. So it can be very hard for one of the gatherer-mixers to see what, if anything, is wrong with their approach. After all, in contemporary life it is possible one night to eat Italian food, the next night Chinese and the next night Indian. In the context where one is encouraged to avail of a wide variety of choices as a consumer, it is hard not to adopt a similar stance in relation to what one believes. One argument from within a religious tradition is that in order to progress on the spiritual path, deep exploration over many years of one tradition, or even of one sub-culture within a tradition, can bring one to a deeper place. Moving from that deep place and then exploring other traditions can throw more light on ones own tradition and on the others also. Responding on a superficial level that all religions are the same is disrespectful and dismissive of the individual characters of different traditions, even within the broad Christian Church. It is also misleading.
These arguments have a certain validity. They are not, however, going to prevent people gathering their beliefs from a range of different sources. It is not possible to go back to a monoculture. Syncretism is also a relative term. Within Christianity, for instance, the four gospels and Paul paint five different faces of Jesus Christ at a minimum. Holding the tension between the extremely human Jesus Christ of Marks gospel and the kingly Christ of Johns gospel is part of what makes Christianity a living tradition. The churches have been living with a diversity of interpretations from the beginning. This diversity has increased with the years. After acknowledging the diversity of spiritualities in a religious tradition the various traditions may be able to find a new way of living and engaging with the diversity of perspectives in society now. This will be addressed in Part Three.
In summary, the interest in work and spirituality challenges the churches profoundly. They are being called to realise in practical terms that the spirit is abroad in the workplace, and can be found there by those who seek. This message is never proclaimed by many churches, or does not get beyond pious platitudes in others. A pervasive consumer mentality, an over-emphasis on the individual, and a fear of using explicit language in discussing spirituality are conspiring to undermine some of the good that is implicit in the searching of many individual workers. Individual workers who are interested in the spiritual in the context of work are in danger of being led down self-referential and largely autobiographical blind alleys, by confining their seeking to the level of the individual only.
On leaders and followers
Even though one may try to act in mature ways one has no assurance that ones decisions and ones actions are going to work out for the best (2). This creates an inevitable tension. Circumstances change, additional information comes to light later, ones own views change, all leading to the need to reassess the decisions one
has spent so much time and effort making in the first place. Depending on ones personality there are different ways of dealing with this tension. For instance, there are those who devote their lives to the spiritual quest. They want to find their own answers. They write the books, develop the programmes, run the workshops, act as the consultants on work and spirituality, show others how to gain prosperity and contentment through work, and so on. They develop one perspective on work and spirituality to varying depths. They are the pioneers. They may contribute new insights to the greater population. On the downside they may focus so exclusively on the kernel of their teaching that they lose perspective on the chaotic complexity of contemporary work life. They may