Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Work: Foundation for Faith

When I was an Elementary Education major at university, I was asked to serve as a student representative on a committee of the College of Education.   The committee's purpose was to improve practical classroom experience for education majors and to strengthen our relationship with the cooperating classroom teachers who served as our mentors.   The best part of being on that committee was the time before the meetings when I had a chance to speak with two classroom teachers who were also on the committee.   One day, the topic of conversation turned to math instruction.   I was in college when the use of manipulatives was being integrated into instruction to replace rote instruction alone.   It was the first time in my life that math excited me and I wished I could have been taught in that manner.   Topics were introduced through concrete activities, with real-world connections and then paper-and-pencil practice would follow.   One of the teachers voiced her idea that she wondered about the effectiveness of manipulatives in the classroom.   I was shocked and already making judgements about her as a teacher when she continued to explain her concern.
She said that in past years, children were physically active.   They played with basic physical toys which had to be manipulated by hand.   They spent time outside, doing things such as digging in dirt, climbing trees, collecting leaves and bugs.  Their learning was based on the senses and physical interaction.  It was how the majority of their ideas about the world were formed.  Current students, though, were much more likely to take in information in a more passive manner, often through media rather than physical interaction.   Would they have any previous experiences with which to connect the classroom ones?   I served on this committee in 1994.   Imagine how she would describe today's students.   Her words have stayed with me as a teacher and a mother.   They've especially come to mind as a Catholic.

I'm walking with a slight limp from a severely sunburned leg.   Both my shoulders cause a pain-twinge if they rub against even something so minor as the fabric of my sleeve.   And the pain in my hands kept me up two nights ago.   All little reminders of an amazing weekend retreat.   Often silent, but mostly not, primarily spent on my knees--sometimes my rear end--arranged and played out according to the sun, the stars, necessity, ancestry, dirt, mortality and the Immortal.   What began as an attempt to tidy up a flowerbed as part of getting outside to enjoy the weather turned into a major overhaul of our front flowerbeds.

It was the end of a week in which I felt for the first time in two years that I was at home.   My house had finally felt like my home.   Earlier in the week, I finally hung some drapes in the living room, after rearranging the furniture.   The key move for the interior came, though, when I turned the long wall in the room into a gallery wall.   In ordered disorder, I hung a combination of prints, Mama's paintings, and family photographs.   Eventually, the wall will be covered from floor to ceiling as we add to the collection in coming years.    It makes me happy and it's like a museum wall for our little family's history.   It's mismatched (ahem...eclectic), cozy and homey and I DID IT MYSELF.   We purchased our first home in 2005, after eight years of renting.   It was a small ranch-style home that delighted us because we never expected that we'd be able to afford anything that nice on one teacher's salary while that teacher also attended graduate school.   We painted every wall.   We dug every hole for every plant and bush.   We spent hours moving an oscillating sprinkler around our yard.   I decorated, cleaned, and loved that home.   I was connected to that home through my physical efforts.   In modern marketing jargon--bleh--, I was invested in it.   The day before closing, the day before another family would take possession of my sweet home, I took pictures of every detail I could and touched as many surfaces as possible as I walked through its rooms.

I still miss our sweet house.

Physical labor can give you an opportunity to think.   You can slow down and consider things in a way that other activities don't allow.   So, as I sat, kneeling in the dirt, as I dug deep to pull out the very roots of every weed I could locate, I thought about physical connections.   When we moved in our current home,  we hired a painter because my husband is not a painter and after back surgery, I can't stand on a ladder to paint our tall walls.   The previous owners painted everything with a flat finish and with our little ones, the walls were already covered with scuffs and prints that could not be removed.   We hired someone to install hard flooring instead of carpet so our home would be cleaner for our eldest daughter who has asthma/allergy issues and for myself as I am also allergic to dust mites.   We had new counter tops installed due to water damage to the wood underneath the existing punctured laminate.   Last year, we hired a young man to clean out our flowerbeds which had not been maintained by the previous owners.   There in the dirt, I was finally making a real connection with my home because I was doing something.

Maybe it's my slight Cherokee heritage that makes the physical so necessary to me.   There's my tree thing.   Our yard has only one tree and it's a small specimen-type tree.   I yearn for trees.  My friends hear about this ALL the time.    I don't just miss the shade or think it would be pretty to have a tree in the yard.   I go to our neighborhood park, stand amongst the mature trees, breath in deep and I feel calm and at home.   It's the same feeling I get in our home parish, with its abundance of wood, especially the sanctuary ceiling, designed to look like the hull of a ship.   Maybe it's my pioneer ancestry that makes physical work such a necessary part of my life.   I don't mean everyday tasks such as cleaning or laundry.   I mean wearing work clothes, hair piled under a hat while I do dirty jobs of digging or pulling weeds by roots which are deep and winding.   I mean being covered in sweat and so intent on the task at hand that my physical appearance no longer matters and I am completely motivated by the promise of seeing the concrete fruit of my efforts before me.   Mama worked like that and I always thought I would NEVER do that.   I imagined gardeners and hired hands to do physical work for me.   I would be the pretty lady, in the wide brimmed hat with pristine gardening gloves, who bent over to clip a few stems of heather and roses and then returned to my beautiful kitchen to artfully arrange them.    Instead of the pretty lady in the wide-brimmed hat, I'm the funny-looking character with my rear-end up in the air for all the neighbors and passing drivers to see, as I try to pull that stubborn weed or plant that new flower.  I am my mother.   And my children are there with me.   Sometimes, they're in the way and it's necessary for me to send them to play near-by.   Sometimes, they are helping, doing their own work to contribute to the job.   My children open up to me over shared work.  

Inside my home, I find a similar connection when I am cooking.   It is therapeutic for me, with both moments for creativity and monotony.   The textures, scents.   The changes wrought by heat and cold.   The melding and intensification of flavors.   Drawing sweetness out through roasting or sauteeing.   Changing texture with pressure.   Better than the cooking, though, is the sharing of the work and the finished dishes.   I'm not passionate about food; I'm passionate about feeding people and sharing food with others.  Conversation happens easily over food.      Words and feelings flow with the act of eating.   Food prepared in the home and eaten around a table does not merely feed us; it nourishes us.

As Catholics, we are not just spiritual, but also, physical people.   Fingers dipped in holy water and forming the sign of the cross, legs standing, kneeling, genuflecting, tongue and teeth eating the Holy Eucharist, Jesus' body and blood.   As the teacher had pondered whether children's lack of physical interaction impaired their ability to learn effectively through concrete items, there in the dirt of my flowerbed, I pondered the connection between my physical labors and my faith.   As a mother, I considered the foundations I was helping to lay for my children.

So many times work for children is presented by parents in terms of punishment or as chores which are usually tied to monetary reward.   Then, it is often the mundane tasks of laundry, dishes, tidying up a room which are included.   These are all important and require effort, but they routine and not laborious.   They don't build up the sweat or the sensory and cognitive connections that only work such as yard work, building, or cooking can build.   Our brains were designed to experience the world around us.   Picture the brain as being a large room with hooks hanging from the ceiling.   With each new interaction with knowledge, we hang a new hook on an existing one so our brain is using those in combination to form our knowledge.   If we obtain a new piece of information and have no existing related hook on which it may hang, it falls to the floor, left on its own to be forgotten because there was no connection to be made.   This image had great meaning to me as a teacher when it came to curriculum design and instruction.   It has greater meaning--and purpose--to me as a mother, as well as for myself as a Catholic.

With our paid-for painted walls and flowerbeds, I missed the experience of effort, delayed gratification, and reaping the fruit of my efforts.   I missed the struggle and aggravation which eventually ended and resulted in something that brought me great satisfaction, happiness and maybe even a slight bit more patience.   A trip through a drive-through, with only the effort of unwrapping paper or opening plastic packets delivers only an end to a feeling of being hungry.   It doesn't nourish anyone, neither those who prepare it nor those who eat it.   Playing a video game until the next level is reached can never develop the same persistence and problem-solving  skills that are achieved from building a tower of blocks which finally stands on its own.  

In our old neighborhood, a favorite neighbor was Mrs. Vi, short for Viola.   She and her husband, Phil, were the original owners of their home and they had lived there over forty years.   Their yard was a wonderland.   It was shaded by mature trees.   Beautiful flower beds took up most of the yard, with winding paths and bubbling fountains finding places between them.   As soon as I heard the squeak of the chain link gate, I felt I was in a different place.   It reminded me of my Mama's yard and the yards to which I was accustomed in Louisiana.   One day, as I sat on Mrs. Vi's back patio sipping lemonade, I lamented that my own yard was so bare and that I wished it looked like hers.   "Oh, hon," she said.   "When we moved in, your yard was still a pasture with cattle grazing on it."   Then she pointed to some majestic oaks.   "We planted every one of those trees and planted every bush and plant.   You're seeing it all like it is today, but it took over forty years to get it to look like this."

Is it not the same with our souls?   We want the final version of our souls.   We want to be like the Saints at the end of their lives.   We're looking at the beauty and forgetting all the hard work, the actual toil, effort, and frustration that took place over so many years.   The physical world prepares us for the struggles of our souls.   A clay pot on a city fire escape or window ledge can provide a sacred plot of earth where the lessons of sowing and reaping may be learned.   The tiniest of kitchens can bring us a world of tastes, sounds, scents to experience as real food is washed, peeled, sliced, diced, fried, sauteed, roasted and baked so that something special is created.   Pre-packaged food served up by a waitress simply isn't the same as the meal we eat after waiting and playing a part in its preparation.  The bouquet of flowers from the floral shop can brighten our days while they last, but it doesn't have the same impact as tending to our own plant and watching it grow.   When your child hears talk of Eucharist as a banquet or feast, prepared for him by Christ, will that image invoke effort, sacrifice, conversation, comfort, and joy or will such a description only invoke an image of convenience and temporary satisfaction of physical desires?   When your child reads of St. Therese's sacrifices being like roses showered upon the earth, will he understand how precious is a rose?   The care in planting and tending required so that picking is done with care and appreciation?   Blooms so precious they are not to be wasted?   Upon what "hooks" will your child hang the parables or the communal feeding imagery of the New Testament?  

Work can certainly form "hooks" of knowledge so we can better understand the parables of Christ.  In addition, work of our hands is a safe, natural way to experience struggle.   It forms our experience of starting with little or with raw, independent ingredients and tools.   We learn what to do when our first method fails.   We learn that the sweat, tears, and callouses were all worth it when we saw the finished product.   We learn that we are sometimes rewarded immediately from our efforts, but sometimes we have to wait a long time.   Are we just completing chores necessary for living or are we also working?   Are we building and creating, even if it is uncomfortable?   As Christians, we don't want to simply live.   We want to work for Christ and grow with Him so that one day we may spend Eternity with Him.   Marriage is hard work.   Friendships are hard work.   Parenting is hard work.   It's messy and if you are searching for contentment as the pretty lady in the wide-brimmed hat, you're going to end up with disappointment.   Holiness is in the planting and tending; God does the artful arrangement of what we offer Him.   Get in the dirt.   Get in the kitchen.   Plant, build, cook.   Make it real.   It will be hard, messy, and often frustrating.   But work, honest and offered up to God, will lead us closer to Christ who is the only real thing on which we can rely.

Philippians 2:12   And so, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only when I was with you but even more now that I am absent, continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.

Work is a good thing for man--a good thing for his humanity--because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes more of a human being.Laborem exercens




  1. I loved how you emphasized the enjoyment of real work. I was just talking to Bronius about that, how our kids are so sadly lacking purposeful physical work. That's what I love about Texas, that history of shared family work for generations. It seems to be the way God almost intended for us to build relationships, to have time to think and pray, to use our minds and bodies together. This is why I love the Montessori model of early education so much, because it combines as many sensory experiences as possible, and embraces a child's natural desire for learning as they experience practical life activities like sweeping, scrubbing dishes, gardening and math and language manipulatives, like counting and polishing pennies and drawing letters in sand. It completely changed the way I parent and teach our children and the way I relate to people in general. Thank you for this piece!

  2. Yes, Julia. Montessori's model was never intended to be limited to classroom settings.

  3. Amen...from another sweaty gardening woman. ;) So well said and well integrated with the faith!


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