Forgiveness: following Jesus into radical loving by Paula Huston

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Right Livelihood

Written By Paula Huston

AppleAs far as I’m concerned, jury duty always comes at the worse possible time. We are either leaving for a trip we can’t get out of, or a grandchild is about to be born, or I’m on a huge writing deadline I can’t break. So when yet another jury duty notice arrived in the mail a year or so ago, my heart sank.

I couldn’t think of a single good excuse for getting out of it, but I knew that if by some awful piece of luck I were selected to serve, I would rue the day I ever walked into that courthouse.  Fortunately, the chances were slim, given that there were 250 other potential jurors in the audience, most of them looking as resistant as I. 

The reason so many of us had been called, the judge explained, was that this civil trial was expected to last three weeks. If selected, we would need to make whatever arrangements were necessary in order to serve the entire time. While I was mentally listing all the reasons I could not possibly do that, my number was called and I was told to take a seat in the jurors’ box.  Soon, we were undergoing a lengthy weeding out process at the hands of the attorneys. One by one, prospective jurors were questioned and dismissed. 

As each person was thanked and stepped down, I found myself in a curious, entirely unexpected dilemma. The last thing I needed was to be selected for a three-week-long trial—yet suddenly, I found myself cringing at the possibility of being rejected. Somehow, the process had morphed in my own mind into a job interview, and I couldn’t bear not been chosen. The attorneys must have sensed a weakling in the herd, someone who couldn’t come up with a single true or even false-but-believable excuse. Three long weeks and a whole lot of boring testimony later, I was still kicking myself for a fool. I thought I’d licked this particular demon once and for all.

Ancient spiritual wisdom had a name for this pesky fellow—vainglory—as it had names for other nasty spiritual parasites: gluttony, sloth, lust, acedia, wrath, envy, and pride.  Like the others, vainglory was considered a deadly sin—deadly in the sense that it could sap the lifeblood out of our relationship with God and subtly turn us back to worshipping the self.

How did it do its dirty work? Through perverting our natural attraction to excellence by substituting in its place an addiction to social approval. Those who suffer from vainglory can never get enough reminders that they are important, successful, respected people. Any rejection—including being rejected as a prospective juror—represents failure, and for the vainglorious, failure on the job is unbearable. This is why vainglory usually goes hand in hand with workaholism and rampant ambition. 

It certainly did in my case. By the time I entered elementary school, I was already in love with hard work, and I was rewarded for that trait with straight As all the way till high school, where I fell in love with a handsome senior and promptly got my first C-.  The experience of “failure” was so traumatic it completely turned me around in my academic tracks. Instead of thinking about college—I’d always assumed I was going—I developed a fierce determination to marry my senior the moment I graduated from high school.  And I did, foregoing college for more than fifteen years. 

This overblown fear of failure colored everything I did and earned me the nickname “Paula Perfect” from my friends. Work was never for its own sake, and certainly not for God’s.  Whether at home or on the job, hyper-productivity was the way I tried to prove my worth to the world. Sadly, work was about me and very little else. When I finally did go back to school in my mid-thirties, I was determined to show the world just how successful I could be if only I put my mind to it. I powered through both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in record time, and got myself hired as a full-time lecturer by the same English department that had trained me.

I only began to question my views about work when I met some Camaldolese Benedictine hermit/monks, many of whom were clearly more intelligent and talented than I could ever hope to be, but who had chosen to use their gifts in a whole different way: by stepping off the stage and out of the limelight. Not that they no longer worked—they worked very diligently to keep their monastic community solvent by running a bookstore and guesthouse and maintaining their many acres in the wilderness. But work in the way I thought of it—as a way to earn praise and admiration—was simply not in their picture. 

I first realized how different their attitude was from mine when I spent a day among them and noticed how often the clanging of the chapel bell interrupted what they were doing. Like centuries of monks before them, they say offices four times a day; liturgy and prayer automatically take precedence over the many tasks required to keep the place running. 

The ringing of the bell is a deliberate interruption, meant to destroy any tendency toward mindless workaholism.  Much ancient religious tradition conceals wise and practical psychology: the old monks knew it is impossible to become obsessed with our tasks when our focus is constantly being redirected toward the chapel.

The monastery bell can foil the most intrepid workaholic. True, I began going to the hermitage because I was fascinated by what I saw there, but also, I must admit, to get some writing done in a quiet spot away from our boisterous family of teenagers.  I had big plans for how I would use this valuable time, and I couldn’t imagine trooping off to the church every couple of hours, even if the monks did. Yet unbeknownst to me, I’d been drawn to the monastery for deeper reasons, difficult to discern at the beginning. One of them was that I needed to be weaned away from the work that sustained my self-important self-image. 

I found that I could not ignore the bell—especially the one that began the day at 5:15 a.m.  Whether I got up or not, the bell’s insistent clanging broke into my little mental world, humming with plans for the coming hours, and reminded me that people nearby were gathering to pray. I could not get the image out of my mind: white-robed monks, praying, while I was busy doing my own thing. Though I could come up with a hundred justifications for putting my own plans before all else, they sounded pretty thin with that silent image before me.

As with other ancient spiritual disciplines like fasting and chastity, the attempt to put work in its proper place in my life quickly revealed just how enslaved I was to vainglory. When I began to seriously examine my deepest reasons for teaching at the university, for example, I discovered that they were primarily connected with the sense of being an important, successful person.  Most people, especially those who never went to college, looked up to academics.  In my case, the long delay in finally getting my degree had served to elevate professors to an even higher status; they represented a world I believed I’d never enter, and certainly not as a colleague.

Yet the monks had given me an alternative model.  With the monastic community, humility comes before success. One way to develop humility is through anonymous work.  If we can’t take public credit for our efforts, then work becomes purer and more likely to be done for its own sake—or even better, for God’s sake. No longer is it intermingled with the secret yearning for praise and public adulation. 

Within a few years of my first discovering this alternative model, I quit the university, hoping to thereby vanquish the demon of vainglory. However, he did not go away, and soon I realized that he was now busily directing my new life as a full-time writer. So I quit that too, declaring a hiatus on the work I so loved and channeling my energy into simple, anonymous household tasks instead: weeding, growing vegetables, preserving food, cooking. 

And somewhere along the line, I began to experience for myself what monks have known for generations: work that is done for its own sake—work that is not tainted by high-stress, ego-driven expectations—can become a joyful enterprise indeed. Not only that, but it can provide the circumstances under which continual prayer comes naturally.

Thus, my discovery in the juror’s box was a bit disheartening to say the least. It seemed that I was still ensnared to some degree in the insecurities of the vainglorious workaholic. The good thing is that I could now recognize the signs, even laugh at myself for my foolishness, whereas before, such matters had to be taken with deadly seriousness. So perhaps the demon had been, if not entirely vanquished, at least cut down to size. Perhaps the discipline of practicing what the Buddhists would call “right livelihood,” or the proper attitude toward work, had had its effect. But for the rest of my life, though I wish it were not so, it’s clear that I will have to keep a sharp look-out indeed.      

Copyright © 2009 Paula Huston