Still Bearing Fruit

In recent years there have been a number of books published on the topic of aging, dying, and the Christian faith.  No doubt, this is to meet the needs and to answer the questions of an aging church in the West and to help those in the latter half of life respond to spiritual concerns about growing older.  While there are other books that examine the spirituality of the second half of life (Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward readily comes to mind), R. Paul Stevens takes a more unique approach in that his book relates primarily to the question of what one’s calling is in later life, and especially after one retires.

The book is broken up into three sections and the first part deals solely with calling.  The first chapter is notable for it’s argument that retirement is not a biblical concept, in that in the ancient world one had to work as long as one was able.  After a brief history of how retirement came about, the chapter one looks at how retirement can be a catalyst for growth and of a broader and more biblical concept of calling. While Stevens does not suggest we should not retire, his emphasis is that the idea of idling one’s remaining days in self-leisure is not a Scriptural notion and that one can still contribute to society, even if one is not receiving remuneration.  This last point is addressed in more detail in the second chapter as the concept of calling is explained and some guidelines on late-life calling are provided.  And the third chapter takes a closer look at some Scriptural examples of those who lived out their late-life calling faithfully, with special emphasis on Abraham and Jacob.

The second part of the book reflects on the spirituality that comes with aging.  Here, I felt the book had some similarities to Richard Rohr’s book, especially in chapter four where midlife is viewed as a time of transition from doing to being, and from living to accomplish much to living into a more contemplative lifestyle.  Stevens lists a few ways that aging provides opportunities for us to grow spiritually.  The next two chapters detail the potential vices and virtues that arise as one grows older.Aging Matters

The third section looks at how one’s calling affects others beyond one’s death in what we refer to as “legacy”.  Chapter seven is about different facets of one’s legacy, including factors to consider when bequeathing a monetary legacy.  There were two things that stood out for me in this chapter that are not talked about often enough: one’s non-monetary legacy, to include out investment in other people and how that affect our relatives for good or bad even after we are gone, and the importance of writing a living will.  The next chapter, chapter eight, is about preparing for death by reviewing the life we have lived and along that review to enable us to “finish well”.  And the last chapter looks forward to what we can expect in the life, in the new heaven and new earth, and does so by way of clearing some misunderstandings on the nature of death and on Scripture says about our life after death.

Overall, this was a welcome book to the growing bodies of literature on calling and on aging.  While some, perhaps much, of it was already familiar to me, I think Stevens did a great job at exploring the intersection of calling and the spirituality of aging.  He draws upon and interacts with some interesting thinkers in this area, some of who were familiar to me, including Catholic Richard Rohr and Jewish Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and some who were unfamiliar, such as psychiatrist Paul Tournier.  I think one of the best features of the book was the Scripture studies at the end of each chapter.  One of the studies that impacted me most was Jacob’s blessing of his grandchildren upon his deathbed.  Having practiced vision divina with an artist’s rendering of that scene and knowing Jacob’s history, as one who stole his brother’s birthright and blessing, made it a very impacting study on aging, calling, and gaining wisdom from one’s mistakes.  Ultimately, Stevens, who has written a number of books on calling and the workplace from a faith perspective, and who is also in the third third of his life, draws upon a lifetime of wisdom and experience.  To the extent that this book passes on his accumulated wisdom to the next generations, I would say he has embodied the generativity that he wrote about in this book.

Examen Your Work

In The Devil Wears Prada Meryl Steep plays the part of Runway magazine editor Miranda Priestly.  Her character is cold, aloof, uncaring, demanding, and unforgiving.  Viewers sense early on that when the idealistic and high-minded fashion faux pas that is the character of Andy Sachs (played by Anne Hathaway) comes along the stage is set for conflict.  After having worked in the position for some time, attempting to please Miranda Priestly and gain her favor with no success, Andy becomes frustrated and vents to Nigel (Stanley Tucci), one of the few people in the organization that has shown her any kindness.

Andy Sachs: I don’t know what else I can do because if I do something right, it’s unacknowledged.  She doesn’t even say thank you.  But if I do something wrong, she is vicious.

Nigel: So quit.

Andy Sachs: What?

Nigel: Quit.

Andy Sachs: Quit?

Nigel: I can get another girl to take your job in five minutes… one who really wants it.

Andy Sachs: No, I don’t want to quit.  That’s not fair.  But, I, you know, I’m just saying that I would just like a little credit… for the fact that I’m killing myself trying.

Nigel: Andy, be serious.  You are not trying.  You are whining.  What is it that you want me to say to you, huh?  Do you want me to say, “Poor you. Miranda’s picking on you.  Poor you.  Poor Andy”?  Hmm?  Wake up, six.  She’s just doing her job…You have no idea how many legends have walked these halls.  And what’s worse, you don’t care.  Because this place, where so many people would die to work you only deign to work.  And you want to know why she doesn’t kiss you on the forehead and give you a gold star on your homework at the end of the day. 1

While Nigel’s advice might sound harsh, he has a profound understanding of the situation and the problem that underlies her frustration.  He grasps the fact that Andy is not the right person for that position.  She doesn’t belong there and it is only her stubborness and pride that keeps her there.  Obviously, he says as much to her.  In this sense, he almost fulfills the role of a spiritual director, even if his technique is all wrong, lacking in mercy and grace.  The 15th Century Russian Orthodox spiritual director and elder, Nil Sorsky, said much the same thing about our work, although with much greater compassion and eloquence. 2

Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nilus_of_Sora. Sv_nil_sorski[1]

Nil Sorsky

We must be vigilant against the spirit of vanity because it hinders all of our intentions with all kinds of allurements.  It impedes the monk’s true progrss by corrupting all his actions so that, no longer ordered to God, they become motivated by vainglory and the desire to seek to please others.  For this reason we must constantly examine our thoughts and feeling to see: Are our actions done for God and for our spiritual benefit? 3

This is part three of a five part blog series and in the past two blog posts I have attempted to explain the importance of examining our inward selves as well as to highlight the fact that our inner darkness needs to be brought into the light for healing.  In this post I am essentially applying this process to our sense of calling and work.  And as Nil Sorsky highlights above, this sense of selfish inwardness has often been referred to as “vanity”.  It is therefore important to constantly assess our state of being in our thoughts, feelings, and motivations.  When it comes to the workplace in particular, and to our callings in general, there seems to be three ways in which this “vanity” likes to rear its ugly head.  Here I quote from Richard J. Goossen and R. Paul Stevens in their book Entrepreneurial Leadership:

Most people have a dark side manifested in one of the following three ways: a need to be needed, a need to have status and approval, or a need to be in control.  Awareness of these needs can help us discern our calling.  It can keep us from being addicted to our work, or choosing a life direction for the wrong reason (e.g., because we gain status and approval). 4

In The Devil Wears Prada, there is also a third major character, that of Emily (played by Emily Blunt).  She is the sort of person that Nigel was referring to: someone who cares about the fashion industry and for whom it is her calling.  Among the three characters, we see each of the three needs epitomized.  For Miranda Priestly, her need is to be in control.  She does so by the way she treats others and the way she (ab)uses her power to make others feel less than human.  For Emily, who genuinely wants to work at the magazine company, she has a need to be needed.  This becomes apparent when Miranda chooses Andy, rather than Emily, to accompany her on a fashion trip to Paris.  The choice crushes Emily who worked so long and hard to prepare for that event.  And last, Andy incarnates the need to have status and approval as she works so hard, even sacrificing her values, to gain some recognition from her boss.

But what can be done?  How can we avoid becoming like the three incarnations of vanity above?  From the quotes above, the solution becomes a little clearer.  Nil Sorsky wrote of “examining” ourselves and Goossen and Stevens realize that an “awareness” of our needs is key to the solution.  While many seem to have the erroneous notion that the Christian life is first and foremost about doing this or that, and following set ethical and moral guidelines, the more foundational truth is that the Christian tradition has long been concerned more with the interior life, albeit with the belief that a genuine relationship with God will naturally result in outward expression.  Space does not permit a full or even a brief recounting of this history, but suffice it to say that before there was Freud there was Jesus Christ.   The Son of God discerned the innermost thoughts, desires, and orientations of those whom He encountered, or I should say those who encountered Him.  Invariably all who crossed paths with this Person came away changed, either for the better or they chose otherwise and had their hearts hardened.

More recently in the span of history there is Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, or Society of Jesus.  In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius prescribes a way for becoming “more aware and sensitive to the reality of living, moving and being in God’s presence (Acts 17:28) and alert to the invitations that flow from God to you throughout [the] day”. 5  This method is often called simply the Daily Examen or Examen Prayer, although it can also be referred to in two distinct forms as the General Examen of Conscience and the Particular Examen of Conscience.

The General Examen can be distilled to asking oneself the two following questions, usually once a day at the end of a day: 1) Where did I sense God’s presence throughout the day, and 2) Where did I perceive God to be absent?  The Particular Examen, on the other hand, tends to ask questions that focus on a more specific area or concern in one’s walk with God.  As you enter into your areas of calling this next week or so, I encourage you to try a more modified version of the Particular Examen of Conscience.  Twice during the day, on your lunch break and during your drive home, ask yourself the following questions:

When have I felt the need to be needed?

Where have I revealed a need for status and approval?

How have I displayed a need to be in control?

After asking yourself the above questions, you may want to consider writing them down in a journal or simply talking to God about what the answers reveal to you.  Above all, don’t be discouraged by the results.  The three forms of vanity are ones that all struggle with no matter where on the spiritual journey one finds oneself.  There is hope for those who find themselves stuck in a spiritual and relationship rut in the areas of calling and vocation, and I will write more about it in part four of this five-part blog series, “Your True Self at Work”.

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1 “The Devil Wears Prada Quotes,” IMDb.com, Inc, accessed June 28, 2014,  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0458352/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu.

2 Nil Sorsky was a founder of a community or hermitage of monks who sought to live out the hesychast lifestyle.  John L. Mina, introduction to Nil Sorsky The Complete Writings, ed. and trans. George A. Maloney, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 2003), 12, ebook.  As the author of the preface explains, hesychasm emphasized “an intense belief in the nearness of the sacred, a mystical realism that stressed the ineffable, all-upholding, and transforming self-manifestation of God, who is Love, and who pours forth his divine, life-creating energies on all through his Holy Spirit….Stillness (hesychia), inner beauty, and a quiet joy are the fruits of constantly turning one’s mind inward, communing in one’s innermost heart with the Savior through the continuous, purifying repitition of the divine Name, and accruing ever more his Holy Spirit” Ibid., 14.  One of the primary ways this has been accomplished throughout Eastern Orthodox communities is through the repitition of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

3 Nil Sorsky, Nil Sorsky The Complete Writings, ed. and trans. George A. Maloney, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 2003), 79, ebook.

4 Richard J. Goossen and R. Paul Stevens, Entrepreneurial Leadership: Finding Your Calling, Making a Difference (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2013), 102, ebook.

5 Larry Warner, Journey With Jesus: Discovering the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2010), 29.