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Attention can make work spiritual

27 June 2014

Focusing on a task is a way of practising the presence of God, says Christopher Collingwood


Work in season: the new statue of St Peter at York Minster

Work in season: the new statue of St Peter at York Minster

MANY of those who work in our stoneyard as carvers and masons consider what they do to be deeply spiritual, although they might not all use conventional religious language to articulate this. I would like to suggest that such spirituality lies in the discipline of giving total attention to the present moment, and that it has a great deal to teach all of us.

York Minster is now in the middle of a five-year project to restore the great east window and east front, expand learning opportunities, and engage with a wider diversity of people. This Sunday, the feast of St Peter the Apostle, in whose honour the Minster is dedicated, represents a milestone, because a newly carved figure of St Peter - replacing the old one on the east front, which has gradually been eroded during the past 500 years - is to be dedicated.

Medieval cathedrals were built primarily for the glory of God, but it would be naïve to think that motives were wholly pure. Besides being acts of praise in stone, glass, and wood, they were also symbols of power and authority. The scale of such buildings was intended to speak of the grandeur and transcendence of God, but those who funded them did so in part to demonstrate their own status.

Those who worked on them with their hands, however, remained largely anonymous; their motive was not necessarily to make a name for themselves. They were highly skilled, and it was as much the commitment and devotion that they brought to their work in the process of building these great cathedrals that manifested the glory of God as the finished building itself.

THE work of artisans has often been thought of as a second-class occupation, compared with those whose work is largely intellectual. This, however, entails a false separation. One of the apocryphal books in the Bible contains a marvellous evocation of how all can grow in wisdom.

The scribe has leisure to pursue wisdom through study. But what about those who work with their hands in the field, or at the potter's wheel, or at the anvil? All these take great care that their work is as good as it can be, and, although they do not attain eminence in the great affairs of the world, they are vital to the common good, and they can grow in wisdom, because "they maintain the fabric of the world, and their prayer is in the practice of their trade" (Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 38.34).

The key here is to do with attentiveness to the present moment. This is a significant element inthe teaching of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, he counsels against worry by inviting us to look at the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, and to let go of concern about what to eat, drink, or wear (Matthew 6.25-34; Luke 12.22-31). Such anxieties relate largely to the future, and can be self-centred.

When we are excessively preoccupied with ourselves, and with what might or might not happen, we become distracted from what we should be attending to in the present. Instead, Jesus says, we are to seekthe Kingdom single-mindedly, and then everything else will be given.

SUCH guidance resonates deeply with those who practise meditation and contemplative prayer. In the stillness, all sorts of things continually arise inthe mind. Engaging with thoughts, inner dramas, and worries, however, obscures the presence of God here and now.

The task - as is recognised in Christian teaching on meditation and in Eastern spiritual approaches, such as the practice of Zen, or in the discipline of mindfulness, which has roots in a number of religious traditions - is to be still, attentive, and trustful that all we need is given in the present moment.

This, I believe, is why the carvers and stonemasons can describe their work as spiritual, and why it can lead to growth in wisdom. The work requires real attention, and is essentially contemplative. Without being wholly given to the task in hand; without real care, significant errors can occur, which could be costly in terms of time and money. There is simply no leisure for distraction.

In addition, something more positive can be said. Some speak of being so absorbed in their work that they lose themselves in it, and self-concern disappears. This is complemented by the fact that the motive for their work is not to be singled out individually, or to make a name for themselves. In any case, much of what they produce will not even be seen by anyone, because it will be hidden from view, high up on the minster.

The same care, attention, and sense of integrity, nevertheless, is brought to everything. Preoccupation with the self falls away, and the focus of attention is the work itself, done for its own sake. This is why, at heart, their work is a spiritual practice.

THREE important lessons emerge from this for all of us. First, the division between prayer and work is a false one. Whatever we are engaged in, we can bring the same quality of attentiveness to whatever the moment presents. In so doing, we grow into the awareness of the presence of God.

Second, the judgement that what we do with our hands is of a lesser value than what we do with our minds is also false. What matters is attentiveness to the present. It is this that enables our work, whatever it is, to be prayer.

Third, we need to recover the sense that things are worth doing for their own sake. In a society where it is often thought that we can get away with what we like, provided that no one sees, the notion that we should bring the same quality of integrity to everything, whether seen or not, might seem odd.

The medieval artisans believed that whatever human beings did, God saw everything. Not everyone might use such language today, but learning to be attentive, and doing things for their intrinsic value might be the beginning of enabling us all to grow into the realisation that, in so doing, what we are really seeking to do is to practise the presence of God.

The Revd Dr Christopher Collingwood is Canon Chancellor of York Minster.

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