In a recent reading for a class, I ran across a very interesting thought. It caused me to step back and assess the work I do as well as how I go about doing the work. The idea came toward the end of a book by Roger Walsh. The book carries the title, Essential Spirituality. In effect, it details how people can engage and practice the contemplative life. The ideas that I really liked came in the section on service.
Listen to these words by Walsh. “Do you want to kill time or build a cathedral, to see what you are doing as drudgery or contribution? The crucial point is that we have a choice. The same action can be seen in quite different ways because it is we who decide on the meaning and significance of what we do.” The first line really engaged me. I love the question: do you want to kill time or build a cathedral? The answer was easy for me: build a cathedral, of course. And that takes effort, takes patience, and doubtlessly, takes time.
It is this last piece that is key, namely, it takes time. We usually have time. And obviously we have to have time to kill it! And yet I think about all the times I have heard people say that they had “some time to kill.” I know I have used this line too many times. I am going to swear off using it ever again. To kill time typically means the present moment is unwanted. We usually are killing time waiting for some more special time to arrive. We kill time working so we can play later. I would rather think about building a cathedral.
The last part of Walsh’s quotation only emphasizes our choice. Do we want to see what we are doing as drudgery or contribution? Again it is hard for me to imagine someone saying, “please give me drudgery and as much of drudgery as you can find!” Once more, drudgery is a way of saying the present time stinks! Usually we prefer doing nothing to doing something we deem to be drudgery.
Walsh thinks we have a choice. I agree. Our drudgery work might be seen differently. We might be able to come to see it as a contribution. I don’t think that is merely a slight of hand---or better, a slight of mind. I think it is a change of perspective. It is a re-orientation. In spiritual terms, it might be the result of transformation. Even though I am getting late in the autumn of my career, I think I will opt to build a cathedral.
It should be obvious that I am not going to become an engineer or construction worker. It is too late to be an engineer. I don’t want to go back to school and I might not be smart enough anyway. And I doubt that I have the stamina to be a carpenter. That is real work; I am not sure teaching is real work! So surely, I have to understand “build a cathedral” in a metaphorical way.
I spend a fair amount of time in a classroom with students. Maybe that is where my cathedral building is going to take place. Let’s pursue that line of thinking. Most students come into my class with little idea what spirituality is and, for sure, little idea how it applies to their lives. They are unformed in that sense. So the first step is much like the construction worker who sets about building a real cathedral. First comes the foundation.
For the spiritual life, the foundation often is some basic understanding. But spirituality is more than ideas. It is practice. It is experience. It is one thing to have an idea of God. It is a much different thing actually to experience that God---the living God. That is my cathedral-building task. I have to lay a foundation so that the spiritual life of the student will begin to take shape as surely as walls will begin to be formed on that actual cathedral.
The walls of a cathedral mark the inside and outside of the building. But even more importantly---because it is a cathedral---the walls mark the line between the sacred and the secular. Inside the cathedral one is in sacred space. Step outside and one enters the secular world. So it is with the student. I have to help them build the walls of their cathedral-lives. They will also need walls of demarcation. I think of something like leading a moral life. To do so is to participate in the sacred. If I choose immorality, then I have chosen to be fully secular, or worse, profane.
A cathedral is usually majestic and awe-inspiring. So should the cathedral building we do with students and other disciples be majestic and awe-inspiring. We help them build a life that is majestic and awe-inspiring. We certainly got it in historical people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa. We all know quieter, more anonymous saints who were like cathedrals in our midst.
I like the vision and the challenge of becoming the person who can build cathedrals. It will take time. It demands time that should not be killed or wasted. It will take effort, but the effort will lead to majesty and awe. I hope I can do all this in my work with students and others.
And I hope in some small way I can keep working at my own life so that I, too, might become a cathedral.