Post 182

Labour Days: Reflections on Working with Proper Intention

As the school year begins, there is a great deal of enthusiasm and nervousness on the part of those faced with new classes, teachers and students.

In such a time, everyone is focused and driven to succeed in whatever aspect of the new year that they deem important.

Students and teachers get down to business and consider, with great care, life’s central issues:

What should I wear?

And how should I do my hair?

Once such issues are resolved, they turn to other thoughts, such as what to bring and what to eat on the first days of school.

Yet fast forward a few months and the enthusiasm is largely gone. The same jittery students and teachers feel that they know the drill and their attitude changes to one of indifference and boredom.

Meanwhile far too many of the other workers around town, who didn’t have a fresh start in September, are working with less-than-stellar motivation and intentions. They want little more than to put in their time, collect their paycheques and go home.

It’s occurred to me in the past that in an ideal world, workers would be paid according to how hard they tried. Think of it. That would mean that someone who works at Quizno’s could make more, on a given day, than someone who works on the twentieth floor of an office tower. The fellow who slacks off at his desk, shooting off memos that are garbled and lame would earn less pay than the worker concentrating on pleasing the customer with perfectly-made ham and Swiss with lettuce. That would be cool, and very interesting.

After all, so many people choose professions based on predicted income or status but without enthusiasm for any other aspect of the desired occupation. They choose jobs that will let them coast — they’ll grab the great pay while the ‘underlings’ do the bulk of the work. And others begin with enthusiasm but lose sight of the nobler aspects of the work; nowadays they only think of the cash.

Money twists people. In university, John was simpler and so full of laughs, but after years of raking it in, he starts buying things that show how Upscale and Fancy he is. He even ditches his wife for someone as shallow as he is. The expensive home soon has expensive cars parked on the driveway and his Beyond Cool fashions are chosen to show you that he’s hip and still Knows How to Have Fun.

But he doesn’t. John and people like him have become so out of touch with who they are that they cannot let down their guard and laugh like before. They associate fun with drinking and partying and going on vacations. As long as they are able to post photos that look like they’re Experiencing Life Laughter and Love, they figure they’re set.

Oh, such deformed lives!

Such withered gray souls!

Their jokes are wry and cutting – you’ll note they contain a rather mean streak. And believe me, if you were to peer into their emails and their texts, you’d find their vicious and small-minded gossip about people who are unsuspecting and trusting. (And if you were to peer into their souls, you’d be utterly stunned at their competitiveness and disloyalty. You thought you knew them!)

Woe to them. The child inside is abandoned and dead.

So they drag themselves to work but their heart isn’t in it. They goof off at their desk, checking their mail and avoiding the burden of thinking too hard. They are thinking about apps and trips to Anywhere Else.

Even those who work from home get into this rut. Their heart just isn’t in it, and they really don’t care. They are going through the motions and doing the minimum that will pass for Good Enough and Done.

Indeed, there is no line of work that does not suffer from apathy and lack of good intentions. You may imagine that the rock star or the movie star is really quite pumped, but the truth is, he isn’t. The truth is that many times, he’s going through the moves. If I bounce my head up and down like this, and raise my arms in the air like this, everyone in this place will think I’m Really Lovin’ It. The tour continues, but Rock Star Fantastic was tired of those poorly-composed lyrics many moons ago. As for the Hollywood star, how many frustrated directors are exhausted with trying to coax Missy Glam into finally memorizing her lines? She can barely be bothered; that would be work.

And so it is.

There is no job or vocation so precious or loved that it is free from those who slack. Even priests, sisters and brothers are guilty of apathy towards the role that God’s given. You can tell. When the homily puts you to sleep, you can be sure that the priest wasn’t really trying.

You don’t believe me? Then let’s explore the hypothetical case of Fr. Ernest and his congregation at Sunday Mass.

Imagine that Fr. Ernest has set aside time to work on his homily and he wants to do a good job. He loves (or tries to love) his congregation and he cares about the spiritual progress of those in the pews. He knows that at the end of his life, he must account for his efforts and his intentions and his concern for God’s church. So he begins his work. He reads the readings for Sunday and he thinks about what to say. He does his best; he finishes and takes a much-needed rest. Now you can throw into this hypothetical whatever interruption or hindrance you’d like to imagine, but do not tamper with Fr. Ernest’s noble intention.

Alright. So let’s get to work.

My starting premise is that God is good. I take that as an anchored and undisputed fact. Let’s write it like this:

1. God is good.

We’ll proceed numerically from there, like this:

2. God wants people to benefit from the homily when it is included as part of the Mass.

3. Mass is an obligation, but it is also a gift from Christ to the world.

4. God is pleased with sincere and holy efforts to do good work.

5. Therefore, God will not allow the devil to interrupt the efforts of a priest to say a good Mass. He will not allow the devil to swoop in and intercept the good words from the priest to his flock. That would be contrary to God’s goodness.

I believe that if a priest has good intentions and is concerned that his homily will benefit those in his care, then God will inspire him with ideas and words for Sunday Mass.

If, on the other hand, the priest is thinking about other things, such as how he is perceived (intelligent, handsome, witty, charismatic, talented, educated, fun, wise), then the homily will probably crash and burn and do little or no good at all. Alternatively, if the priest is really quite apathetic about his congregation and the Mass, then the homily will very possibly go almost nowhere.

The point is that God will react to the intentions of the priest, when it comes to homilies. (With respect to the consecration, Jesus steps into the shoes of the priest, ensuring that even a distracted or devilish priest will provide the congregation with the Real Presence.)

God will assist those with good intentions. The good intention will come to fruition in good results. God will not allow such intention to be frustrated by anything other than the intentions of the hearers.

And here we begin the other part of the equation.

It would not be fair to omit a mention about the ‘soil’ — the congregation attending the Mass said by Fr. Ernest. Certainly, not all good homilies will result in improved behaviour on the part of the people at Mass. The seed does not always fall onto good soil, of course.

However, my point is that there has to be a seed in the first place!

Not every priest sows good seed. Some priests sow nothing, and some sow weeds. (In both cases, God intervenes to negate or minimize the damage to the innocent and those of good will.)

Before a priest can complain about his fields, he must consider, what quality is the seed that he’s sowing? Or, to switch analogies, before a priest can complain about his flock, he must consider, what is he feeding them? What are his intentions towards them? Does he perceive them as being there to fill the coffers and soothe his ego, or is he there to serve their spiritual needs? If his intentions are good, then the results will come.

(And here, I quibble with the quotation attributed to Mother Teresa. Her saying goes something like this: God calls us to be faithful, but not necessarily to be successful. I think this is a problematic quotation because although it can encourage perseverance, it can also be rather disheartening, suggesting that God does not stand behind the results of those who work with good faith and good will. The point of the Old Testament stories and the Gospel is that suffering which is experienced as part of doing God’s will is going to be recompensed. After the sorrowful mysteries come the glorious. After humiliation comes vindication. Victory is part of God’s reward to the faithful.)

Too many priests neglect the spiritual benefit of their own parishes, and too many bishops neglect the spiritual benefit of their own dioceses. They are thinking about the current or past or future budgets or about their status in the community or about their image or their cars or their phones. And believe it or not, even a preoccupation with Syrian refugees arriving Anytime Now can be less than impressive, if it means that the priest isn’t caring about the regular week-after-week folks Right Here and Right Now.

After all, the people in the pews aren’t a means to an end. They aren’t there primarily to raise money for this and that cause. They aren’t there primarily to donate to Development and Peace or to bring cans for the food bank or donations for whatever.

They are there because they are obligated to attend Mass every Sunday, and they are doing what they’re supposed to. The priest must now do what he is supposed to do.

Tend to the spiritual needs of those in your care. Give them good quality seed. Do your best to care for their souls. Are they coming to confession? Are they able to easily access whatever sacraments their children are needing? Do they understand the church teaching? It’s time to care. It’s not good enough to look like you care; you need to actually care.

Everyone, no matter what type of work that he does, needs to stop and consider his attitude towards his work.

Do I care about how my work turns out?
Do I care about those who are on the receiving-end of what I have produced?

If you care, then God will take care of the rest.

He won’t thwart your good intentions, and he won’t allow others to thwart them either. If you persevere in doing your best at your work, you’ll eventually come out on top and your work will do the good that it is supposed to do.

As for those who are apathetic, woe to them!

Those who do a half-assed job at those tasks which are rightfully theirs, will one day pay the price for wasting the time and the resources of those who depended upon them.

We owe each other our best efforts. It is not right for a blogger to slap together something stupid, with the excuse that she didn’t really feel that much like writing that day. This wastes the time of internet users who are actually looking for something useful or enjoyable. It is not right for an author to rely on his established reputation and not try very hard on book number three. This wastes the time of loyal readers who were hoping for an equal-quality sequel. The same goes for car manufacturers and illustrators and home renovators and carpenters. Delivering goods and services that are not up to snuff just mucks up the marketplace and the world. Everyone has to wade through piles and mountains of poorly-done work in order to find what was done with good efforts and proper intention.

It’s a shame.

Ah, so imagine with me a world where everything which was done with corrupt or dishonorable intention just vanished. Imagine how many books and songs would be gone! Imagine all the plays and the movies that wouldn’t exist! All those things which were created just to turn a buck would evaporate. (And we’d have fresh air!) Suddenly we’d be left with just the best that people could do. How nice! Going to a bookstore or a toy store would be as easy as pie; no time would be wasted, and people wouldn’t be tricked out of spending hard-earned cash on things and activities that are not what they seem.

Even those things we call ‘entertainment’ should be produced with a proper intention. The intention should be to bring enjoyment to the audience, for one thing. It should not be about expanding and glorifying the reputation of the entertainer. It should not be about breaking box office records. It should not be about shock or scandal or Facebook and Twitter.

It should be about the viewer.

Remember him?
Remember her?

Remember the regular, ordinary family wanting just a pleasant and time-worthy experience?

You used to be one of them. Don’t forget the person you were. You used to be simple. You used to laugh easily. Remember? Back then, you didn’t worry about being Cutting Edge. You didn’t worry about The Latest Thing.

Go back to thinking about the audience. Stop thinking about fame. Stop thinking about your name.

And here, I will even question Chesterton.

Why is it, I recently wondered, that so many people fail to understand what the man meant?
Why is it that so many people find him hard to follow?

If God is good, then why would he allow so much of what Chesterton wrote to go over the head of the reader?

Clearly, the fault isn’t with God. (Of course not.) I believe that if Chesterton earnestly wanted to be understood in all that he wrote, then God wouldn’t have allowed things to be left the way they are. I believe that Chesterton would have been more transparent and more accessible to the world.

As things stand now, he almost needs to be translated.

I don’t think that’s just because he was writing so long ago and because he was so intelligent (and so on and so forth). I think it has something to do with G.K.’s intention. I think it wasn’t always Perfectly Right. I think sometimes it got rather tangled and bogged down.

Take, for instance, this section, from the Illustrated London News article “The Polish Ideal” (July 2, 1927):

But I know there are some people who would not understand it even enough to disagree with it. I know that some people would furiously refuse even to see the joke of it. There is something in that particular sort of romance, or (if you will) in that particular sort of swagger, which moves them quite genuinely to a violent irritation. It is an irritation common among rationalists, among the drier sort of dons, and among the duller sort of public servants.

My issue is with his use of the word “dons.” When I was considering this section, I didn’t know what he meant, and so I even went to look it up, thinking that perhaps it was an archaic word that had now fallen out of use. All I could find was a reference to the Spanish word for addressing a man, equal to the word “Mr” in English. Once I knew that, I saw that it was rather clever, because later in the article he refers to Don Quixote.

So much for that.

It is fine to be clever and it is fine to rhyme, but the writer’s eye always has to be on the audience. The writer of prose must strive, first of all, to be understandable. Cleverness is one thing, but clarity is better. If it’s a private joke between yourself and yourself, it just doesn’t work. In that case, don’t write it. Just think it. Or, if you must write it, don’t publish it.

So my charge against you, Chesterton, is that you sometimes cared more about the fun of the language and the interesting literary flourishes and turns than you did about the reader. You sometimes left him in the dust, and that’s not okay. The upshot of this is that now many of your would-be readers have let the volumes of your words stay on the shelves. Your words are, sadly, covered in dust, unread.

If your intention had been better, you would have written a little bit differently. You would have written a little bit better.

And while I have you here on the stand, Chesterton, I must say that you messed up really quite often when you wrote your Father Brown mysteries.

Your descriptions of slaughter often went entirely too far.

You went further than you needed to go to make the story-line work.

Writing a murder mystery is not a crime, but, if you do it without proper intention, it can be a sin. Sometimes, Chesterton, you blew it. Sometimes you added so much gore and so much description that the fiction became an insult to the dignity of the human body.

That’s the truth, and I might as well say it. I don’t spare anyone, and I won’t spare you.

Even fiction must be done with proper intention and with utmost care. Indeed, I could say that fiction especially should be done with care. Non-fiction works generally have a smaller audience and fail to enthrall — this means that the damage done by poor work has lesser effect. At the end of the day, who really cares about anthropology and entomology?

That’s not what people are talking about on the street and online.

People are talking about the latest movies and television shows and music. The world of the arts, the world of make-believe, of characters and stories — that’s where humanity is, and that’s where it always will be. Jesus told stories because people are wired for them. They want to know the beginning, the middle and the end.

So, Mr. Chesterton, you didn’t always get it right. You were gifted and you were inspired, but you still didn’t always get everything right. You could have done better, but you chose not to. Sometimes you strayed and sometimes you were tempted to write for other reasons. You liked to prove something about yourself and you sometimes liked to shock. And while you may have accomplished that — showing the world that the big literary Englishman had unimagined moves and ideas in there — you lost something else.

You separated yourself, just this much, from God’s will. That’s a big loss.

The sword that you wrote about so often came in between you and your God, just this much.

That’s a big loss, big guy.

It’s a very good thing, Mr. Chesterton, that God is bigger than our sins.

It’s a very good thing, everyone, that God is bigger than our sins.

God looks at us, and he sighs. He looks at what you have done and he looks at what you have failed to do. He sighs and he picks up the pieces, knowing that he gave you opportunity after opportunity to do much better than you did. He fixes what you wreck and he fixes what you neglect. His mercy is enormous and unfathomable. He even has the heart to smile at you and welcome you back, once you’ve admitted your wrong.

In his mercy, God makes all things new. (Whew.)

My favorite part from Tobit is where Raguel says,“Blessed art thou, because thou hast made me glad. It has not happened to me as I expected; but thou hast treated us according to thy great mercy.” (Tob 8:16)

Ah yes.

1. God is good.