Work as a Spiritual Exercise

Work as a Spiritual Exercise by Karol Jackowski

By Karol Jackowski

In the sisterhood, we were taught to think about work as obedience. We went where we were sent and did what we were told, believing that the will of God was wrapped in the decisions of the Superior. A group of 19-year-olds just discovering who we were, what we thought, and how we felt, we were told not to let any of our discoveries influence us. That’s soulfully hard to do without making yourself sick. But in that world, Superiors made decisions; sisters obeyed. As part of our spiritual formation as sisters, obedience became an exercise all its own, as well as a vow we were preparing to profess forever. More, the spirit of the vow called us to accept the will and practical judgment of the Superior as our own, and to do so without murmur.  

I could bring myself to obey, but I couldn’t stop murmuring. When I look back now, I see how mindless, distasteful work set my spirit free to wander, and though I didn’t know it at the time, obedience wakened my writing voice in hot and sweaty ways. In letting Superiors make decisions, it became crystal clear how much I agreed or disagreed and why, what I liked and didn’t like, the kind of work I did and didn’t feel called to do, and eventually, the work I loved to do. Not only did I discover a voice that was completely my own, but I noticed it was becoming stronger, clearer, and funnier. I became a constant inner murmurer. Something mysterious happened in the obediences I received: they became stepping stones to where I am now.

Every writer and artist I know tells the funniest stories of awful jobs they’ve had, as though it’s an essential ingredient in learning the craft—a rite of initiation, a test to see whether we have what it takes to be a writer. It’s those mindless jobs that make us think about work differently because we have to; it can’t be all there is. The work we put our life into must of necessity give us infinitely more than a paycheck.

I spent a summer microfilming medical records in a hospital storeroom closet, and a brutal year sorting boxes of construction documents damaged in a flood and breeding black mold. With jobs like that, we wake up dreading the day and counting the hours until it’s time to leave. We come home drained of energy, in a bad mood, full of complaints about another miserable day. On Sunday mornings, we begin dreading Mondays, and long for Friday every day. That kind of work stirs up dire necessity—a magic ingredient that eventually gets us from there to anything better.

In the Big Picture,which we rarely see, except when we look back in time, most work—including nearly every job I had—appears to be a turning point on the way to work we love. Out of necessity, we may have jobs that give us nothing more than a paycheck, but thinking about work differently can prevent even the worst jobs from making us increasingly miserable.  And if we have a loving family, community, friends to play with, or solitary splendor to come home to, we can survive any job for the time being. 

There is nothing more interesting than what we do with the lives we’ve been given and how we choose to live. Nothing is more divine than the steps we take and the roads we follow to discover what we’re called to do and what in us begs to be brought forth. It may take decades to understand what we’re called to do, but once we experience the life we bring forth, we begin to discover the work we love. We meet our Muses.

It took nearly 20 years for me to hear clearly the call to be a writer, to see there was no work I loved more than writing. At first, I was sent to be a high school counselor, teacher, and administrator for five years, before being asked to work with college students for 15 years; all work I loved. And somewhere in there, I moved from knowing I was a good writer to wanting to write more. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write. On the path of doing what I was asked to do—obediently—I discovered what I felt called to do, and began thinking of work differently (thanks to constant murmuring). I began thinking of making writing my life because it felt increasingly like it wanted to be. In 1979, while living in a college dorm with 575 women, I began writing at the beginning and end of every day. Years later, I began minding my Muses. I stopped murmuring, and I turned myself into a writer.

The Gnostic Gospel of Saint Thomas reveals, “If you bring forth what is in you, what is in you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you…Do not do what you hate.” [1]

The older we become, the more self-knowledge we gain through experience, and the more clearly we see our purpose in this life, the more often we feel the growing need to “bring forth what is in us.” Everything we do brings forth something in us, revealing what we need to know to get to where we want to go. On the deepest level, where our own essence begs to be brought forth, we are led every step of the way, whether we know it or not, as long as we trust the divine inner capacity and we are willing to obey the only voices we need to obey forever: our Muses, and our own.  All we need to do is keep writing. It’s our work.

[1] Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, Vintage Books:  New York, 1989, p.126.

About the Writer:
Karol Jackowski
left the Sisters of the Holy Cross and became part of the Sisters for Christian Community, an independent, self-governing sisterhood. Her books include Forever and Ever, Amen: Becoming a Nun in the Sixties; The Silence We Keep: A Nun’s View of the Catholic Priest Scandal; Sister Karol’s Book of Spells and Blessings; Ten Fun Things to Do Before You Die; Divine Madness: Why I Still Want to be a Nun; and the cookbooks Let the Good Times Roll and Home on the Range. She has been profiled and reviewed in Rosie, People, The Star Ledger (Newark), ELLE, The Journal News, The New York Post, and The New York Times. She has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, Speakeasy, CNN (interviewed by Soledad O’Brian), The Early Show (interviewed by Bryant Gumbel), WPXN-TV, Eyewitness News Sunday Morning, Weekend Today, and ABC-TV/She TV. Karol holds a PhD from NYU and lives in New York City and she teaches in the MFA program in Creative Nonfiction at Bay Path University.