Work and Sabbath at the Dawn of Covid-19

In preparation for helping my congregation both think about and live into new ways of being the church, I have been re-reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World. It is a lovely text—accessible yet profound, grounded in deep knowledge of the Christian tradition and also of the earth. Many chapters have spoken to me, but especially timely is “The Practice of Saying No.” It meditates on the gift of Sabbath practice and how difficult it is to choose to engage in such a practice when our world is calling us constantly to either produce or consume. How radical it is just to stop, to sit, to observe, to breathe… to say no to the cycles of production and consumption that dominate our society.

Now that many of us have been forced by the Covid-19 pandemic into a withdrawal from our usual activities, the chapter reads differently than it has in the past. On the one hand, social distancing and shelter-in-place orders have slowed our participation in commerce and literally called us home. On the other, most of us have moved our jobs from our offices into our homes, in some cases right next to family members and their work. How do we manage the contradictions and blurred boundaries brought about by this collective upheaval? There are some striking reflections making the social media rounds about the silver linings of this crisis, specifically how it might bring us back to some simpler ways of living and sharpen our eyes for what is truly important. Especially notable is Lynn Unger’s poem Pandemic, which explicitly names the calls for social distancing and sheltering in place as opportunities to reconsider the practice of Sabbath.

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Character and calling in a time of crisis

No doubt you have seen the advice, attributed to Mister Rogers’ mother, that we should look to the helpers in those times when the news is scary. As the frightening realities about the spread of the Covid-19 virus have unfolded over the last few weeks, there are also plenty of stories of heroes and heroines on the national and local level. Paying attention to their stories and especially to the virtues that they embody in this harrowing situation can be an opportunity for students to consider how the virtues intersect with calling. Here, I’ll mention two examples, but there are many others now just as there will be in the weeks and months ahead.

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Letters of recommendation: the need for humility

We are often in a position to tell our students’ stories.

Last year, I wrote a Vocation Matters reflection on telling our students’ stories in recommendation letters. I meditated on the fact that, in order to learn their stories, faculty and staff members have to be authentic cooperators and collaborators with their students. We cooperate with them in developing a narrative even as we faculty members craft a formal one, later, on behalf of our students. This requires one to balance the interests of formation and assessment, early, with promotion later. Our student subjects are dynamic and developing, so updates are needed on their states of mind and future plans. Finally we, as embedded institutional actors, need to understand our own subjectivities. All this comes together in what are very often long-term relationships. We become the keepers of their flames of desire.

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Finding vocation in loss, suffering, and death

There could be no better time than the present moment, with the Covid-19 pandemic threatening human life all over the world, to ask the question, “How might we find vocation in loss, suffering, and death?” To help us think about that question, I want to begin with a story.

It was almost twenty years ago when I learned that the Lilly Endowment had awarded Pepperdine University, where I taught at that time, a $2 million grant to support the “theological exploration of vocation” with our students.

I was ecstatic, and only moments after that call, I met one of my classes and shared the news with my students. They all were delighted—all, that is, except one. Far from delighted, he seemed distressed and troubled and told me straight up, “This project strikes me as a gift to children of privilege, a project that will simply cater to their own self-absorption. Most of the people in the world,” he continued, “don’t have the luxury of thinking about their ‘vocation.’ Life for them is a struggle simply to survive.”

My student’s words hit me like a bolt of lightning and reinforced a truth I already knew—that to serve our students well, this project had to encourage them to envision their lives and careers in terms much larger than themselves.

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The virtue of “still deciding”

In a previous post, I defended the “still deciding student” who, despite pressure to participate in a culture of assessment, for which specific, quantifiable outcomes—as simple in some cases, even, as the declaration of a major—purport to measure what it means to be educated, would still hold some measure of themselves back from subjection to the metrics of attainment.

The key to my defense is the notion that still deciding is a virtue. I am thinking about what Aristotle called a hexis (ἕξις). What is a hexis? Not, despite what the dominant tradition of interpretation in Western philosophy has said, a habit. Indeed, the identification of virtues as habits is a most unfortunate error, as the philosopher Joe Sachs has argued. For a virtue is not—cannot be—a mindless habit. Rather, a virtue is an active holding of oneself, already ready to recognize the unpredictable, yet opportune, moment for action. As such, the capacity to be still deciding is crucial to virtuous decision-making.

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Letting Go and Embracing: Vocation and The Practice of Fasting

The practice of fasting is having a moment in popular culture. It often feels as if every health and wellness advertisement, weight loss pitch or trendy celebrity is extolling the benefits of fasting, especially intermittent fasting. Recently, the New York Times personal health columnist, Jane E. Brody, published her analysis of the scientific claims of fasting stating, “I was skeptical, but it turns out there is something to be said for practicing a rather long diurnal fast…”

And yet we know that fasting is now and has been over millennia a central experience for many religious traditions and well represented in their sacred scriptures. For example, fasting for repentance, in praise and thanksgiving to God, for purification or for a desire to achieve greater connection to the sacred grounds many religious and philosophical journeys toward living a life of greater wisdom and seeking to understand calling, purpose and meaning.

It is in this context of the renewed popular awareness of fasting that I thought about my own preparations as a Catholic for the Ash Wednesday fast and the ongoing Lenten season. What does fasting have to teach us about our vocational wrestling? How might that be useful in working with students and members of religious communities on the development of their sense of meaning and purpose? 

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Exploring Vocation in First-Year Programs

Most people recognize that it takes more than just “smarts” to make it through college. Clearly academic skills and a certain level of intelligence are essential to earning a college degree. However, having a successful, meaningful, and enjoyable college experience includes more than just the academic encounters of our students. Higher education also provides opportunity for students to learn about themselves, develop healthy habits, and make meaning out of life.

Exploring vocation is an important component of the first year of college and can be used to develop psychosocial skills that will set students up for success during their 4+ years at the university. Learning how to use God-given gifts to make a positive impact in a complex, demanding world requires the development of the whole person.

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