Professor Joe Holt teaches an MBA elective course titled Spirituality and Religion in the Workplace in which he explores the importance, challenges and possibilities of living out one’s faith in and through one’s work. This essay is adapted from a class discussion of prayer.
I like to think of prayer as waking up in a semi-dark room with the curtains drawn on a sunny morning and then pulling back the curtains to take in the light and warmth of a beautiful day. Pulling back the curtains doesn’t cause the light and warmth of the sun to be there, but is necessary if we are to experience them more fully. Similarly, our activity in prayer does not cause God to be present to us, but is necessary for us to be open to God’s loving and inviting presence.
The Relevance of Prayer
In Opening to God, Jesuit author Thomas Green asks the question, “Is prayer relevant?” He notes that Jesus taught us to pray (and in the Agony in the Garden himself prayed) “thy will be done,” while often we really pray “my will be done.” We decide what is best and then beseech God to bring that about. Green argues that prayer has limited relevance as a means to accomplish our objectives since God (thankfully!) will not be manipulated to our ends.
Prayer is truly relevant, however, as a means to know and love God better and to discern God’s will for each of us in the particular and changing circumstances of our lives. Discernment, after all, is the bridge between prayer and action, and, as Green notes, the goal of all good prayer is “to transform our lives, to deepen and strengthen our love of God in action.”
Coming to Quiet
Green explains that there aren’t techniques of prayer in the sense of ways to encounter God through our own efforts, rather than by God’s grace. There are helpful techniques, though, for achieving the stillness necessary to hear the voice of God, and for positively disposing ourselves to hear that saving voice.
There are some marvelous Scripture passages on the importance of coming to quiet. One of the simplest but most powerful is Psalm 46:10—“Be still and know that I am God.” This admonition represents a formidable challenge in a society often given to frenetic activity.
Then there is the story of Elijah, who was told to stand upon a mountain before the Lord (I Kings 19:9-14). First, there was a great wind so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind. Then there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then there was fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, there was a still, small voice. God was present in the still, small voice.
We cannot hear a still, small voice unless we come to quiet, and most of us find it difficult to achieve, maintain and find peace in silence before God. The challenge is to shut off not only external but also internal noise. When we have no distractions whatsoever around us, we can still be going a mile a minute inside. It is a countercultural challenge to come to quiet. But it is essential to prayer. Cardinal John Henry Newman is reported to have observed that God has given us mouths that close but ears that do not, and that should tell us something!
How Should I Pray?
Prayer involves the deepening of a loving relationship, and all loving relationships call for ongoing sensitivity and responsiveness in the changing moments of life. Prayer, like love generally, requires a capacity to be together in different ways at different moments. Prayer, like love, asks that we sometimes speak, sometimes listen, sometimes rejoice, sometimes mourn and sometimes remain simply and faithfully present to one another beyond words.
There is consequently a need for spontaneity and flexibility in prayer, to pray in the manner called for by the underlying relationship at any given moment. There is a danger to thinking there is one and only one way to pray no matter what. Fortunately, the Christian spiritual tradition provides us various types of prayer suited to the various moments of our prayer relationship.
The terms meditation and contemplation are sometimes used interchangeably, but in Ignatian spirituality there is an important distinction between the two.
Meditation primarily involves the use of our powers of reason to know God better, while contemplation primarily involves the use of our imagination.
We might meditate to fathom the deeper meaning of the Beatitudes or of Paul’s statement in Romans 5:8 that God’s love for us is shown in the fact that Jesus died for us while we were sinners rather than while we were deserving of any such sacrifice.
In such a meditation God may draw us to stop at a particular word or phrase and fathom its deeper meaning. In doing this we follow the example of Mary, who in response to the extraordinary tidings of the Shepherds concerning the birth of Jesus, is said to have “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). One of my Scripture professors stated that the root of the Greek verb “to ponder” is the same root that would describe a camel chewing straw. The camel doesn’t chew the straw once or twice and then swallow it but rather chews on it this way and that and keeps on chewing until it gets all the nourishment the straw is capable of providing. We are similarly called through meditation to derive all the nourishment we can from the words of Scripture.
Contemplation is less analytic and more imaginative than meditation. Contemplation involves imaginatively entering into an event recounted in the Bible, such as Jesus’ raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44) and experiencing that event as if we were participants in it. Jesus arrives and finds Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, mourning the loss of their brother, and Jesus himself weeps. Jesus then commands that the stone covering the entrance to the tomb be rolled back, and calls Lazarus out of the tomb. Lazarus comes out.
Ignatius of Loyola suggests that one way to enter into the contemplation of such a Gospel scene is first to see where the Spirit draws you to be present in the scene—as one of the apostles arriving with Jesus, as one of Lazarus’ sisters or someone in the crowd, as Lazarus himself—and then to apply your senses to the scene. What do the sisters look like when they are mourning his loss, when they see Jesus arrive, and when they see their brother emerge from the tomb? What do the bandages look like on Lazarus as he comes out of the tomb? What do their voices sound like? What is the tone of Jesus’ voice as he speaks to them reassuringly? Touch—when the sisters come up, do they touch Jesus? If so, was it a gentle touch, or do they really cling to him? As we imaginatively apply our senses to the scene, it becomes more three-dimensional and real to us, and we can experience the passage, and hence God, more powerfully.
Through centering prayer, we come to be quiet and make contact with God at the center of our being. We focus on the rhythm of our breathing or pick a word that has spiritual significance for us, such as “Abba” or “Jesus.” We repeat that word, or focus on our breathing, in a way that becomes meditative. This practice helps us to overcome our tendency to be thinking of many things all at once and to re-collect ourselves by centering on God. The repetition of the prayers comprising the rosary can produce the same spiritual benefit.
I have often been touched to see an elderly couple walking down the street holding hands and not speaking, but very much together; our prayer lives are like this when we become comfortable enough to move beyond words and to walk in this way with God.
In Ignatian spirituality, the awareness examination is a daily practice that helps us remain spiritually on course. In the examen, I look back over the day and reflect on its blessings, challenges and other spiritually significant moments. It could be that somebody said something incredible or did something touching—a pure experience of grace completely unmerited that just made my day. It could be that I said something hurtful to someone. In our spiritual life, there are particular challenges to spiritual growth that each of us is facing at any given time. The examen involves tracking how we are doing with respect to such challenges, and asking for God’s help with them.
In the spiritual life as in sailing, we generally do not proceed from Point A to Point B in a beeline but rather tack back and forth. To pray the examen is to look up at the lighthouse on the shore that we want to reach, to see whether we are on course and to make adjustments if we are not. If we don’t check our position regularly, we can go very far off course without realizing it.
Business students are fond of metrics and many have asked whether there are ways to measure spiritual progress. Some realities are not as easy to measure as increased revenues, but as a general matter, I suggest that we are growing in prayer to the extent that we become passionate that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven,” and grow in the fruits of the Spirit, i.e., love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22).
I also find the Peace Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi helpful to measure the extent to which we are living out our faith in the workplace. Where we encounter hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness and sadness where we work, do we sow love, pardon, faith, hope, light and joy? Or do we make a bad situation even worse? Do we seek not so much to be understood as to understand, not so much to be consoled as to console, or do we love our neighbors at work a good deal less devotedly than we love ourselves? At any given moment, we are moving closer to or further from God and others; keeping such criteria of spiritual growth in mind is helpful to ensure that we are heading in the right direction.
The challenge to live out our faith in the workplace is like the challenge of Peter walking on the water (Matthew 14:22-33). Recall that the disciples had been rowing for hours and were weary and far from shore in the terrifying dark of night with waves and wind against them. They see Jesus but initially think he is a ghost until he speaks to them.
At the sound of Jesus’ voice calling him, Peter gets out of the boat and walks toward Jesus on the turbulent waters. That’s an extraordinary act of faith. The boat symbolizes a human-made source of security and comfort, while the storm-tossed sea is well beyond human control.
Peter is able to walk on the water, though it is beyond his own power to do so, as long as he remains focused on the Lord. But when he focuses on the wind that is against him, rather than the Lord who is for him, he begins to sink until he cries out for help and is saved.
Like walking on water, living out our faith in the workplace is something that we are incapable of doing on our own, yet capable of when we remain rooted prayerfully in the Lord who calls us daily. When we open our minds and hearts more fully in prayer, and let go of whatever we cling to other than God for security, all things become possible.
—Joseph A. Holt is Director for Executive Ethics in the Executive Education program at Mendoza College of Business. Helpful step-by-step guidelines to the various forms of prayer discussed in this essay are found on a Web site maintained by John Veltri, S.J.,http://spiritualorientations.com/home2.htm.