Cathy George is an Episcopal priest and author of the new book, You Are Already Praying: Stories of God at Work. Reverend George is also a participant in the Collegeville Institute seminar on vocation and faith in the professions. Corein Brown sat down with her to discuss the prayer lives of people of faith, especially as those individuals seek to connect their faith with their work in the world.
I love the title of your book, You Are Already Praying: Stories of God At Work. How did you come up with it?
The title came from a sentence that I found myself saying over and over to people as I was trying to reassure them that there were ways to pray that did not involve being in church, being quiet, or other associations we have with prayer. Praying in church is an important way to pray, but as I started talking with people about prayer I became increasingly interested in exploring the scriptures’ invitation to pray without ceasing, in everything, with thanksgiving. To do this, we need to find ways that prayer moves with us out of the chapel and into our lives.
How did this book come to be?
When I was the rector of St. Anne’s parish in Lincoln, Massachusetts, we had a forum each year on faith going to work with us. People would speak about the workplace and how difficult it was to connect their faith with their work. In this context, as I listened to people tell their stories about work and watched their fellow parishioners take great interest in their stories, I came up with the idea for the book. I started collecting stories and noticing how people interacted with each other around the connection between faith and work. “What do you mean you close your office door and pull out a prayer book?” “How do you pray while you commute?” “Where do you keep your little prayer card?” These were the types of conversations I began to record.
When I picked up the book, I thought the focus would be on people praying specifically at their work places, but you cover a much broader array of situations in which people find themselves praying.
Initially, I set out to look only at prayer in the workplace, but the overall motivation for the book had to do with connecting people to their faith outside the walls of the church. Somehow Christians have the idea that we go to church to pray. But when we look at the life of Jesus, we see that he spent little time inside the synagogue, and lots of time at the seashore, in the marketplace, and out where people lived. Jesus’ teaching, preaching, and steadfast reliance upon God was in the workplace and in the world. The book was one way for me to connect church life with daily life, and its scope quickly became bigger than just the workplace.
In the last chapter, you lay out a bit of advice when it comes to praying, such as encouraging people to find a place, a time, and a community for prayer. But the majority of your book is in narrative format. Why did you choose storytelling as your primary method of communicating? How did you find and compile all of the stories you include?
I chose storytelling because stories were the generative life of this book. The book came out of people sharing stories with each other. In the series on faith and work that we did at Saint Anne’s, I found that people often wanted to hear concrete stories about faith in the workplace. For instance, when Mary Armstrong, a visual artist, came to speak to the group, people wanted to hear exactly how her faith played into the creative act of painting. Ideas and abstractions weren’t enough. We often remember stories more clearly than principles or ideas, and stories help us grapple with issues in our lives in a profound way.
One of the stories in the book that comes to mind is about Maude, a hospital administrator. As Maude told me about bringing her faith to work, I found myself asking questions until we got to an actual story of Maude interacting with a patient. Maude is a food service director, and the story about Maude that made it into the book is about how she went to great lengths to find food that a particular young patient could eat. By seeing this patient as a child of God and acting accordingly, Maude made all the difference in this young woman’s life. Maude could have talked for a long time about faith at work without bringing up that story, but the story tells us something about faith at work that abstractions and generalizations cannot. When you get down to a story that smells and tastes like something, you really start to make connections. You’re picturing the food, you’re hearing the laughter, you imagining the artist saying a prayer with a candle before she begins her work.
Your book weaves together other people’s stories with your own narrative. The finished product is beautiful and seamless. What was the process of weaving stories together for the book like?
My first intention was simply to collect other people’s stories of faith at work for the book, but I ended up including as well my own story as a type of glue. Some of the people featured in the book were beautiful writers, so I included their written stories and played the role of editor. Others were much better aural storytellers. Their gift was to live out prayer in their work, but they weren’t really interested in writing, and their written work didn’t convey the power of their stories. So I interviewed them and wrote their stories based on the interviews. The hardest part of writing the book for me was interjecting my own story, which I did because of consistent feedback from those who read drafts of the manuscript. I was convinced by the readers who said, “We want to know your story. We want to know why you are so interested in prayer, and particularly prayer in this form.” This was my first book, so I can’t say that it just fell into place. Figuring out my own voice and weaving it into the book was more difficult than I had imagined.
I was struck by the story of Jim, a landscape architect. He seemed able to differentiate when his work was prayer and when it was not. When he found himself compromising his artistic gifts or environmental commitments in order to support his family financially, please his customers, or remain competitive in the landscape business, he wrote, “As for my other more typical work, which I regret to say consumed most of my days’ energy and worry—in the long run it didn’t matter and will soon fade away.” How do you respond to people who feel that their work cannot be prayerful because it requires them to compromise their values or because their work is degrading?
This is such an important question and refers to a key element in the book’s stories . I have to admit that I don’t understand this impulse exactly – an impulse I also share with Jim – but it is part of separating God from the mundane details of our lives. We somehow think that if our work is for pay, degrading, or compromises our ideals; if we are conflicted about our work; or if we’re not living to our true potential; then somehow God can’t be part of our work because it’s too worldly, mundane, or secular. We assume that first we have to improve ourselves, get it right, figure it out, and then we can pray.
My response to this dilemma is that honesty is probably the most important element in our relationship with God. When we feel compromised, degraded, or in conflict with our values at work, we are presented with a moment that requires us, not so much to figure it out, but to pray. “God help me with this. Come into this room with me. Enter this meeting with me. I know I have to support my family, and I want to follow the teachings of Jesus. Help me see what you want me to see. Let me follow you. Let me rely on you to help me with this.” Rather than assuming we are doing something God is mad about and thus not speak to God about it, we are presented with an opportunity to pray.
I’m reminded of a strong, wonderful leader in one of my parishes. I invited her to speak at a forum on faith and work. She responded, “I can’t possibly talk at a forum on faith and work. I am a credit officer at a large bank, and my problem is that my faith has nothing to do with my work.” I asked if she would be willing to say that at the forum, and we could see where the discussion went from there. She said she would be willing as long as I moderated the conversation and kept it going, because no one would have anything to say to her. This woman was in a senior position and had a long career in banking. She thought that compromising her values was part of her work. On the other hand, she was a strong, generous, faithful leader in our church.
When she spoke at the forum, the conversation was extremely lively and participatory. More importantly, her ability to say, “I can’t figure this out” generated connections between people and awakened a desire in parishioners to talk about this issue. We ended up having a follow-up event that was simply open conversation about what to do when you can’t figure out how to take your faith into your work because of compromises and conflicts. So my message is this: We should be honest about where we are in our lives as we approach prayer, allowing the messiness of our lives to come before God.
As a pastor, what have you done to encourage people’s sense of vocation in their work?
Once I began to realize how significant the ministry of the church could be in translating into people’s lives the teachings of Jesus, the sustenance of the sacraments, and the meaning of being baptized, it became important to me to seek to honor the parishioners’ vocational callings. After I really started believing in the priesthood of all believers, which means that any doctor, lawyer, plumber, mother, father, grandparent, postal worker, or hospital worker is as much called to walk with God in life as is a priest, I began to see the church differently. Instead of looking upon the church as the place we come to encounter God and experience the sacred, I wanted to honor the fact that what people do in their lives all week long is ministry. It is not a beautiful or romantic image of the church, but the image of the church as a gas station comes to mind. I think of the church as a place where people in ministry in the world come to be sustained and filled, to be forgiven and renewed, by each other, by the sacraments, and by the scriptures.
Did you go into the priesthood with this mindset, or did it develop in you over the years?
I think it has grown over the years. There is something about going through seminary and becoming a priest that had to do with somehow seeing myself as set apart and holy. I don’t know if I have ever felt myself to be much holier than other people, but I felt that my work was holier. I felt that somehow my work was all about God. Over the years I have seen that everyone’s work has the potential to be “all about God” as much as a priest’s work at the altar.
One of my favorite parts of your book is the claim you make that all prayer is good: prayers on the go; prayers that are expressed as we interact with family, friends and coworkers; prayers of awe in the face of nature; and even prayers expressing anger toward God. Repeatedly, you encourage your readers not to judge their prayers, but simply to pray. What do you say to people who feel like their prayers are not good enough or who struggle to find quiet time to pray each day, and consequently feel like their prayer lives are inadequate?
At some point in their lives of prayer, almost all people of faith I know confront the idea that they are not good at prayer. I hope this is reassuring; it has been for me. As I have come to know people in monastic communities who dedicate their lives to prayer, I see that they struggle with this just as much as any of us do. They just have a different level of judgment about their prayer. They feel that they are not quiet or diligent enough, they don’t say enough rosaries, or they don’t read enough.
I feel that this judgmental approach to prayer is the spirit of darkness trying to draw us away from God. It’s that spirit that we confront in our baptisms and throughout life when we are turning our hearts and lives toward God. C.S. Lewis’ perspective in The Screwtape Letters is more helpful to me than anyone else’s, because he sees the pull toward judgment about our prayers as a sly, cunning voice that knows us deeply. It tries to get us to find any little way to weasel out of prayer.
The times in which I have increased my devotion to prayer or decided I wanted to commit to growing my relationship with God through prayer have been the times when I have suddenly noticed that the heat is turned up on the voices of darkness that try to say, “You’re praying now? You should be embarrassed to pray. You are commuting. How humiliating for God to have to share your attention with traffic. Why don’t you find a real prayer?” I remember once, I was on the treadmill and didn’t feel like watching the television screen. I thought I would pray. So I started to open my heart and talk about my day, and the same thing happened: “On the treadmill? This is awful. You are so bad at prayer. You can’t find time for God.”
That negative voice is not something to think about lightly; it is something from which to pray for protection, something that will always attack us when we are headed in the right direction. I find it to be greatly consoling to be reminded by our tradition and our scriptures that when we ask for God’s grace to be powerful over the voices of darkness that try to undermine our prayer life, God will give us this grace. Our relationship with God is not something we master. It is an infinite relationship in which we try again, and again, and again to do our part. Even our desire to pray has the heart of God beaming. God will come to meet us in these moments of self-incrimination and not let these undermining forces pull us away.
Images: The Rev. Cathy Hagstrom George. Available from: http://nybishopsearch 2011.org/committee-nominees/george/
You Are Already Praying: Stories of God at Work. Available from: www.barnes andnoble.com