Source: Orthodox America
As Orthodox Christians we are called to be constantly aware of God’s presence and to be constantly striving to work out our salvation. The most visible implementation of that striving is the monastic life, where worldly cares and concerns are abandoned or at least completely submitted to the activities of the spiritual life. But not all of us are called to monastic life. Most of us are called to marriage and family life, and others to a life of celibacy in the world. Those of us who live in the world, with rare exceptions, find ourselves with the necessity to work in some occupation or profession so that we can make a living. Most employers are not concerned with their employee’s spiritual lives and the workplace environment is not a necessarily spiritual one. The focus is not on spiritual tasks but on production and efficiency. Our co-workers are seldom Orthodox Christians, and in many cases they are not Christians of any confession. The conversations tend to be filled with the concerns of the workplace and of the world. How then do we Orthodox Christians fulfill our calling to work out our salvation on one hand and to function as a part of the work force?
The obvious answer to this question is to be constantly mindful and aware of our Orthodox Christian calling in all circumstances. There are some techniques to facilitate this in the workplace. One is to carry a small icon, just as you would carry a photo of your children, and look at it frequently to recall your mind to the heavenly kingdom. A small icon can be made into a medal worn around the neck much as one wears a baptismal cross. Another technique is to create a routine of regular, short, frequent prayers; for example, set a watch beeper to signal the hour, and at each hour pause a few seconds to recite a particular prayer. The Jesus Prayer is good for this. Likewise, one can memorize a short psalm or a prayer from the prayer book. One suggestion from the prayer book is to use the prayer of St John Chrysostom for the twenty-four hours of the day, which can be found in the evening prayers of the Jordanville Prayer Book. Regular morning and evening prayers, as well as daily reading from the Gospel and from spiritual writings, also serve to center the mind and heart on the Kingdom of God. Taking a portion, or even all, of the lunch hour to feed the soul as well as the body by prayer or spiritual reading provides a regular break in the middle of the day to draw the mind back to its true place. And there are many other things we can do to create a constant reminder of our Christian calling.
Despite our best efforts, however, we often face conflicts and situations where we find that the life of the Church is not compatible with the life of the workplace. There are practical conflicts; there are temptations and the necessity of moral behavior; and there are ethical conflicts. Each can occur on its own or in concert with other related difficulties.
Some of the practical conflicts have to do with the daily cycles of Church life: such things as fasting, prayer, and holy days. When we strive to keep the fast, it suddenly seems as though there is a cascade of temptations to break the fast. Office lunches, snacks and munchies, even the rushed lunch necessitating “fast food,” all seem to have some element of meat or dairy products. When we don’t partake of the non-fasting foods, we invite questioning looks and there is the need to explain. It seems nearly impossible to make one’s co-workers understand without somehow giving the impression of judging or condemning. So the initial conflict is to resist temptation, however, the underlying conflict is how to explain our behavior.
Those who work at desks, in offices or at a fixed workstation, often have the opportunity to decorate their workspace with some personal items. Pictures of family, pets, or friends are common as are calendars, posters or other decorative pictures. It seems only natural that we as Orthodox Christians place icons, in prominent places. However, there is the question of what others will think, or whether we might inadvertently offend someone else’s beliefs. We can easily explain pictures of friends and family, but it is always the icon that attracts attention and questions.
Most employers allow a certain number of holidays on which the business will be closed, such as Labor Day, Independence Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, (Western) Christmas, etc. Rarely do these work holidays coincide with Orthodox holy days such as Holy Week and Pascha, Nativity (on the Church calendar), Theophany, Transfiguration, Dormition, etc. So we are faced with the conflict of whether to attend the Divine services or go to work. If we attend the Divine services, we have to forfeit some pay, arrive late, use vacation, or pay some other price. In some jobs it is increasingly common for there to be the expectation to work “non traditional” schedules, which frequently include weekends. This can be quite a conflict for the pious Orthodox Christian who makes a priority of attendance at Divine Services.
A final practical concern is simply that of conversation and interaction with our coworkers, clients and customers. An obvious temptation here is to gossip. The “grapevine” in any office is the unofficial carrier of information. If we don’t listen in on the grapevine, we may miss important information. And yet, the vast majority of the information on the grapevine is gossip, personal information, speculation, and criticism of others. Where do we draw the line? We also often find ourselves involved in discussions of current events, television programs, sports, plays, movies and other entertainments. While these discussions are often innocuous, they sometimes involve topics which are opposed to our Faith. Overall one should keep in mind the words of the Holy Apostle Paul, Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things(Phil. 4:8).
Conversations with coworkers also may involve religion. Heterodox Christians may well assume that they share with us a belief system with only minor differences. We are faced with having to decide whether to let the false assumption rest, or whether to confront the issue, possibly having the differences in belief become an impediment to your working relationship. If you are able to freely discuss differences in beliefs, just how far is it appropriate to go on “work time.” As we know, religious discussions can become quite involved, taking up a lot of time and energy and distracting us from the task at hand.
In order to address these practical concerns, we have to look at our priorities. Is the keeping of the fast important enough to go without a meal (if there is nothing appropriate to eat)? It is increasingly common for even worldly people to adopt a vegetarian – even vegan – diet for any number of reasons. They have no trouble acting according to their beliefs. How is it that we Orthodox Christians, who fast for our spiritual health, have such difficulty with our dietary restrictions? Some of us actually welcome such conflicts as giving us an excuse to “cheat” on the fast in order not to “offend” someone else or “make a show” of our fasting. It has been my experience that once you begin keeping the fast among your co-workers, there is really very little fuss that occurs. Some of my co-workers actually go out of their way to make sure that at company lunches there is some kind of fasting food that I can eat when it is, as I say, a “vegan day.” (While most people go along with such idiosyncrasies, most do not understand, nor do they really care to, why we fast. However, I have found that the ones who best understand are not Christians but those who are involved in religions that actively address the link between body and soul, i.e., “new age” pagans.)
On feast days, it is not always possible to attend Divine services due to work. However, with a little planning and attention to the calendar, often a vacation day or some “flex time” can be used to celebrate the feast. Many parishes are open to early morning services so that parishioners can attend the liturgy, receive the Mysteries, and still make it to the office on time. (If it seems daunting to get up an hour or so earlier in order to get to Liturgy, just remember that the priest has to get there even earlier, to prepare the temple and to begin the Proskomedia!) Sometimes, though, it is just not possible to get to the Divine Liturgy on the day of a feast. It is important to recall that the Vigil of the feast, served the evening before, is also part of the celebration. In fact, many of the special events of a feast take place at the vigil; for example, the veneration of the cross on the Feast of the Elevation and on the Sunday of the Cross in Great Lent. On a feast day at work, be sure to celebrate the feast as best you can. Have a festive lunch or bring a special snack or treat to share with co-workers. If you can play tapes or CD’s, find the music for the feast and put it on. Make the feast a special day for yourself and those around you.
The issue of working on Saturdays and Sundays is more complex. One solution is just to refuse any position which requires Sunday hours. This is not always realistic; an alternative might be to limit weekend hours to once a month or some other schedule that permits frequent attendance at Divine Services. Another alternative is to schedule hours on weekends around the times when there are services, e.g., work days on Saturday and evenings on Sunday. Admittedly, none of these solutions is optimal and they involve some measure of compromise; ultimately, each person, in conjunction with his spiritual father, must make the decision of what is acceptable in his situation. Work is important as the source of our support, but far more important are meaning and identity for Orthodox Christians come from God.
Fr. David is rector of St Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Mission in Boise, Idaho, in addition to working full-time as a mental health counsellor for a local agency.