Life at Margins: The Sanctity of Work and Worship

by Tom Roepke

  For over forty years, the Agape Community has demonstrated nonviolent resistance to injustice in the world and provided loving service to those in need. I first experienced life at Agape during several community workdays. A recent five-month residency at Francis House helped me understand more deeply the sanctity of shared work and the sacredness of daily communal worship.        

 The Sanctity of Shared Work 

       Residents at Agape met briefly on Monday mornings to share how things were going for them. Then the coming week was previewed using a large monthly calendar with the names of visitors and events written in pencil. I began to realize how much work is required to provide the hospitality visitors experience during their visits to the community. 

        A crackling wood stove represented a good deal of shared labor done earlier. I was happy to help as wood was split, stacked outside and later moved into the house, keeping the wood bins stocked during the cold winter months. Smiling with the realization that bodily health and strength enabled my capacity to serve the community in this way, I felt gratitude while carrying logs into the house.

     The work of filling wood bins with others allowed for casual conversation as well as a shared silence filled with the sounds of logs being pulled from the pile and feet crunching across the snowy path to the house. At times, the work became a dance of gracefully coordinated movements. Working with other community members fostered an experience of mutual camaraderie and friendship.

       Cooking and baking also provided the intrinsic satisfaction inherent in any form of loving service, especially when we rejoiced over bread that didn’t have hole in the middle and a soup that turned out well. The value of a supportive community was easy to appreciate when I learned that a failed loaf of crumbly bread could be used to make homemade croutons.

      While communities have long relied on cooperative work, today it is often replaced by more “efficient” methods of getting things done. Often this involves the exchange of currency for goods and services. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains renunciation to Arjuna saying, “When work is done as sacred work, unselfishly, with a peaceful mind, without lust or hate, with no desire for reward, then the work is pure.” Preparing and sustaining a house of hospitality is a contemporary form of sacred work. Sanctified by the renunciation of working for a monetary reward, residents provide hospitality to all visitors, including the formerly unhoused, the lonely, and those in search of a new way of living.

Welcoming visitors to share a meal of soup, salad and homemade bread provided a welcome alternative to the commercially prepared options at a fast food restaurant or processed food in a grocery store. I wonder:  How does the monetization of labor in capitalist society impact the possibility of experiencing daily work as a labor of love?

    Even in mid-December the garden continued to provide fresh collard greens and kale. One day I was given the job of stripping any edible greens from the garden, as freezing winter weather would soon put an end to that possibility. I filled several large white bags with collard greens, arugula, parsley, and kale. This last harvest of the season was enough for the four residents and visiting friends to eat fresh greens for days. Harvesting greens to be eaten by others as well as myself was a novel experience for me. While living in NYC all the food I ate was harvested, transported, sold, and often prepared in exchange for currency.

    Sanctity, the state of being holy or saintly, is not typically an attribute associated with work in the world. At Agape, I experienced daily work as a service to the community, a transformative approach to nurturing a human presence in the world. We may not all be saints, but we can all foster saintliness in ourselves and our communities. Even small acts can be imbued with love and hospitality. On cold winter nights, I often moved an extra chair when I sat near the woodstove and the resident cat, Ricky, would hop up to enjoy the warmth of the fire. Over time, daily expressions of kindness, generosity and loving care create a healing human presence in the world.

     As Thomas Merton wrote, “For me, to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore, the problem of sanctity…is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” Engaging in work as a holy activity supports this process of self-realization.

The Sacredness of Daily Worship 

     Along with work, living at Agape deepened a sense of sacredness, strengthening my inner life and relationship with creation. In his latest book, On the Brink of Everything, eighty-year-old Parker Palmer describes the inner life as, “ a largely silent, solitary process of reflection that helps us reclaim the ‘ground of our being’ and root ourselves in something larger and truer than our own ego.” As an Agape resident, I experienced this “something larger” many times, both in solitude and during daily morning prayer gatherings in the chapel.

      It’s easy to imagine opportunities for nurturing the inner life in solitude at Agape. Surrounded by the beauty of the natural world, I often had brief reflective moments while working outside or taking a hike by myself. These brief moments of awareness during the day strengthened my communion with the world and over time, my days became increasingly punctuated with a sense of wonder and joy.

      Seeing frost on the kale, watching the last leaves cling resiliently to a mighty oak, kneeling down to touch princess pine illuminated by the morning sun on the path to the hermitage- life at Agape supported the innate human capacity to recognize the world’s beauty and express gratitude to the creator. In this way, daily worship was not limited to a specific time or place. Although these moments occurred in solitude, they were gifts offered by the atmosphere formed and sustained by the community for decades.

    Daily worship was also experienced communally before breakfast each morning. We gathered in the chapel and began the day together with shared silence, a chant, readings of scripture, reflections, prayers, and a song. Maybe the best way to describe the power of this practice is to say it was a daily communal experience of spiritual intimacy.

     Shared silence between readings and prayers created the space for a communion that was more precious than words can express. After hearing the scripture, insights from The Interpreter’s Bible were read and reflective comments freely shared. Then prayers were offered by individuals: prayers for loved ones who had died of covid, for those experiencing difficulties, and for personal needs; prayers in response to the endless reports of atrocities in the world… and prayers of gratitude. The gathering closed with a song that often reverberated inwardly well into the day.

        Somehow, looking out of the chapel windows into the woods and sky provided a comforting sense of being embraced and cared for by the Creator. And this sense was experienced as well with a quick glance at the human community worshiping together. Life at the margins flows directly from the center of the human heart.