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Posted: November 12, 2004

Spiritual Caregiving

The Lawn-Mower Path


Even a busy life full of constant demands

can be rich in spirit, says Moore, the author

of Care of the Soul.

A moment of extreme annoyance stands out in my memory of 12 years as a monk. I was living in a monastery in Wisconsin, and on that particular afternoon my job was to mow a lawn that looked about the size of the moon.

True, I had an inexpensive, backfiring, gas-propelled mower at my disposal, but it was the extent of the job that was daunting. I kept getting more and more angry, thinking, "Have I given up the ordinary joys of life for this? To cut grass on a hot summer afternoon? I could be studying, praying, meditating, or writing. But no. I'm pushing a contemptible lawn mower, cutting an interminable green macrocosm of grass."

At the time, I thought my question about why I was cutting grass was a problem to be solved, but now I realize it was my koan of the day. It wasn't a question to be answered or puzzle needing a solution; it was a riddle about the nature of the spiritual life. I had been taught the monastic dictum, ora et labora, pray and work. I was learning that even work that has no obvious redeeming spiritual value is also prayer, and it isn't always uplifting or at all pious.

Today that koan has become my religion. I hear many people talking about spirituality as though it were something special, something out of the ordinary, something separate from the day-to-day job of making a living and taking care of the family. But that ethereal approach appears to me an escape from the spirituality to be mined from the daily struggle.

It seems nobler to me now to enter this challenging life with a strong, positive ethical sense and a generous effort at making a contribution than it is to chant and to meditate and to worship. I have stopped seeking higher consciousness and personal perfection. I now see religion in devotion to family, to one's spouse, to the neighborhood, and especially to children.

I doubt that God is to be seen as a pure spirit. Rather, God becomes visible only in the camouflage of human need and the world's suffering and life's possibilities. Deus absconditus, God has been called for centuries. Not entirely invisible, but disguised.

The ultimate trick in the spiritual life is to glimpse the meaning of incarnation: that the divine appears in the costume of the flesh, and we humans are not granted the prerogative of seeing divinity directly. That means that our spirituality has to be incarnate as well. It can't be too formally spiritual, except as rehearsal and preparation. And if all we do is rehearse at church and in the zendo, then what does it all amount to?

The ultimate teaching we find in many traditions is this: Give your life to others and you will find it. Today just about everybody is looking for an identity, a sense of being, and a feeling of being a person of substance. We are still trying to gather up the courage to be. So there is a paradox in the ordinary path to spirituality: Don't look for it self-consciously in your personality; rather, discover it at the very moment when you surrender, when you give up the self-stuff altogether. Service, justice, ethics, compassion ? these are the primary routes to the deep self.

I had to learn through simple annoyance that the spirit rarely appears as a tongue of fire over the heads of an expectant community. More often it emerges subtle and quiet from a chore or from a moment's willingness to forget about the self and look outward with a radically compassionate eye. Cutting the grass was not only my koan but also that day's lesson in spirituality. Bountiful forgetfulness in the task at hand ? that's the ticket to the spirit.


Thomas Moore is the best-selling author of Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life and Soul Mates: A Guide to Cultivating Life as an Act of Love. His latest book is The Soul of Sex: Honoring the Mysteries of Love and Relationships. He is a former Catholic monk and practicing psychotherapist.

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2004 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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