One of my earliest experiences with organized religion consisted of being forced to dress up like a little porcelain doll (which I did not love) and attend church services with my mother.
I had complicated feelings about her church: it was large, cathedral-like, and beautiful; I was fascinated by the stained glass, the flowers, the vestments, the ritual of it all. However, the church itself was also drafty and not remarkably well insulated from the elements of the Eastern seaboard: I was occasionally too hot and almost always too cold. I found some of the choir selections to be vague—the melodies and harmonies were stunning, but I had to follow along with the words in the hymnal if I wanted to have any idea what they were talking about with all those amorphous, nimbus-like sounds.
If I hadn’t learned to read at a weirdly young age, I would probably have hated church a lot more. But the lyrics in the hymnal were interesting, at least some of the time. The varieties of language used to praise and invoke the Trinity were a source of interest to me. There seemed to be a lot of ways, and a lot of moods, in which to call down what was holy. And, for a while, I pondered the narratives passed down by the songs, as well as by the stained glass windows (I was not terribly partial to sermons).
I remember being about eight years old, sitting next to my mother, bored, antsy, waiting for the sermon to end and more singing to begin. I had been reading the hymnal for about four years at that point and was frustrated by the fact that I only knew about twenty of the songs in the book by heart. Literally chilling in the pew, in my fluffy, lacy dress and gloves, I started trying to figure out whether I could steal one of the hymnals without getting caught. I had never stolen anything; a tiny pragmatist, I considered the logistics of different approaches I might take. I couldn’t hide a large book like that in my dress, for example, but I had a puffy coat with me. I wondered if it would be enough to conceal the book bulge, or if I should wear a bulkier coat for this purpose next week. I really wanted the hymnal and had already been told in no uncertain terms that I was not allowed to remove it from the church. Also, incidentally, I had been severely scolded for punching an otherwise blameless priest who had made the mistake of resting his (very heavy) hand on top of my head to bless me. As a child, I did not often get into trouble and was outwardly fairly docile most of the time; I didn’t want to get in trouble again. On the other hand, the hymnals and all that they contained had come to fascinate me.
I had the idea that I could take the book home, read it every night before bed, and learn every single song in the book. The songs contained so much—not just lyrical praise of the Trinity and not just renditions of Biblical narrative—they contained personal feelings, they contained colors and textures and temperatures. They contained melodies, harmonies, tempos. Tones. Different depictions of the Christ Child and of the mysterious, practically shape-shifting Mother Mary. The multiplicity of identities—of narrators, of Biblical characters, sometimes of the song authors and composers themselves—was fascinating to me.
I remember thinking that I couldn’t comprehend how much I would carry around with me if I had the opportunity to memorize the book at home. (Yeah, I was a weird kid.) And, to me, this felt deeply spiritual. The carrying of stories, the internalization of knowledges outside of my own limited experience, both with the Divine and with other humans and animals. For me, knowing things about the world felt like my highest calling. In some ways, it still does.
Knowing more about this world helps us navigate it with awareness. Build more things that are good. Help more. Heal more. Do and be better. Realize how much we don’t yet know. A lot of the ways in which I try to do and be good are based on the idea that this is my world because I live in it. I understand that I am connected to you and that what we do affects others. If I learn a sliver of this world that lets me connect with you and talk with you, perhaps we can help each other. Perhaps we can work together to be useful in the world, to build good things, to help things that need helping. Perhaps from your experiences, I can learn more about the world. Perhaps I can apply that new knowledge in ways I can’t yet imagine. Perhaps we can love each other in that cosmic way that allows for love in the midst of human difficulty.
Surely this is not everyone’s highest calling. Surely there are many roles that many different types of people must fill to help the world go round, to struggle for progress in the face of so many obstacles and influences that set us back as a planet, as a human species, that seek to unseat the balance of darkness and light in favor of the void. But I have always found that the abilities that allow me to function and connect and build in this way—for me, that is sacred. That is spiritual. And those are some of what I consider the best tools in my proverbial arsenal to help.
The hymnal itself remains vivid in my memory: it was old and a little musty (I liked the smell), the pages made of very thin paper—practically translucent, and the cover was hard, royal blue cloth stretched over it. I got it into my head that anyone who could put together a book like that would be very spiritually rich—not due to the specific religion the songs were expressing (oddly, that didn’t figure in for me at all), but because I thought that whoever made the book would have the story of each song inside them—not just the religious narrative in the lyrics, but the historical context in which it was written, the personal history of each song’s author, and maybe knowledge of some of the people who had been affected by the songs.
In my perhaps not realistic conception of creating a hymnal, I expected that the editor or publisher (words I probably didn’t connect with much specific meaning at the time) would have internalized all the knowledge available within that book.
My mother glanced over at me and told me to put the hymnal down. I had daydreamed and schemed my way, silently, through an entire song. It was time to kneel now. I put the book down, reluctantly. Probably gonna have to wait until next week.
But it was unseasonably warm the next week, and my bulkiest winter coat was inappropriate (not to mention uncomfortable) attire for the outing. And thus an early spring saved me from developing a nascent thievery habit. The following weeks brought similar obstacles—and ultimately my anti-church-for-the-summer rebellion (it was hot and there were other books in the world).
And so, around that time in my life, I decided if I couldn’t steal a hymnal from the church to learn all the songs myself and carry them around with me, then I wanted to become someone who put books like that together. And, about 25 years later: Agape Editions. And, a year after that: this column on the Agape blog, Called to Work: Notes on Spiritual Labor. This column will, on a monthly basis, feature essays wherein people from different spiritual and career paths, respectively, narrate and explain the ways in which they find their spirituality illuminating the motivations and designs that drive their worldly labor.
I want this column to be similar to Agape Editions itself, in that people from different spiritual paths and different walks of life will be able to share their perspectives, narratives, and personal experience. I also want Called to Work to be a space that honors different types of labor toward making the world a better place—the kinds of labor that often go unacknowledged. These are stories that ought to be heard. This is labor that ought to be recognized. And I invite all of us to ponder the connections between the authors’ respective spiritualities and their modalities of labor. I invite us all to consider our own labor, our own spiritual paths, and the ways in which we are called, by self or other, to merge the two for greater good—especially at a time like this.
Fox Frazier-Foley’s first book, The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), was selected by Vermont Poet Laureate Chard deNiord as winner of the Bright Hill Press Poetry Book Award. Her chapbook Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) won the Sundress Publication Chapbook Prize. She has edited two anthologies: one of poetry, Political Punch: Contemporary Poems on the Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016), and Among Margins: Critical & Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She founded and runs the indie-lit micro press Agape Editions, an imprint of Sundress Publications dedicated to publishing visionary literature.