What is Your Work: Is It Love Made Visible?

I am a child of the sixties, having graduated from high school in 1966 and college in 1970. Everyone in those days seemed to be reading The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. We read the selection on marriage at a wedding sometime in the early ’70’s:

I had not reread The Prophet for years until I remembered that I liked what Gibran said about work. So I went online and discovered a great site–where you can find the entire book of The Prophet online, broken into the individual chapters. Here’s the one I was looking for:

On Work
Kahlil Gibran

You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.
For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons,
and to step out of life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.

When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.
Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison?

Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.
But I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born,
And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.

But if you in your pain call birth an affliction and the support of the flesh a curse written upon your brow, then I answer that naught but the sweat of your brow shall wash away that which is written.

You have been told also that life is darkness, and in your weariness you echo what was said by the weary.
And I say that life is indeed darkness save when there is urge,
And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge,
And all knowledge is vain save when there is work,
And all work is empty save when there is love;
And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.

And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart,
even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection,
even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy,
even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,
And to know that all the blessed dead
are standing about you and watching.

Often have I heard you say, as if speaking in sleep, “He who works in marble, and finds the shape of his own soul in the stone, is nobler than he who ploughs the soil.
And he who seizes the rainbow to lay it on a cloth in the likeness of man, is more than he who makes the sandals for our feet.”
But I say, not in sleep but in the overwakefulness of noontide, that the wind speaks not more sweetly to the giant oaks than to the least of all the blades of grass;
And he alone is great who turns the voice of the wind into a song made sweeter by his own loving.

Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.

If work is love made visible, how do you experience it? Or do you think Gibran’s words deserve to stay back in the 1960’s, where they belong?


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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
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20 Responses to What is Your Work: Is It Love Made Visible?

  1. scottcb says:

    Thanks for posting, Shirley! I find this to be a compelling way of thinking on multiple levels about my own return to the ‘dear and glorious parkside’.

  2. shirleyhs says:

    Hi, Scott,

    You know well what it means to work with love and for love. Many blessings on your journey of making love visible.

    So glad you found the post. You might also want to go read what Gibran says about love and marriage at the link above. 🙂 His words stand the test of time pretty well.

  3. Richard Kauffman says:

    I had not thought about Gibran in a long time until I heard recently about a published author who is writing a book on him, which I look forward to seeing. It does remind me that back in the 60s a contemporary of mine read a passage from Gibran instead of scripture during an opening time for all adult Sunday school classes and my mother was scandalized by it.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Thanks for this comment and memory, Richard. As I read Gibran, my theological bent kicked in, and I saw an antidote(was it a deliberate rebuttal, I wonder?) to the kind of work ethic I associate with Calvinism. Work is a result of Adam’s fall! With the Knowledge of Good and Evil comes the idea of work as curse, an idea that I absorbed from some interpretations of Genesis I heard in my youth. Work was necessary–it was, after all, the means to salvation–“work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). I would love to read a biography of Gibran. Your mother might have been right to recognize a challenge to certain interpretations of the Bible in his work. 🙂

  4. Jim Juhnke says:

    Yes, work can be love made visible. But is Gibran’s sentimental poem/essay relevant to our own world? It belongs not to the 1960s, but to the 1860s or to an earlier time before the industrial revolution and corporate bureaucracies. He earnestly admonishes us not to scorn “he who ploughs the soil,” and “he who makes sandals for our feet.” Gibran assumes a world of small producers–farmers, tradesmen, artisans and craftspeople who can find buyers for their products. Imagine how the essay might feel to an assembly-line worker in the shoe factory, to a middle management worker at Cargill, or to the fourteen million unemployed people in the United States, plus multi-millions more unemployed around the world. I commend chapter two, “How Will We Make a Living?,” from Berry Friesen’s excellent new memoir/family history–Water from Another Time, Today’s Questions/Yesterday’s Wisdom–for a more realistic and socially situated narrative and reflection. And for an irreverent and over-the-top (in my view), article by Alan Jacobs pricking the Gibran bubble, see .

  5. shirleyhs says:

    Ah, Jim, there you go again, fomenting reason and historical thinking!

    Thanks much for these words, and I hope you will supply the link you might have been looking for when your cursor strayed over the “post comment” button. Gibran is eminently satirizable, to coin a terrible word,and I love a good laugh.

    I definitely see the pre-industrial context in this text. Maybe it does not seem as archaic to me because of my childhood spent on a small farm in the 1950’s.

    But is it relevant today? That’s really the question for us to ponder here. Scott, a gifted young person above, seems to find it so. Others you mention perhaps not so much. Thoreau famously said that “the mass of [early industrial!] men lead lives of quiet desperation.” But there have always been some who have managed, paraphrasing Robert Frost, to bring their avocation and vocation into one.

    As someone who lost a job in July (and therefore am part of the 14 million you reference), I have been searching for a way to combine my vocation with my avocation–work as love made visible–in the last third of my life, God willing. I could “retire.” But I don’t plan to. I could (probably) find another executive position. But I don’t plan to.

    Gibran came back to me because I hope to go more deeply than ever into the quiet place from whence all my creative teaching, speaking, writing, and even managing, has come from in the past. I am a romantic at heart, as you ascertain, but I am also very practical and strategic. I am finding the journey itself incredibly thrilling right now. So much so that I can go back to old texts and see them with fresh eyes.

    Do continue to come back at me. I’ve always benefited from the grounding of academic life. Without it, I might have floated away. 🙂

  6. Jim Juhnke says:

    Alan Jacobs’ satirical review of Gibran’s writings first appeared in the journal, First Things, March 2010. Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton. It is available at Jacobs comments specifically on the “Work is love made visible” passage (which he claims to have found in a random opening of the book): “You must have been pretty lucky in your job, If you ever actually had a job.”
    I too grew up on a small farm and can easily get teary-eyed when I think and talk about the work our family did there together. And then I got a job teaching history at a Mennonite college–work that I enjoyed immensely until retirement. But I confess that I’m not far from Jacobs in finding Gibran wearying and pretentious. I’ve attended many (dozens?) weddings of relatives and friends who included a reading from Gibran in the ceremony. I assumed it was the women who made the choice. Was that true in your case? And was it a bid for “spaces in your togetherness”?

  7. Jim Juhnke says:

    Jim J. back again. I see that the www link I put into my reply did not make it onto your site. Could it be that your site doesn’t accept links?
    Anyhow, find it by googling Jacobs Gibran and go to the link on thefreelibrary.com.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Just read the poem. Good satire. Thanks!!

      Here’s the link: http://www.thefreelibrary.com/On+the+recent+publication+of+Kahlil+Gibran's+Collected+Works.-a0169824275

      I think I actually read this poem or parts of this when it came out. It’s fun, and the explanations it offers for the author’s popularity contain a lot of truth–educated Brits and Americans of that period definitely romanticized the dark other from all parts of the Empire. And, as one would expect from a writer from a school that values orthodoxy, the theology is viewed as all fuzzy wuzzy. He might do the same with Anabaptist theology. 🙂

      • Mat L K says:

        It’s a great poem Shirley and timely or I believe timeless. The poem might be referring to the context where people were farmers. However I think in our attempts to understand it, we over-contextualize and hence lose meaning.

        Many of our work requires integrative thinking and doing. Our work is often so divorced from reality that I agree that “love” is what can bind it together again. Maslow talks quite a bit about the world of work and how he finds that there are persons in a canning factory who find total integration in what she does. She is content. How is that, because surely it does not fit with our conception of “satisfactory” work.

        I have worked in private, public sectors which to standards would be more rewarding work than the woman in the canning factory. Yet who defines this work as satisfactory? Or is our definition of work been so skewed by centuries of industrialization? And now with information technology people do say we are further divorced from reality?

        I think Gibran’s work does speak to the current realities of the US of A; having been affected by unemployment myself.

  8. shirleyhs says:

    Mat, so glad you piped up from Bengladesh! What a treat to think about work with someone engaged with Habitat for Humanity.

    And Jim, thanks again for stirring things up.

    Here we have two examples of people who lost their jobs (not statistically significant except to Mat and me) who find Gibran’s words more, not less, relevant. When you are in a place of unemployment, you think about work and identity all the time. Who am I now? What do I want from work? What do I want to give to work? How can this place of lack of a job become filled with an even better way to live abundantly out of the very center of my being–out of the design God stamped in me at my birth and out of the call I have been hearing at different decision points in my life??

    Thesis: The need, in our post-industrial age, to find/make meaning and to connect the invisible to the visible, has grown stronger, not dimmer. What say you, Jim, Mat, others?

  9. doradueck says:

    I’ve enjoyed this discussion. And the original post — the way you took me back to my own 60s! Oh my, hair long and shining as mine was too, and the glow about the both of you! Weren’t we all just something in those crazy, wonderful years?
    In terms of the examples you mention in your last comment, Shirley, here’s another. This week I happened to be talking with a 20-something who is currently unemployed and looking for a job. I’d just read your post and found myself sharing lines of it with her. Somehow it seemed relevant to this young person’s situation, and was also received that way. It seems to me that love enlivens work, that work has an inherent dignity, even if the tasks itself are less than lovely. The poem is sentimental, yes, but there’s something true about it, seems to me, and as for long-winded, which it also is, even witty Alan Jacobs quoted the Prophet reminding us that “Life hath much to say”! 🙂

    • shirleyhs says:

      You nailed it, Dora. Sometimes the sentimental and long-winded serve purposes larger than their individual talents. I feel Gibran striving to do that in this work, and, as such, he awakens the same desire in me to be used for a purpose larger than myself. As I grow older, I become more tolerant of sentimentality–if it serves that larger purpose. I’m reading Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel again. Some would call Wolfe a sentimental windbag saved only by a great editor, Max Perkins. But Perkins himself said this about Wolfe: “It was with America he was most deeply concerned, and I believe he opened it up as no other writer ever did for the people of his time and for the writers and artists and poets of tomorrow.”

  10. Jim Juhnke says:

    Berry Friesen was 61 and unemployed at the time that he wrote his family history/memoir, Water From Another Time. In his chapter on work he quoted some harsh analysis by Christopher Lasch about the degradation of work in modern America. Then Berry ended the chapter with this poem, titled “Fitted”: (including formatting I cannot duplicate here)

    My eye is drawn to the beams,
    scarred and bowed, notched and fitted,
    squaring the cottage and holding it erect.
    I am in the company of the old,
    the irregular, the full-dimensioned.
    Reclaimed and efficacious
    in a rough-hewn way.
    “Age is a state of mind,” they say
    to us who are sagging a bit
    after years of heavy lifting.
    True enough, yet I can’t help but notice
    they’re looking past me
    for a standard fit,
    not what I have to offer.
    I have no argument with them;
    they’ve assessed me accurately enough.
    And just ahead a place awaits
    where I will be joined and fitted;
    a room to help square,
    a load to help support
    in my irregularity.

  11. shirleyhs says:

    Berry Friesen’s memoir sounds like an excellent one for this blog, Jim. Would you like to review it here? You are invited to do a guest blog any time. I am so glad that he expressed his observations and feelings poetically when he found himself overlooked for workers of a more “standard fit.” I hope he finds a receptive audience for his book and perhaps even a new form of work for himself.

  12. Jim Juhnke says:

    Thanks for the invitation. Yes, Friesen’s book would be good for a review here. It includes sixteen of the author’s poems. I have reviewed it for another publication.

  13. Jim Juhnke says:

    Thanks, again. I wrote the review for Mennonite Weekly Review. For 100 Memoirs I would want to write a more focused review of Friesen’s book with this audience in mind. If I get inspired perhaps I will come up with something. What is the process for submitting a guest blog?

  14. Pingback: What Does Work Mean to You? Reporting a Facebook Response | 100 Memoirs – Wordpress.com

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