Where, if at all, do we find beauty in our work? And why does it matter? For the past year I’ve been exploring these questions through my podcast as well as a series of salon dinners that I’ve organized in several cities around the world. But I've been increasingly convinced that these questions need more time for us to process than what a podcast interview or dinner conversation can accommodate.
So with the help of generous funding from the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California, I organized and facilitated our first weekend retreat on Beauty at Work.
From Oct 6-8, 2023, we gathered a group of professionals from diverse professional and faith backgrounds to reflect on the meaning and role of beauty in the work we do. We wanted this to be an interfaith retreat to see whether beauty could build bridges not just across professional disciplines but also across religious and political lines. Our participants included tech executives, entrepreneurs, therapists, artists, musicians, and academics, from different faith backgrounds and at different stages in their spiritual journeys. The setting for this event was crucial, since I wanted to provide not simply a conversation about but also an immersion in beauty. The Laity Lodge retreat center in the Texas hill country was the perfect venue.
Nestled deep in the Texas Hill Country, Laity Lodge offers itself as a serene vessel for the profound dialogue between the earthly and the divine. It takes a two-hour drive from San Antonio to get there, and there’s no cell phone service in the surrounding area. Once you enter the property, you have to drive through a river (don’t worry, it’s a shallow stretch). There’s something magical about the experience. As one of our participants put it, "Driving in, over the water, at the same time as losing cell service feels like being baptised in, and then baptised out."
The property is enclosed by an ancient canyon and caressed by the gentle murmurs of the Frio River, a setting where nature profoundly articulates its timeless hymn of serenity and splendor. Born from humble yet purposeful aspirations, the Lodge extends an invitation to transcend the mundane. Its elegant architecture seamlessly melds with the austere beauty of its surroundings; each space is meticulously crafted to nurture not merely a retreat from the routine, but a journey into the heart of what's sacred and beautiful. Its quiet simplicity allowed us not simply to engage in but also to be enveloped by the dialogue on beauty.
We began the retreat with a conversation on our childhood memories of transcendent beauty. We spent time in silent reflection on the givenness of nature and of ourselves as part of nature, and on the longings that drew us to this event. We spent time in nature, swimming, hiking, and through a guided tour of the area. We spent time in facilitated discussions to identify how we found beauty in the purpose, process, products, and people associated with our work.
We also discussed the various obstacles to finding beauty in our work, and where we thought beauty was missing. While underscoring the need for deeper meaning at work, the group raised cautions about the trap of workism and questioned whether we might be expecting too much from work when it comes to satisfying our longings for beauty.
An art workshop expertly facilitated by Wayne Brezinka allowed us to tap into our unconscious desires and to connect to each others’ creative aspirations. A concert by award-winning cellist Keith Tutt II elevated our experience to another level altogether as he integrated his music with some the themes we had been discussing.
We concluded by identifying some concrete steps we could take to nurture beauty in our work, either by adding or subtracting something.
Participants overall found the retreat to be a deeply nourishing and revitalizing experience and a much-needed occasion for reflection and connection. As one of our participants said, "The retreat affirmed that beauty is not always pretty but does always require connections." And in the words of another: "Beauty revealed itself in what it revealed in us."
Now that we’ve returned from "the ecstasy" to "the laundry," as a book title nicely puts it, I hope we can find ways to accompany each other in sustaining the commitments we have made. I personally found the retreat to be maybe the most enjoyable and meaningful event I’ve done, and hope to be able to do another one as soon as I can make it happen.
If something here resonates with you and you’re interested in being part of it, let me know.
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