I had been teaching high school catechism for only a few years when I was asked to train new religion teachers. I protested that I was the wrong person for the job:“I’m not a teacher by training; I’m an engineer!”
“Oh, you can do it,” the religious sisters in charge told me.
“Okay, I’ll give it a try,” I replied.
Although I said yes, I knew that I needed to study the material. More important, I needed God to show me how to fulfill this new responsibility.
God and Me in the Woods. To prepare for my teaching role, I decided to take a vacation by myself in the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness outside of Los Angeles. I hiked deep into the woods to a place called Fisherman’s Camp. There I pitched a tent so that I could pray and study the material without distraction. When I got tired, I went for walks. There was nobody around for miles.
One night, as I was studying by lantern light, I felt a wonderful presence beside me. It felt as if I were surrounded by God’s love. I have never been loved like that before. I stood up, overwhelmed with gratitude. When I sat down a little later, I felt complete peace.
After this, I noticed that Scripture held a deeper meaning for me. In my religion class, I always used Scripture passages, but I had to work long hours to find the proper texts and references. Now, to my delight, God was talking to me as I read his words and bringing the verses back to mind later on.
I also felt more intimate with God. We were developing a deep, loving relationship that is still hard to explain. I began to pray more conversationally. I talked to God about my work as a catechist but also about my work as an engineer. In both spiritual and practical matters, he was gently leading me.
Talking Religion on the Job. It wasn’t just in my religion class that I saw a dramatic change. A few years later, God helped me quite dramatically in my engineering work, and I had the opportunity to share that story with a colleague one day.
This man was our consultant, a university professor of structural engineering. We were on the deck of a tugboat, towing one of the offshore towers he had helped design for installation off the Florida coast. On the slow trip from Texas to Florida, we had time to talk about many things. He shared that he was also a practicing Catholic, but that, for him, engineering and religion were separate matters. One involved science and mathematics, the other his personal relationship with God. I talked about my way of talking to God about my work in addition to my private life.
As we were exchanging ideas, a five-hundred-foot tower came into sight by the harbor of Carrabelle, Florida. I had been involved in the building of that structure. “Let me tell you about the construction of that tower,” I said.
“You’re the Boss.” “It was my job to coordinate the tower construction and determine its position. It had to be installed on a narrow strip of government land near the harbor. The anchors of the guy-wires holding the tower straight, even in hurricanes, had to be a certain distance from the base. Because of the narrow space available, I had a hard time finding the correct positions. The final layout I sent to the tower installer had only a six-foot clearance between the northern anchor and the property line.
“After I got the call that they were ready to start installing the foundations, I reviewed the installation layouts and prayed, ‘Is there anything, Lord, that was overlooked? Please guide me.’ A definite thought came to me. ‘Move the whole installation six feet to the north.’ There was no logical reason to do this, but I firmly believed that the idea had come from the Holy Spirit in response to my prayer.
“When I arrived at the site, the foreman was ready to start driving forty-foot timber poles into the ground to hold up the tower foundation. I stopped him and said, ‘Let’s move the whole installation six feet to the north.’
“‘But why?’ he asked, surprised. ‘We’ll lose a whole day!’ Without giving him an explanation, I just looked at him. ‘Okay, you’re the boss,’ he said.
“Driving the huge poles, sixty of them, went like a charm. Then at each location, the soil had to be dug out about five feet deep to install the guy anchors and attach them to the piles with steel bars and pour concrete caps over them. Suddenly, we were facing a big surprise.
God, the Greatest Engineer. “Three of our timber poles had just missed heavy concrete slabs that were buried a few feet below the ground’s surface. Had we not moved everything six feet to the north, the piles would have been blocked by the buried slabs. Heavy equipment would have been needed to excavate the slabs. We would have faced a huge cost overrun and further delays. The foreman was amazed. He exclaimed, ‘Mr. Gabe, somebody is surely watching out for you!’”
The professor listened to my story and said, “Now I understand what you meant by ‘praying your way,’ even at work.”
It might seem odd to turn to God for engineering advice or direction about how to train religion teachers. But whenever I have set aside moments to invite him into what I am doing, he has shown up. Many times, it’s true, there isn’t time for me to take a retreat in solitude—although that never hurts. But there is always time to consult the Lord, ask a question, and be attentive to the Holy Spirit’s quiet movement inside of me. As I discovered with the tower foundation, the Lord cares about our work. He will help us to do it well and to follow him more closely in the process.
Gabriel Harkay is a Secular Franciscan who lives in Katy, Texas.