Seeking ‘Wholiness’

In the basement of St. Peter’s Church in downtown Chicago, the psychologist Jerry Hiller asks a group of professionals at a lunch-time seminar to stand. He directs them to wave their hands over their heads and shout three times, “I’m so depressed!” Soon the lawyers, financial analysts, secretaries and stockbrokers gathered there convulse with laughter.

“They’re saying one thing, but the body is taking them in another direction,” Hiller explains. “Sometimes just by getting the body moving, we can change our thinking.”

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This somewhat unconventional exercise is but one of the coping techniques workers learn from Hiller. For the past 25 years, he and his wife, Marilynn Rochon, also a therapist, have offered free noon-hour seminars at St. Peter’s. Their programs are an institution for Chicago Catholics seeking concrete advice for reducing negativity at work, coping with job loss, finding balance and lowering stress.

Hiller and Rochon call their series “Repair My House: Mind-Body-Soul Skills for the Journey.” The title is a nod to Hiller’s hero, St. Francis of Assisi, who heard a voice telling him to “Go, repair my house, for it is in ruins.” The house Hiller tries to restore is a broken spirit. He believes the way we work today—the long hours, insecurity and lack of community—is also in ruins. Too many working people, he says, suffer from “vital exhaustion,” a physical and emotional fatigue.

A favorite word of Hiller’s is eudaimonia, a Greek word for a sense of well-being. His overarching message is that we can change the negative attitudes, self-images and behaviors that hold us back.

Chicago is a hard-working city. People stream out of downtown train stations at 6 a.m. headed for offices they often don’t leave until 12 hours later. It’s also a city where many Catholics seek to live out their spiritual values in the workplace, as I quickly learned when I moved there in 1987 to report from the Chicago bureau of The Wall Street Journal. Like St. Peter’s, Old St. Patrick’s in the West Loop also offers a variety of speakers and programs on the working life. Business Executives for Economic Justice and the National Center for the Laity were two other groups I found where Catholics could meet regularly to discuss work and faith and speak out publicly on issues like the just wage, universal health care and balancing family and work.

The idea for “Repair My House” came to Hiller when he was a doctoral student. Walking through the city’s financial district, he stared up at the three-story crucifix that adorns the facade of St. Peter’s, a Franciscan parish. “The Franciscans have put Jesus in the street, literally, as someone to look up to,” Hiller says. He enumerated the reasons why he couldn’t start a work-faith ministry. “Then I heard a little voice inside me say, ‘Shut up!’” He began planning his first program that week.

Hiller and Rochon offer four simple practices for achieving eudaimonia. Take care of your mind, body and spirit. Establish good habits, routines and use of time. Change useless personality patterns to more life-affirming ones. (“From our earliest experiences we draw beliefs about ourselves, others and the world,” Hiller explains. “Some of those beliefs are not helpful and we need to change them.”) Look for what gives your life purpose and meaning. (“Ask yourself, what is it we would give up everything for and get everything from?” Hiller says.)

He and Rochon form an effective team. She is soft-spoken and serious. Hiller is more emotional and gregarious. “Once in a while, someone will say, ‘You’re not married, are you? You work so well together. How can you be married?’” Rochon says.

Making the seminars fun is part of their appeal. Ending a talk on depression, they have the group sing a song that begins, “Are we stressed out, yes we are...” to the tune of “Frère Jacques.” They display a “negativity jump suit,” which participants can imagine wearing when encountering negative situations at work, or they can try on their “Cape of Good Hope.”

Hiller and Rochon have given 836 seminars attended by an estimated 35,000 workers. His work has taught him, Hiller says, that holiness is closely aligned with “wholiness.” And with “wholiness” comes joy. That is what he and Rochon have tried to nurture in harried Chicago professionals for a quarter century.

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