The Spirituality of Your Desk

The Spiritual Journey / Michael McGirr
It’s a good day for a teacher in an Edmund Rice School when you have a spare minute to look into the reason behind the latest Google banner.

On one such occasion recently, Google was celebrating the 131st anniversary of the hole punch. I had not kept up with this significant news. I can only plead that 131 is not an auspicious number and the hole punch is a humble servant of order that doesn’t seek much in the way of thanks or recognition. Early in my career, I asked to borrow one from a student who tossed it across the room to me. I accused him of throwing a punch at a teacher and the class laughed. A school without laughter may as well give up.
My hole punch is a veteran of the age in which bills and bank statements came in the mail and needed to be punched into folders. It now lives in semi-retirement. From time to time, it asks still to be allowed to spray little circles of paper around the carpet like confetti. It is a happy little device but not without mischief. The most powerful vacuum cleaners in the world have been frustrated by those tiny paper bits of round paper. But my punch continues to make merry with them, not like my stapler which gets angry and starts bending small pieces of metal into strange contortions.

A stapler is a control freak, forcing pages into a relationship from which they can only escape by force. A hole punch, like blue-tac, takes a gentler approach to life. It introduces pages to each other and allows them to share the same space, but still gives them freedom to move and even to go and sit with other pages with whom they are better matched.

I have had colleagues who are a bit like staplers and others more like blue-tac. I prefer the latter. Like the Gospel, they leave you plenty of room to move, to be yourself. When we think during Lent about the death of Jesus, we remember that some of his friends ran away and others, the women, stuck out the ordeal with him. We have all been runners and stayers at different times in our lives. Jesus coped with them all. He continued to relate to his friends in whatever place or state he found them....in whatever place he finds us.

The hole punch is the brainchild of Fredrich Sonnecken, not a name that many of us will greet with instant recognition. I would have liked to have met him and asked how he came up with his punch. Perhaps he was a boxer. Or maybe a drink maker. More likely, he was sick and tired of homeless paper drifting all over his desk with nowhere to call home. The first punch only did one hole at time. It would have made an interesting nail clipper for those of us who get tired of concave finger nails and want something different.

Sonnecken was not the only person in history to confront the forces of chaos and come up with a creative solution. In 1867, Samuel B Fay invented the paper clip. Or so it is said. In the next few years, fifty separate paper clip designs were patented, suggesting that there are many ways to bend a piece of wire. I imagine that a good number of those patents were sought by people who had dreary office jobs and time to fiddle around with the stuff on their desks. Incidentally, you can buy a single paperclip for as much as $2500. I’d rather spend that kind of money on a decent stapler. Legend has it that a primitive stapler was presented to King Louis XV in France, but when you read that each staple was inscribed with royal insignia, you have to imagine that they were a different commodity from the ones we buy in boxes of 5000 for a few dollars. Let’s give the honours to George McGill who patented a stapler in 1866. His idea was improved upon by Henry R Heyl in 1877. And others that followed.

All in all, the late nineteenth century in America was the cradle of modern office stationery. The filing cabinet was patented there in 1893. There were 160 separate patents sought there for mechanical pencils between 1822 and 1874. The earliest clipboard was patented around 1870-1871. The Shannon Arch File, the invention that led to the modern legal industry, came into being in 1877. Thomas Edison invented the first mimeograph in the same period. It was truly a golden era for sedentary professions.

What is the point of all this?


If you happen to be sitting at your desk, you are surrounded by a long list of gadgets. Every one of them was somebody’s brainchild. They are all the result of creativity, insight and even enterprise. You don’t have to move more than two feet to feel your indebtedness to those who have come before you and come up with ideas that help us. Just because we have forgotten who they are, it doesn’t mean we are not their beneficiaries.

This is before we even stand up and go to the kitchen. Or the bathroom. Or the garden.

Every day, we enjoy a rich inheritance. Our job, from Bindoon to Bundoora, is to help young people appreciate the fact that the world did not begin with them. Nor will it end with them. But it will be grateful for what they create along the way.

Our touchstones explain the work we do. But they also take us back to the Lord in prayer. Perhaps the prayers below are ones you might use in your classes and communities:

Touchstone prayers

Gospel Spirituality

God of Love,
we pray that you will open our minds and hearts to the message of your Gospel and to the mystery of the cross. May our faith in you keep growing through every hour, day and year of our lives.

Inclusive Community

God of life,
we pray that you will open our minds and hearts to the needs of all your people, both near and far. May our faith help us to embrace every member of your family with wisdom and compassion.

Liberating Education

God of freedom,
we pray that you will open our minds and hearts to the endless possibilities for good in your world. May our faith help us to enjoy the adventure of learning and discovery.

Justice and Solidarity

God of truth,
we pray that you will open our minds and hearts to the reality of the world in both its beauty and its pain. May our faith help us to live lives for peace and justice, respecting creation, centered in you and not ourselves.

Michael McGirr - Author 
Dean of Faith
St Kevin’s College, Melbourne

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