Monday, March 12, 2007

Ora? You Bet! Labora? Not So Much

The early arrival of Daylight Savings Time, combined with some gorgeous spring weather in the San Joaquin Valley, meant that my beloved Plutonian spouse and I spent about two and half hours in the late afternoon and early evening working in our yard. I don't enjoy yardwork. It's hard not to be thinking of something else--most anything else--I would rather be doing. All things being equal, I would rather live in a condo and pay association dues to have it taken care of. I don't particularly enjoy housework either. It's a chore (a whole lot of chores, actually) that has to be done, but if I could afford it, I'd have a full time maid or something. It must come from my Brazilian genes. In Brazil, most everybody has an empregada. Even the maids have maids.

It's not that I'm lazy, I don't think. I'm scheduled to make my pre-Easter confession this week, and Sloth will not be at the top of the list of sins I accuse myself of. I like to think I approach my regular day job with a certain amount of verve and enthusiasm most of the time. Nashotah House, my seminary alma mater, is quasi-Benedictine in its foundation. In the Benedictine tradition of a balanced Christian life including elements of study, prayer, and work, students are required to put in part of one afternoon a week in manual labor (at least that was the regimen when I was there in the 80s; the details may have changed, but I know the requirement remains). A hundred years ago, it was an even more substantial part of the seminary experience, as the student body collectively operated a working dairy farm that helped keep the institution running. Work crew afternoons didn't make me angry, but my memory may be anesthetized by the beer drinking that took place between work crew and Evensong. Even so, I pretty much subscribed to the attitude of one of my classmates toward the endeavor: "Start slow and taper off." I was never seduced by the romantic aura of the Benedictine slogan of ora et labora--prayer and work. It felt too much like the diabolical Nazi equivalent: Arbeit macht frei. Again, maybe it's my Latin blood, but I prefer Viva la siesta!

So, as I transported decorative bricks and chipped bark, and moved dirt from one place to another at the request of my ultra-cute Plutonian Arbeitfuhrer, and climbed a ladder to inspect our glorious trumpet vine that was sadly a victim of freezing weather in January, and dug a hole in which to plant a new rose bush, and swept up debris from the sidewalk, I consciously tried to assume a Benedictine attitude toward what I was doing. After all, I had just gone to great lengths on Saturday to instruct a class of adult confirmands that the Benedictine mindset pervades Anglican spiritual practice. Here was an opportunity to consciously practice what I had preached.

It's not so easy for this carioca. I found that the discipline I was trying to embrace called me to let go of my homeowner's hat. As a homeowner, I feel myself laden with responsibility. Our neighbors across the street are trying to get their house ready to sell, and have told us they wish our yard was less of an eyesore. (They are good friends, so this was said partially in jest, but still...) There is indeed a great deal to do, and when I look at the entirety, it is really quite oppressive, because I just don't see how it's going to happen, given the demands on our time. It's so much responsibility! Yet, as one trying to offer this afternoon's work crew assignment to be a vehicle through which I experience the presence and call of the Holy One (as John Keble put it in one of his poems from The Christian Year--"the trivial round, the common task"), I found that I needed to let loose of the big picture and focus on the small one. Rather than surrender to the crushing weight of all that needs to be done, my invitation was to give myself fully to what I was actually doing from one moment to the next, to put my best effort into doing it well, and then to rejoice and give thanks for what was accomplished. If my work was to mediate the divine presence to me, then I needed to allow the work itself to accomplish that, rather than allow the work to be overshadowed by the responsibility.

There are probably some lessons here that can be effectively translated to the level of my non-manual work--the work that intrinsically energizes me. As a pastor, it is certainly tempting for me to judge myself--and judge myself pretty harshly--by the measurable fruit of my ministry, the big picture, megatrends in attendance, giving, and the like. I also have a related vocation as a leader and advocate in the life of the church beyond the parochial level. (The great majority of my posts on this blog are dedicated to that vocation.) For a while, I actually entertained the fantasy that something I wrote may have had an influence on the Primates' deliberations in Tanzania last month. In each of these cases, the Benedictine discipline calls me to lower my sights, to look at--and be fully present to--what is actually in front of me at any given moment. Someone Else is the homeowner, and bears the responsibility. I'm just a household slave, and therefore have the freedom to simply do my job.


1 comment:

Charles W. said...

Father, I, in some way, understand the amount of effort that goes into those quotidian tasks of living in a house...though not so much in the same way as you since I am a 28 year old bachelor. For several years, the most difficult task is to chip in mowing the lawn at my parish, St. Timothy's Fort Worth. It is much easier for me to chant the propers (English Gradual) for Mass or perform the duties of a Thurifer, etc. When it comes to donating my time in the church yard, I find it extra difficult. Fr. John Heidt, our Cannon Theologian, a friend of mine is fond of saying: "If you scratch an American long enough, you will find a protestant lurking beneath." On the other hand, he says, "if you scratch an Englishman long enough, you will find a Catholic." Now, I notice this trend within me, an inherently Gnostic one, that prefers the sublime duties of the litugical "worker" than the Benedictine "laborer". Isn't it interesting how I emphasize my liturgical working to the exclusion of chopping down a tree in our sexton's yard (which I did to prove to myself that I could emotionally purchase the right to be a kind of Gnostic Quietist for the rest of the year!). This is a fascinating subject. As Martin Thornton may say to us, shouldn't manual labor "for" the Church be part of her regula?

Sober Lenten Cheers Father,

Charles