I once read about a community of desert fathers who made baskets to sell, the proceeds from which would benefit the poor. When a basket wouldn’t sell, they would unweave the basket and weave a new one. “The purpose was to occupy the body and free the mind. Mindless work is not a burden when the mind is full and the heart like a laser beam finds its way to God.” (Joan Chittister, Listen with the Heart: Sacred Moments in Everyday Life)
What a waste of time, I thought to myself, and still do. I think I’m not supposed to say this. I think I’m supposed to admire this quasi-zenlike intentionality, right in the hot desert core of Christianity. Sometimes I succeed at this. Not often.
I think about these desert fathers sometimes, and picture them weaving, unweaving and re-weaving the same basket, maybe for years. Well, I guess it’s not really the same basket. The weaver changes over time. The fibers change. Maybe the shape of the basket changes as well. Still, I think about this process whenever I find myself on the floor of my bedroom, scrubbing yet another stain of dried cat vomit from the carpet, knowing that within hours, or days if I am lucky, more stains will take their place. I think about things I say to my children, day after day, the very same words and phrases, patient admonishments and broken-record reminders, over and over and over. I think about laundry. Laundry and dishes and bills.
I think about the desert fathers, and I picture them very placidly unweaving, and I see their weathered, beatific faces as they regard the tangled pile of reeds at their feet, and I hear them sigh contentedly and say a prayer of thanks to God as they gather them up and begin again.
But I wonder if it wasn’t that simple. OK, I hope it wasn’t that simple. I hope that they chafed sometimes at this discipline, even if, like me, it is a discipline that they chose.
I recently heard Craig Barnes preach for a group of pastors in which he talks about how ministry so often involves having the same conversations over and over again. If we collect a special offering, will it take away from the general budget? Can the youth eat pizza in the parlor? How can we get people to put gas in the church van before returning it?
These conversations remind me of the starfish story. You know the one, about the person chucking starfish into the ocean with great sincerity and heartbreaking inefficiency… but at least it made a difference to that one. Having the same conversations again and again in the church is an act of love, right? And maybe, we tell ourselves, very slow progress is made. But it does seem interesting to me, how many pastors I know who are being trained in community organizing. I think a lot of us are ready to mobilize people, to really get somewhere, rather than have the same conversations again and again, rather than being out there on our own, weaving the same basket for years, chucking starfish into the water, over and over.
I don’t know where this ends. I don’t know when inefficiency done in the name of God becomes an idol of self-indulgence. And I don’t know when working smart reduces the other person or activity to a thing to be “managed.”
I do know this: if, like Brother Lawrence, I do the repetitive tasks of my life “for the love of God,” then it’s usually love in the sense of intentional activity, not in the sense of deep feeling.
Although when I come upon a fresh hairball I have been known to say, “OH FOR THE LOVE OF…!!”
Maybe that’s how he said it too. I’d like to think so.