catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 20 :: 2012.11.09 — 2012.11.22


As if eternity were real

After three full days working on an organizing project at the retreat center where I work part-time, I’m having trouble getting into the headspace to write an article about the side of our double-edged issue topic that I strongly desire to be on: inefficiency.  With just a few days between cabin guests, I endeavored, with the help of my co-workers, to move, sort and re-stock the dishes, cookware and silverware for all of the 11 kitchens spread throughout our facility.  In this context, efficiency was the name of the game, and I enjoyed the rush of synthesizing a zillion details in a relatively short period of time.  However, I found myself having difficulty engaging in conversation with my fellow workers as I tried to wrap my mind around which pots went where, which dishes we needed to purchase, how many mugs were missing from that set.  I prefer to resist multi-tasking, and I’ll be glad to return to our usual pace, which is not so much inefficient, as it is deeply aware of humanness, of the invisible world, of eternity. 

Let me explain.

More often than not, when I’m transporting guests from their cabins to their cars after a retreat, they remark on how lucky I am to be working in such a beautiful setting, in such a peaceful place.  On the one hand, they might be haplessly conflating their experience of unbroken time on retreat with the life of a worker in that same space.  I am not at the same liberty they are to sit and read in front of the fire, take a walk, make art, linger over a pot of tea.  However, they are correct in that I do feel grateful, and not because my work time at the center is like one big extended retreat that I get paid to participate in, but because of the way the center helps shape a unique way of working, infused with the spirit of retreat, and perhaps even a spirit of inefficiency.

Efficiency has a way of tricking us into thinking that humans are purely functional creatures, with a limited shelf life of usefulness and then we die.  If we are worth our weight in wages, we must maximize our ratio of productivity to time.  This attitude pervades not just the employer’s view of the employee, but our personal view of our own self-worth, both at work and outside of work.  In Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today, Sister Joan Chittister narrows the nexus of this problem to one small development in human history:

With the invention of the light bulb, balance became a myth.  Now human beings could extend the day and deny the night.  Now human beings could break the natural rhythm of work and rest and sleep.  Now human beings could begin to destroy the framework of life and turn it into one eternal day with, ironically, no time for family, no time for reading, no time for prayer, no time for privacy, no time for silence, no time for time.

Contemplative cultures throughout history and throughout the world have prescribed mindfulness as an antidote to this state of things, though perhaps that moniker downplays the role of the heart in such an exercise.  “Presence” is another name, but it can ring of the esoteric.  So what exactly might another way look like, besides forgoing light bulbs?

If I consider my work at the retreat center as an experimental laboratory for this question, it looks a lot of different ways.  It looks like spending time in silence together before staff meetings.  It looks like pausing to munch on wild sorrel or notice the late autumn sunshine on my face while I weed the garden one last time before winter.  It looks like being in prayer for the person who will occupy the cabin space next as I sweep the floor.  Running through these tasks is an awareness that it’s not just the visible things that need tending, but the spirit of a place as well, even as we give our checklists and ledgers their proper role in the ecosystem.  If we truly believe, as most in the Judeo Christian tradition do, that prayer changes things and that eternity is real, it should fundamentally change the tasks of our daily lives.  Each moment becomes at once more precious, and less demanding.  Efficiency becomes about more than just what we can see in front of us and time opens up onto the life that is truly life.  Chittister writes,

All we lack, now that life has become so speeded up, is the will to slow it down so that we can live a little while life goes by.  We need to want to be human as well as efficient; to be loving as well as informed; to be caring as well as knowledgeable; to be happy as well as respected.

Though there are times when efficiency is called for, I think I’m learning that it’s best when it’s a temporary state of being — not unlike being on vacation or retreat.  If we were on vacation all the time, where would our sense of purpose and community come from?  Likewise, if we seek to be efficient all the time, how do we differentiate ourselves from machines?  That which is human  — that is made in the image of the Divine — shines through both in our organization and in our holy wastefulness, in our methods and in our madness.

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