Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Integrity: Make it Right

"Look up there. You see that?"

It was my second week on the job, and W. (the cabinetmaker) had just finished a floor-to-ceiling piece and was standing back, eyeing his work critically. Obviously, something was irritating him about the finished product, but I just couldn't see it. Pulling out his tape measure, he moved around the nine-foot tall structure taking numbers and muttering to himself. Eventually, he appeared to reach a conclusion.

"This piece of plywood is a quarter inch short."

Apparently, the vertical divider in the cabinet had been cut incorrectly. Because the box was so wide, the flexibility of the plywood had allowed W. to assemble the piece without realizing it was wrong. I was a little surprised when he began disassembling the cabinet, because the flaw was, after all, nearly impossible to see with an untrained eye. Half an hour later, the cabinet was back in the same place, looking for all the world exactly as it had thirty minutes before. Thinking to butter up the old man with some bullshit, I said, "Well, that looks a lot better!"

The craftsman looked at me and said almost apathetically, "That's not the point. If it's wrong, you fix it."

*     *     *

It has taken me two months to write this post because I have been struggling with how to put down the ideas this brief interaction stirred in me. But I've got it now. It's integrity. Similar moments have been happening almost daily over the past eight weeks, and I am reminded every time of what W. taught me that day.

It doesn't matter what anyone else sees. What matters is that your actions reflect your character. Could that exceedingly minor flaw have passed the notice of nearly every person on the planet? Undoubtedly, yes. But the one person who would always know it was wrong was the man who built it. He would always know that he had passed off a sub-par cabinet on some unknowing white-collar who had trusted the company to deliver perfection (or a reasonable approximation thereof).

I cannot catch every flaw, every mistake. Even W. and J Boss miss things from time to time. But any flaw I catch, and certainly every mistake I make, I either fix or admit to--whether or not anyone else will ever notice and regardless of whether I will get chewed out for it. I let something slide once... something I had done. Nobody ever noticed or found out. But I think about that one small rectangle of maple regularly, wondering if anyone will ever notice my mistake. It was an accident, and a pretty unremarkable one at that. But I will always know that I had the opportunity and ability to make it right and instead chose not to. 

What other people can see is unimportant. What matters isn't impression, but integrity. If it's wrong, you make it right.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Toward a Theology of Work

Nearly every day at work, the interconnectedness of things is shoved in my face. Perhaps this is because I am a cabinetmaker's apprentice. If you don't know, cabinetry is an exact art. I have done my fair share of handyman-type work, but until I started this job, I had no idea how much difference 1/64 of an inch could make. I start at the very beginning, taking (practically) raw lumber, cutting and milling it first to rough and then exact dimensions. W. (the cabinetmaker) does the work that requires real finesse, cutting intricate patterns in the wood and joining different pieces to make the individual parts of a complete cabinet. Then, I make it all smooth with various grades of sandpaper, and the finisher makes it look like one solid piece of wood.

Hopefully, the homeowner is happy with the final result. But what I realized today is that the end result largely depends on me. If I don't do my job correctly, and the wood is milled to inexact sizes or is full of knots and warped, everyone who comes after me is working with flawed material from the start. If I am unaware of what I am doing, I waste not only my time, but everyone else's time as well.

Mine is the roughest, most inexact stage of production, but it is also the most vital. (Granted, the people who make the plans we follow have a more vital role in this scheme of things, but I know so much less than they do that I choose not to comment in this respect.) If I make a mistake, everyone pays for it. Either a piece will have to be re-made, or it will have to be wiggled in some way that costs everyone time and money.

Every little thing counts. Every mistake I look past, saying, "Someone else will catch that", could potentially ruin the job. So I am forced into awareness at work. I am forced to pay attention to the details no one else will see. And it makes me happy. People talk about "work ethic", and I suppose this is what they mean. But to me, this is a theology of work. I get to participate daily in the creative action of God, who lets nothing slide by as unimportant, who sees the effect of every seemingly insignificant action... who cares infinitely about the happiness of the person at the end of the line.

It would be easy to say that my job is boring because I sand wood all day. But I say my job is fulfilling because I know that it is so much bigger than me and the task I'm given. I know that if I do it right, my coworkers will be less harassed, my boss will have less to fret about, and our customers will feel like they did a good thing in hiring us. That means referrals and more jobs, which in turn means I can make more money to take care of my family.

J Boss probably thinks that when I tell him I am grateful to be working, I mean that I am grateful to have a job, but there's so much more to it than that...

Monday, September 10, 2012

Terrifying Angels

"For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, 
which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.

Every angel is terrifying."

-Rilke, Duino Elegies

Dawn was cooler than usual this morning. I wake up at six to get ready for work, and for months now it has been sticky and warm outside, with the sun already brightening my street. Today, I got chills as I walked out into the half-light. Did this happen so suddenly, or was I simply too busy to be aware of the subtleties of seasonal change? It reminded me of something I realized when I was in... let's call it "governmental custody": when I am not around, things are still happening, and even if I am there--whether I take the time to appreciate it or not--everything is moving and changing all around me. I find the greatest beauty in this.

Once, at Mepkin, I walked out of Vespers and sat in a chair out on the bluff behind the church. The sun was setting, and its slanting rays were creeping across the grass, silhouetting the trees over the river. I was staring blankly at the grass just in front of me, working beads and muttering the Russian pilgrim's prayer, when the sun's rays lit the green blades on fire with golden light. The mantra in my mind stopped instantly. For a moment, I encountered reality completely. And it scared the shit out of me.

When the fire in the grass faded and shadows again covered my feet, I took a few moments to breathe deeply and walked to my cell (yes, monks call their rooms cells). I thought long and hard about what I had seen and why I had felt fear in the face of it. Over time, I came to realize that true beauty is terrifying because it shows us how small we are in this world, and how large we must also be to have the ability to recognize it. Beautiful, terrifying things happen every day, every moment.

It is chilly out in the morning now; the world is changing again. It happens whether or not we care to take notice and appreciate it. Our ability to see shows us how small we really are. But we are divine because we can notice and respond with gratitude. The universe is a frighteningly big place, yet I am alive and play a part.

There is nothing more incredible than being alive.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


I set aside all this time today to write a blog post, and all I can seem to do is put half-formed thoughts on the screen and promptly erase them. It's pretty a pretty senseless way to spend three hours, but I guess it's better than wasting time on Facebook. Anyway, I give up. It's not working tonight. Maybe tomorrow. In the meantime, here's a Merton quote for the three of you that read this blog.

"Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift."

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Gratitude, the Heart of Prayer

Our parish priest, Father Pat, speaks often of the need to experience all of life as gift. Everything we do, every moment we draw breath, is saturated with miracles which would inspire awe in even the hardest of hearts--if only we would take the time to notice. Gabriel Marcel (my favorite philosopher, if you were wondering), in "The Mystery of Being", calls this sense of wonder in the face of reality "the participant perspective". A participant being one who encounters reality, as opposed to one who only observes it. It is the difference between "people watching" at Starbucks and connecting with a stranger over coffee.

There is, to my mind, much to gain from thinking in these terms. Most of us live our lives primarily as observers. The miracles which envelop us are merely oddities to be quantified and categorized before we move on to the next thing--which we ultimately treat in the same fashion. Don't believe me? Spend some time with a child. My little girl can spend HOURS looking at rocks. Each one she brings to me, explaining why it is special. This one sparkles, another has lines that you can only see if you hold it a certain way, this one is shaped like a cat, this one looks like a grey cat (I think they're friends), and on and on, ad infinitum... I know that some day she will cease to see the world the way she does now, and will no longer appreciate the individuality of every bit and piece in a pile of gravel. She'll say, "Oh, rocks. Yeah, I've seen tons of rocks before," just as you and I do. But for now, she is a participant in the mystery of the world. And she invites me daily to abandon my observation and come look at miracles with her.

So, today I realized something profoundly important. The only appropriate, adult response to the experience of wonder is not "Wow!", but "Thank you." My workday changed the moment I had this epiphany. Every piece of wood that passed through my hands became a blessing. Every task I was given turned into an opportunity to give my daughter something she lacked (or had already used, e.g. this months power and water). Even when being pulled away from a job in which I was completely engrossed and content--which I usually hate because it breaks my contemplation--I was cheerful. First, I found myself at a job site crawling around in mud beneath a house trying to uncoil PEX pipe and hang it from the floor joists, and all I could think was, "This sucks great!" I was so happy to be working... to be able to do something. I came out from the crawlspace at noon (covered with Carolina red mud and a few spiders) and found out I was getting sent to another job site. This time, I'm cleaning paint off vinyl siding with thinner and an old t-shirt. It's 90 degrees, I'm in sweating buckets in direct sunlight, and all I can hear is the homeowner and her kids eating popsicles in the pool. 


I am alive. Not only am I alive, but I have people who love me. Some of these people love me so much they take care of me when I am in need. Others of these people I am able to care for. I am not only alive; I have a place in the world. I don't have much luxury, but I have enough to build a coop for my future chickens and to buy a camper top for my truck. Our bills and debts are being paid. My little girl ate her dinner tonight (even though she didn't like it). My wife makes me delicious dinners/lunches. I'm learning a trade that I love from a man I respect. My friends are always there for me. We have a pretty nice home on a great street. We have things in our house--things many people don't. So what if I have to work in the sun. The blessings in my life clearly outweigh the difficulties and struggles.

Today I learned another thing profoundly important. I learned once more to see my life for what it is: a blessing and a gift. Are there things I would like to change? Ways in which I would like to grow? Yes, of course. But primarily, I am thankful. I learned today to participate in the mystery of being alive in the world. I learned to look at things in a different way, and to be more joyful as a result. I learned to share my joy with other people.

Today, I learned for the first time how to pray. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Beginner's Mind

"The opposite of acedia is not the industrious spirit of the daily effort to make a living, but rather the cheerful affirmation by man of his own existence, of the world as a whole, and of God--of Love, that is, from which arises that special freshness of action, which would never be confused by anyone with any experience with the narrow activity of the 'workaholic'." -Josef Pieper

Beginner's Mind:
I have recently started working for a home repair/renovation company, and in my work I've had some thoughts which are  not (I hope) completely devoid of value.

One of the jobs I've been working for the past couple weeks is a beautiful maple bathroom vanity. I'm still very new at this work, so what I've learned so far is how to select lumber, cut it down, sand the pieces to exact thickness and width, and create panels from smaller bits using clamps and glue. After the cabinet maker has put all the pieces together, I also sand. And sand, and sand, and sand. This past week, I spent about 50 hours sanding. It's exactly the kind of work a former monk needs; it lends itself easily to contemplation.

Everything about wood is a mystery to me. Monday through Friday, I go to work and cut trees apart, then try to put them back together in a useful form--trees that have lived longer than I have. I am surrounded by furniture and floors and doors... each piece made from a thing that was once alive in a particular place and time. Every knot in a board, every change in the grain pattern or the color of the wood is unique to the tree from which it came.

I learned today that trees are cone-shaped. (I don't know why I never thought of that before.) That's why wood grain looks the way it does. The patter of U-shapes going down a board are the result of cutting through a stack of cones (the annual rings). Amazing! Maybe not to you, but it's amazing to me.

We are engulfed in a world full of things we don't understand. That's why even the best of us can be taken apart by a child asking "Why?" again and again. Because, at bottom, we don't understand even the most basic elements of the world around us. We are only able to live out our lives because we grow out of childhood and stop looking at creation with wonder and awe. But it's all still there--all the things that made us ask "Why?" as kids are still right in front of us, defying comprehension--even in a simple piece of wood.