Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Marty and Eric are father and son. They are also fine stone masons, with years of experience behind their craftsmanship. In this picture, they are building the fireplace in our new house--a laborious job, since the chimney extends sixteen feet to the second-story ceiling. They don't talk much as they work--instead they listen to mellow music or hum. Every so often, they switch sides so as to keep the design balanced. Their whole focus is on what they're doing, and they move at a pace that gets the job done but also insures they'll produce their usual excellent work.
Their days are long and full of heavy lifting. I asked Marty, who's been doing this for thirty years, what the effect has been on his body. He laughed. I said, "What does that mean?" He said, "Are you talking about my knees? 'Cause they're gone." I said, "I was thinking more about your hands." He laughed again. "Oh," he said, "they're junk too. Absolute junk."
Yet at the end of one particularly grueling day, when they'd been hauling buckets of cement up the scaffolding for hours and were both beat, I could see it, they got into an intense discussion in front of the fireplace just as they were leaving. Eric was not happy with one of the stones over the arch. It was not the right size--too small. Also not quite the right shape. When they pointed it out, I could see what they meant, though barely. Eric said, "I looked through every stone in the pile to see if we could find a better one. But we're not leaving THIS one in, I can tell you that. We'll find a good one for you this weekend and replace it on Monday, okay? Is that all right?"
As though, over the weekend, we would be incapable of living with one misshapen stone in an enormous field of them stretching to the second-story ceiling in an unfinished house we were not yet even in. "Not a problem," I assured him. "No worries." And naturally, they replaced that troublesome interloper first thing Monday morning.
But every time I pass the fireplace, my eye is drawn to that spot. Why? Not because the new stone isn't perfect--it is--but because I am still awed by Eric's refusal to take his own eye off the job, whether or not anyone else ever noticed. For me, the stone is a silent reminder of what I lack. Unlike these careful stone masons, I want to get to the end of the book, see the final product, check things off my list. And my impatience colors my whole spiritual life; I sometimes think I will never experience, for example, that peace which passes understanding. That my loving will always be deficient, my courage tenuous, my faith feeble, my hope like a wavering match flame.
Yet as a priest once helpfully pointed out in confession, there's a direct link between my impatience and that wavering flicker. When we live in hope, we're willing to wait for things to unfold in their own way. We stop trying to control every outcome. We let the picture come into focus--we see the misshapen stone--before we rush on to a false completion. Patience and hope are like a mobius strip in that regard: one shades imperceptibly into the other.
When year after year, the fourth century desert dwellers sat at the mouths of their caves, gazing out over the stony vastness of the Sinai, I suspect they relied upon this relationship. Would that I might learn to do so too.