in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day,
who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never
forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BPC, 133)
I had intended to post an entry last night, after the missioners' first full day of work in New Orleans, but I confess to exhaustion. I could not even stay awake to type. Today paced my work a little better, and the group had no after-work meeting, as we did yesterday. So I am able to write before physical collapse sets in.
Seventeen of us from the Diocese of Missouri arrived late Sunday night for our lodging at St. Paul's Homecoming Center in New Orleans, where we are staying for the week's work rehabbing a house. The Diocese of Louisiana is well organized to welcome missioners willing to devote time and energy toward this city's recovery, and we are all grateful recipients of their hospitality. St. Paul's Episcopal Church, next door, is in the Lakeview section of New Orleans and was itself flooded during Katrina. The Homecoming Center is an extension of St. Paul's ministry, as well as the ministry of the Diocese.
The scope of the work left to be done in the residential areas of New Orleans is so enormous that the mind can hardly take in the magnitude. Years remain before recovery could be called complete, even if private, governmental, not-for-profit, and faith-based sectors were engaged optimally. Such engagement is hardly the case. Our brothers and sisters in the Diocese of Louisiana, however, have devoted themselves to aiding those who otherwise would have no help, those whose resources from other sectors have run out. It is the sort of post-disaster ministry that seems right to me.
The missioners from Missouri will, for the most part, spend our eight-hour days doing our small piece in restoring a house in the 7th Ward, a house left with a severely damaged interior within a mostly structurally sound exterior. The damaged interior has been ripped out--gutted, as they say. All the damaged walls, flooring, ceiling, fixtures, and everything else down to the framework had been removed previously. Plumbing and provision for utilities have been roughed-in. Sheetrock has gone up. We have come in at just the next stage, finishing the sheetrock. Mostly we have worked sanding surfaces and joining the sheetrock at corners. For those who know the lingo, mudding is the bulk of our work.
The work is hardly backbreaking, but it is physically arduous nonetheless. The August heat in New Orleans is exquisite, although I must admit that it is a bit cooler than normal, and cooler than any of us expected. But still, the physical labor is no small thing for folks who, like me, are mostly not accustomed to such things. The collect at the head of this entry has come to mind often during the hours of physical work, as I have been acutely aware these past two days of the gracious exchange that makes possible the life we live, an incarnational sense that indeed "our common life depends upon each other's toil." Especially as physical toil has been my willingly accepted lot for the week.
Twenty-five years ago, or longer, I read in a biography of Charles Simeon some of the usual counsel he would give to his students at Cambridge. He told them that every day he would walk to the two-mile stone (a mile marker from the University) to make certain that it was still there, and he would commend such practice to anyone engaged in the "reading life." A four-mile daily walk is not a bad discipline for anyone engaged in what is otherwise a sedentary livelihood and manner of life, and I have managed to approximate that discipline for the past several decades (not, I will admit, a daily practice). But I am also clear that I can choose not to engage in that discretionary exercise, on any given day or for stretches of time, whether for reasons of ill health, travel, a bum knee, or good old-fashioned laziness. Such a choice is not available to billions of people in this world, whose very life will depend on hard physical work.
Such labor does not deserve any condescending glance or foolish romanticism. But we do well that Benedict, in his Rule for Monks, described a spiritual life existing in a three-fold balance: (physical) work, study, and prayer--all of which is to be undertaken for the sake of the community, which is the matrix of the monk's spiritual life, and for which there is no substitute. That is hardly an unreasonable balance--work, study, and prayer. Physicality is all the more necessary for anyone desiring a deeper spiritual life, especially since spirituality, misguided, can seduce a person into forgetting the body. Anyone who has ever engaged in a demanding course of study, or a mentally or emotionally challenging vocation, to cite but two examples, will have faced that challenge. Sometimes the option of Charles Simeon is the likely one available, and if so, then let us choose it.
But let us not forget those for whom such a choice is not an option; hard physical work is their life. if that renewed insight is the only one that comes to me this week, then it will have been worth the pilgrimage.