Before Enlightenment Chop Veggies, Boil Water

Sometimes you hear just what you need to hear.

After writing about my own struggle to care for myself after a draining time, I came across this post from my friend Mike’s blog, 10,000 Pot of Soup. Mike is a Catholic Worker and advocate for the homeless. In the internet world of Big Ideas and Deep Thoughts and Endless, Endless Debate, it is refreshing to hear someone talk so clearly and simply about their efforts to make the world a better place with their own blood, sweat, tears and soup.

I don’t know Mike really well. We run in the same circles, and they are circles that often involve a group of people sitting on a porch at 3 am solving the world’s problems over another round of drinks. I know that when pushed, we will have to admit we disagree on a lot of the finer points of politics, religion, theology, culture … you name it. But I respect the hell out of his embodiment of the zen quote “Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.”

Last night his blog reminded me of a number of things.

We need to return to the simple things to take care of ourselves. We all know what we need to do. Eat well. Get some rest. Move our body. Pray in our own way. Be grateful. Forgive. Ask for help. It’s not rocket science. Anyone who has ever read the cover of women’s magazines on the supermarket checkout line knows that much. But still we forget. We push too hard. We loose focus. We let our bodies, minds and hearts get stiff and then brittle.

We need to let our hearts break. This weekend, I sat with a family as they worked out a plan for finding an uncle who had disappeared into addiction and homelessness. They needed to find a way to let him know his brother had died. Those of us with homes and jobs and cars and pantries full of food can forget that the homeless and the prisoners and the lost among us are people and not statistics to track or problems to solve. They have families and friends who worry about them. They belong to someone. They should  belong to all of us.

We need to make the world better with our physical bodies and our daily lives. Language, theology, policy, philosophy. These things all matter, but at a certain point they become self indulgent. And ultimately I wonder if they are as important as what the Catholic Workers call the Corporal Works of Mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, offering hospitality to the homeless, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned and burying the dead. It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking a cleverly worded tweet or a forwarded .gif or an angry comment on a blog is making a difference. But the offer of a ride or a moment of unrushed conversation or a pot of soup … personally I find those things more satisfying to both give and receive.

And here is the magic part of those three things. Maybe it is is the wisdom the Catholic Workers have that the rest of us have forgotten.

  • When you take care of yourself, you can let your heart break without destroying yourself.
  • When your heart is broken, it can fuel your passion and energy to do something real in the here and now.
  • When your passion and energy are depleted, you know what to do: go back to taking care of yourself.

I am not saying we should all become Catholic Workers. You don’t need to empty your wallet into the hands of the guy with the cardboard sign at that intersection. I will probably not buy a pair of size 11 men’s shoes from my junkie ex-neighbor. But we can let our hearts break for them a little. We can see them as human. We can serve meals in a shelter or visit a nursing home. And we can see taking care of ourselves not as a self-indulgent act, but something we owe our fellow humans so we are ready  to, as my father used to say*, fight the good fight.


* Actually, that’s a lie. I am not sure my dad ever said that. But it sounds like something a dad would say, doesn’t it? Mostly my dad used to say things like “Where’s my crossword puzzle?” and “Who took the last of the cake?” But my dad did fight the good fight, and he would have been proud to know a guy like Mike.


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