Monk in the World guest post: Peg Conway

I am delighted to share another beautiful submission for the Monk in the World guest post series from the community (you can read the call for submissions here). Read on for Peg's wisdom:

Trusting the Path

Peg Conway 1We vacationed at a lake resort in northern Minnesota for several years nearly a decade ago, and enthusiastic fellow guests introduced us to the joys of hunting for agates, which are distinctive red-orange gemstones formed a billion years ago and transported to that area by glaciers. Particularly after a rain, an agate’s vivid opalescence stands out against the sand on a beach or a dirt road road.  The quest for agates takes sustained attention, walking along very slowly with head down, scanning the ground. So too the endeavor to live as a monk in the world involves ongoing commitment to a process that can’t be controlled or forced, and the rewards come unbidden when insight – like an agate – suddenly pops into view.

This analogy came to me as part of ongoing reflection on the experience of volunteering at a food pantry in a nearby urban parish, where I serve as a shopper escorting clients through the pantry as they select items from each food category.  Heeding an inner nudge, I began this commitment a year and a half ago after a friend mentioned the pantry’s need, and it has become a crucible for spiritual growth.

On one hand, I am completely uplifted by the diverse community of volunteers – about 20 or so each Wednesday, men, women and children of varying ages, races, and walks of life working together as a team to serve others in need. In addition to shoppers, there are greeters and registrars who check clients in and process documentation, and other folks who handle various food stations throughout the pantry, re-stock the shelves, assist clients to their cars and bring back the shopping carts.  Frequent teasing and laughter reflect deep warmth and compassion along with a healthy realism about the task at hand. The community encompasses the clients too; many are called by name, their stories known. Because of the pantry’s small scale, I’ve also been able to assist with fundraising, volunteer recruitment and training, and development of policies and procedures.

But working at the pantry is incredibly draining as well, physically and emotionally. Our numbers are growing, which means long waits for clients, many of them elderly and disabled, and extended hours for volunteers to serve everyone. The pantry occupies a warren-like set of rooms that crowd easily with people and shopping carts. Often we have limited quantities of certain foods and must say over and over, “Sorry, only one can of tuna,” or “Limit one on the beef stew.” Someone who lives outside the zip code that we serve receives a pre-packed bag instead of making their own selections. Clients without a car have to figure out how to get their groceries home; we can provide a box with handles to facilitate carrying if the person is able but the wheeled shopping carts can’t leave the parking lot. And some clients are just grumpy or demanding for whatever reason. The constant onslaught of need and vulnerability against finite resources creates an intensity that wears me out, and fatigue often manifests as an impulse to control – to manage the other volunteers or the clients or the flow of activity to my own preference – followed by a desire to quit.

The anchoring practice of silence and solitude as a monk in the world is one reason that I have not quit. I begin most days with quiet contemplation watching the sunrise from a club chair in our living room, a cup of coffee in hand and our dog on her cushion nearby.  On a recent Thursday morning, the pantry from the day before remained vivid in my mind and invited further reflection. It had been very, very crowded, and nearly two hours into it, I’d felt myself at a true limit, that maybe I would need to leave. Reluctant to abandon my fellow volunteers, I took a break in the kitchen area, drank some water, talked to the coordinator, who was feeling the same, and resumed the work. Revisiting all those conflicted feelings the next morning, I realized that my control response had not kicked in. Instead, I had shown hospitality to myself by tending to physical needs, seeking support from a friend, and accepting myself in the situation; in doing so I was able to continue offering hospitality to the pantry clients.

Peg Conway 2For years I have admired Fr. Tom Hagen and his work with the poorest people of Haiti through an organization called Hands Together. Circumstances since the 2010 earthquake have been especially challenging, and Fr. Tom shared in his annual letter that he regularly tells God that he doesn’t like it there and that he wants to leave (adding that daily prayer sustains him). In light of my own discouraged moments, his words bring a sense of proportion, and also a connection. We all want to repair the world, but the project is bigger than any of us. We can’t do it all, and we can’t do it alone. Sometimes we just have to set it down for a while, but then we catch our breath and take it up again. We can’t walk away just because it’s hard, but we must accept the lack of control.  A monk in the world’s commitment to hospitality toward self and others keeps us walking the path with complete trust that gems will appear along the way.

Prayer for Hospitality

God of Infinite Compassion,

You transcend time and space,

yet reside in the depth of my being.

 

Well up like a hot spring beneath layers of rock,

breaking through, opening up space,

graciously warming, soothing, healing, welcoming

from within.

— Peg Conway, 2011, during Monk in the World e-course

 


Peg ConwayPeg Conway is the author of Embodying the Sacred: A Spiritual Preparation for Birth and offers retreats for pregnant women based on the book.  She also writes a blog called Sense of theFaithful, recently earned certification as a celebrant and serves on her local Village Council. A lifelong resident of Cincinnati, OH, Peg is married and the mother of three nearly grown children.

Click here to read all the guest posts in the Monk in the World series>>

10 Responses to "Monk in the World guest post: Peg Conway"

  1. Kay McGlinchey says:

    Peg, How heartwarming and real. The words of hospitality are so important. I am the Minister of Nurture in our church and loving welcoming new people into our church. The opportunity to get to know each of them by name and a little something about them is such a gift. Introducing them to someone in the church, making them feel at home, remembering their name the following Sunday if they come back are all important parts of hospitality. Whether we do it in a food pantry or soup kitchen, our own homes or church, Jesus welcomed the Guest no matter who they were. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Pacia Dixon says:

    Peg, I appreciated your meditation and the prayer that followed. Thank you for sharing with your fellow monks!

  3. Peg Conway says:

    Hi Pacia — Thank you! So glad it found resonance for you too.

  4. Jane says:

    This was timely for me this morning as I struggle with the question of whether to quit volunteering at our small rural community's used clothing and second hand store/ food bank. The money from sales of used clothing and miscellaneous items is used to support the food bank and help with emergency rent, utilities and community projects. Since I began working there on Saturdays a few months ago, I have been sick every weekend and often during the week, with flaring of my asthma and allergies, and I seem to catch everything that is going around. My immune system hasn't been good since I had cancer a few years ago, but I need to be around other people….I live alone in the country…and I want to be of use and service in the community. Being sick most of the winter has been demoralizing. But self-isolating the last couple of years during and following the loss of my parents needs I come to an end, I think. I worked for nonprofit organizations for many years, writing and administering grants; now I have a longing for more direct service ….what I honk of as serving the soup. Already I've been asked to take over the books for the organization, and I thought I preferred to work in the store. Evidently, it is not up to me! Reading your post will lead me into a period of reflection and asking for guidance about where I should be now, and what I should be doing.

    • Peg Conway says:

      Hi Jane — I have neglected to check back for comments and what a delight to discover yours this morning. Another agate on the path. Thank you for sharing your experience. Prayers for your continued discernment.

  5. Sonja Neely says:

    Perfect words for me this morning. I work in a psychiatric practice, and my role is becoming ever more clear to me – that I am to welcome our clients into a warm and caring place, where we hold them for a short time, with kindness and compassion. Hospitality. I can do this. Thanks for the reflection, Sonja

    • Peg Conway says:

      Hi Sonja — I only just discovered your comment today. Thanks for your affirmation, which I receive today as a gift.

  6. Maripat Munley says:

    Peg,
    Even though it ha been a busy day, I have ben cogitating your reflection off and on throughout the day. Crucible of spirituality was a phrase that really caught my imagination – even looked up different definitions for it. I often feel that I am in that place during my volunteer ministry at our County Jail which has enriched and challenged me in many ways for ten years. Then when I got to the last paragraph and the expression "repair the world" I was reminded of a prayer attributed to Oscar Romero so I added it as an attachment for you below. Many thanks for this reflection which I know will settle into me over time.

  7. Peg Conway says:

    Thank you, Maripat! Belatedly as you can see but very appreciated.

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