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