God walks among the pots and pans
Written by: Michelle Francl-Donnay
I made the Spiritual Exercises at Eastern Point, outside Gloucester in Massachusetts. It’s a beautiful spot, with views of the rough-hewn Atlantic coast from almost every window. Its spare chapel is an exquisite setting for prayer and meditation. The white walls are set aglow each morning by the sunrise, and shimmer in the light from the Presence lamp in the depths of the night. The black marble floor radiates a gentle warmth to offset winter’s chill. The air is thick with stillness. And for the first week of the Exercises, I couldn’t pray there.
I was a peripatetic exercitant. I tried the upstairs chapel. My room. The alcove outside my room. Spaces with a view. Spaces without one. All to no avail. Until I happened into the basement laundry room. Crammed with the cast-offs of decades, warm light streamed through dusty windows, picking out the spider webs and dust motes with utter clarity. Two faded wingback chairs sat facing the lines of washers. There, enfolded in a chair, surrounded by the sounds of rinse cycles and tumbling dryers, mostly oblivious to the coming and goings of retreatants doing less metaphorical laundry, I found what I desired in those first days of prayer — a understanding of the ways in which the world, and I, failed. And taking Ignatius’ sage advice, having found what I desire, I didn’t move. I returned again and again over the week.
This weekend I am putting a coat of white paint on the walls of our tiny upstairs bathroom. Which means that I also had to patch and prime the walls. I would think a wall was smooth, then as I rolled the primer on, notice another place where the drywall was nicked, or a patch of spackle I had neglected to sand. How could I have missed it? Again and again, what I saw as perfect was not. As sunlight moved across the room, it revealed yet more imperfections. In the end I had to surrender; despite my determination, I wasn’t going to get perfect walls.
What I did get was a place to pray. As I spackled and sanded yesterday afternoon, my mind wandered back to the First Week of the Exercises, meditating on the ways in which my life is dinged and damaged, and the world likewise. Much like the laundry room of my First Week, this 5 foot square space encouraged meditations on failure and redemption. I’m starting a nine-month sabbatical from teaching, an apt time to look at what has grown rusty, overgrown and messy in my life. Where are the nicks that need repairing? What needs sanding? The process of patching and peering, and repatching reminded me, too, that the process of renewal is not in my hands alone. My determination needs to be matched by my willingness to surrender to God’s hands at work in the real stuff of my life as well.
My impromptu orationis angulus has vanished. The walls are done, the drop cloth folded up, the paint brushes are drying by the basement sink. What remains, though, is a potent composition of place, a modern riff on Isaiah’s image of clay and potter: Yet, LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you our potter: we are all the work of your hand. I can smell the paint, hear the scritch of the sandpaper, see the flecks of paint on the window, feel the smoothness of the sanded patch. I imagine God at work, perched precariously on a ladder, working cheerfully even in this cramped and awkward space.
I eventually did take up prayer in Eastern Point’s chapel, but my week of meditation in the dim and dusty basement taught me to pay attention to the places my prayer wanders, in reality and in contemplation. To grow less attached to the places set aside as holy — chapels and churches — and see as holy the spaces of my everyday life. As St. Teresa of Avila reminded her sisters, “Entre los pucheros anda el Señor.” God walks among the pots and pans. As well as through my laundry room….