I’ve lived here 5 weeks now and life is really starting to kick into gear.I enjoy the work, it exhausting yet exhilarating. It’s basically prayer for the city and working for the flourishing of the city in the area of public transit and then working to provide hospitality for retreat guests all rolled into one place. I had a long week. We had back to back retreats, so I had to do my chores twice. We also partnered with a few organizations to host a speaker from the best BRT system in the nation and had 4 community meetings in about 18 hours. My week ended with co-hosting a retreat with 2-3 other residents. As a cohost, we have to s check guests in and out, lead prayers, make coffee and popcorn, orient guests and answer their questions and set up and clean up during meals. Try washing dishes for 40 people for 6 meals. It’s intense.
This weekend we had the Lay Order of Discalced Carmelites with us. They are men and women who joined the order as lay persons and have dedicated themselves to chastity, obedience and poverty. I sat next to a nursing professor who had been a lay Carmelite for 13 years. She originally wanted to become a nun after her husband died, but she couldn’t bear the idea of not being able to see her grandson, so she joined the lay order. I asked her what it means for her to take a vow of poverty while she is still working and a professor nonetheless, teaching and writing nursing textbooks. “Oh, poverty of spirit, it’s harder I think than living in poverty with no possessions, I don’t buy things I don’t need and a lot of my income goes to charity.” Her textbook royalties go to the church and she says her refrigerator is mostly empty because she only buys what she needs in the way of food. The same thing goes for clothes and other things in her life. I wonder what society would be like if more people did not take more than they needed in life, from others, from the earth, or at least reduced the unnecessary stuff in their lives. There is a lot of unnecessary stuff in our lives that goes beyond possessions. I like the idea of living a lean life in order to make space for more of the things that really matter.
Simplicity is one of the rules of life here, living without excess. We all live on a small income, so it’s a kind of holy poverty. Moving here I realized just how attached I was to my stuff, how much of my identity is synced with my title and income. There is nothing wrong with stuff and having a good income, but after only a month without these things I still feel rich in spirit, life and relationships. Sometimes you can just see more clearly without the excess. My lay Carmelite friend seemed to have a vibrant life as well…she visits the sick, she gives to the poor, she teaches out of her wisdom in nursing and she speak with a smile. Her refrigerator is empty, but she seems rich. Likewise, my life here is full with work, prayer, hospitality and more work, but it too feels rich…so rich I am tired. It’s a good tired though, the kind you feel from doing good work, as simple as washing peoples dishes so they can rest and pray and as broad as getting a city jazzed about being well connected (to others, jobs, and cultural resources) through public transportation.
All this work reminds me that I can’t do everything, so I must say no to some things in order to be fully here and make space for other things that are important for me. I am going through this book that is about merging our inner monk with our creativity. One of the reflection questions this week is “what do you need to say “no” to in your life to make space for this commitment and time of prayer and creativity?” This reminded me that in our busy and cluttered lives, homes, hearts and minds, creating space for God, for the things that matter most and for simple richness requires intentionality and commitment.
I was thinking this week about those posters that are about professions and a put together one for myself that characterizes my time here so far:
What my friends think I do: live in a monastery
What my mom thinks I do: pray and live at a retreat center
What society thinks I do: there is no definition
What I think I do: merge my love of the city with my spirituality
What I actually do: wash dishes, make beds, lead prayer – network and manage communications to promote/advocate for Bus Rapid Transit.