In the kitchen in the monastic enclosure there is a stack of salad plates. Actually, there are two stacks of salad plates. One stack, about ten deep, is of clear glass. The other is a stack of four or five white ceramic plates. One or more of my brothers believes the plates, being of similar size, should all be in the same stack, either the glass on top of the ceramic or the ceramic on top of the glass. Another one or more of my brothers believes the plates, being of different materials, should be side by side on the already crowded countertop. I suppose, given my less than neutral description, you can see where my sympathies lie.
You might think the challenges of living in a monastic community had to do with deeply spiritual or theological issues. Mostly you would be wrong. Mostly, the challenges of monastic life have to do with the salad plates. To stack or nor to stack? Some days, I’ll walk into the kitchen and the plates are stacked. Five minutes later, I’ll pass through again, and there they are, side by side. Later in the day, they’re stacked. And so on. At least, in our community, we don’t resort to the passive aggressive note: PAX. Dear brothers, we all know that the plates, being of different materials, should be side by side (cf. Lev 19:19). Of your charity, please follow this principle. Yours in Christ.
The plates present me with a particular challenge. First of all, I’m a quasi-minimalist. If it were my house alone, there would be nothing at all on the countertops, much less two separate stacks of salad plates. More than that, I have trickster blood running through me–what the Native Americans would call cayote medicine. My greatest desire, when I witness the ritual stacking and unstacking of the plates, is to intersperse the ceramic plates among the glass plates, to drive everyone nuts.
I have always had a keen sense of buttons. I see them, and then I want to push them. Sometimes I’ve even justified this urge as the desire to help others grow by pointing out where they are uptight, compulsive, controlling, or self-righteous. That is, after all, the benefit of trickster energy in our lives. It really can affect change by bringing first dismay, then embarrassment, and finally healing laughter to those areas in our lives where we need to let go.
For example, a few weeks ago I washed my hiking sandals and put them in the drier. When I came back, the drier door was open. I was instantly angry, convinced that one of my brothers didn’t like the sound of the sandals rattling around in the drier and had opened the door to stop the noise. The clothes were still wet. I put a note on the door–certainly not a passive aggressive one–saying DO NOT OPEN. SHOES ARE DRYING HERE. When I came back half an hour later, same thing. The door was open again. Now I was really mad. I fumed as I folded my now dry clothes. About ten minutes into my fit, something clicked. One of the sandals had been on the floor outside the drier. No one had opened the door. The force of the shoe flying around the drier had knocked open the door, and because shoes can’t read notes, it happened a second time. First dismay, then embarrassment, then healing laughter. My own sense of grievance, my assumptions about my brothers, my self-righteousness–all were exposed for healing and release.
It’s all well and good when the trickster enters our lives impersonally. But it’s a different thing altogether when I know what I’m doing and choose to play on what I see as someone else’s uptightness or compulsion. I used to be proud of that streak in myself. I thought I was righteous and moral. Really, I was smug. I was, however unconsciously, trying to assert my superiority, never seeing the log in my own eye. There was no love in my actions, only the will to dominate.
It’s so easy to see another’s sins, so hard to show mercy. We’re used to thinking of mercy as a grand gesture, something like picking up the wounded person on the side of the road and taking care of them. But what about the wounded ones all around us? The ones who, yes, maybe are uptight or compulsive or self-righteous (as are we all, by the way). Maybe mercy looks like leaving the plates to stack where they may. Or, knowing my brother likes the chairs in a certain alignment, taking the time to move the chair back after I use it, so that he is spared, for a brief moment, the burn of his anxiety. Or choosing, against my strongest inclination, to assume the best possible motivation when someone says something I think is unkind.
It’s no mercy to point out someone else’s faults to them. Certainly not when they haven’t asked us to do so. That’s assuming we can even accurately assess those faults, which we probably can’t. Sometimes, though, we can make life a little easier for our brothers and sisters, by ignoring the plates on the countertop, or the stinging tone of voice, or the neglected dusting. Maybe we even smile a little and allow these so-called faults to stir up our love for those with whom we share our lives. Maybe we leave the tricking to God, who does seem to love a good joke, and learn to laugh at our own foibles and obsessions and leave those of others alone. There’s so much space. Why fill it with more dismay, more bitterness, more shame? Why not laughter, instead? Why not mercy?