Thursday, September 29, 2011

In the Kitchen

It was observed, that even in the busiest times in the kitchen, Brother Lawrence still preserved his recollection and heavenly-mindedness. He was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its turn with an even, uninterrupted composure and tranquility of spirit. "The time of work," said he, "does not with me differ from the time of prayer. In the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great a tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Supper."

Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God


The first day I walked into Neighbors Together to work, the smell of the food revolted me, and I had to take shallow breaths. It's not that the food was bad, but the aroma was unappetizing to me. There is something about cafeterias, all of them, any one of them, that shrinks my stomach.

And there is something about handling food that makes me feel so awkward, so graceless. The kitchen, so hot, so wet, so noisy when a team of cooks and assistants are at work, is not my natural place.

But I have wanted to do the corporal works of mercy, and to do them more directly, not only to call a sick society to repentance for letting people loose into squalor and suffer starvation. So to the kitchen I have gone.

In these two weeks on the serving line, it has been hard to remember God in the work. It is in part because I have been learning what to do and how to do it while on shift, and this has left little time and space within the shift for prayerful energies to spark. It is also in part because I am precoccupied in the flow of work by lesser things. Sometimes I permit myself to feel the satisfaction that this young woman and that elderly man each got two nutritious meals from us. And I think, indulgently, to myself that we won a little victory. They were fed. They did not starve. We have defeated the system that defeated them. I feel vindication, but that does not mean I feel God.

We ran out of food on Tuesday at Neighbors Together. That is, at lunch time we served all the chicken stew that had been prepared, all the white rice, and all the salad. There were more hungry people at the door, and it was not time to close the serving line. We had no choice but to bring out the leftovers, which was nothing but cold macaroni. The people did not like it, and neither did I. They did not like me for serving this lesser food to them, and neither did I. And I had to struggle not to feel hatred toward them for their feeling of disappointment in me, or even disgust.

Today, seeking the inspiration of the French Carmelite monk and mystic of the quotidian, Brother Lawrence, I tried harder to practice the presence of God in the kitchen. The situation was the same as Tuesday: many hungry people, a long line, a full cafe, and low reserves of food. The spaghetti was sticky, and we had to use a pitchfork to serve it. The meatsauce ran all over everything. The salad was in short supply. The sweet potatoes were oily and small. It was the same stressful scene I had entered earlier in the week. Yet everyone seemed to be acting in slow motion and unperturbed. Was it the stale summer weather? Anyway, rather than work frenetically and thus in opposition to the cooks and servers, I took up the same pace as they set. Never mind that the line moved too slowly for any demanding customer's liking. For a few moments, disturbed only by complaints about the way I served a plate or answered a customer's request, I could commend myself to the watchful gaze of God.

I would like to believe with deeper faith that we are being seen. In every place, we are being seen -- not only in the chapel with the saints and angels, not only in the street with the prophets, but also in the kitchen with the sinners. I want to remember this longing, and feel its fulfillment in the kitchen. And maybe, just maybe, with this faith, I could look upon the people -- "members" of Neighbors Together, we call them -- with the look of love by which God, the angels, the saints and prophets, and Jesus gaze upon us, members of the body of Christ.

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