Twenty years ago this past summer I traveled to the land of my ancestors. A land I had heard about my whole life, a storybook country of lakes and forests and flaxen-haired princesses. Of blue and yellow flags and three golden crowns atop many a spire. It was “the old country” of my grandparents on both maternal and paternal sides. Surnames like Lundberg, Holmberg, Appelquist, Boquist, and Engwall wrapped my childhood in their soft sing-song melodies. And I was one small variation on that theme, about to join the main chorus.
I decided that I was the wrong kind of person to visit a monastic order. I was too uncivilized and unlearned, too ornery and idealistic, and maybe even too Protestant. But during our final breakfast with Father Donovan, I scooped jewel-red currant jam I’d helped prepare onto homemade Irish bread and listened to the monk discuss theology, politics, and the proper method of a coffee press. I began to wonder if maybe I'm exactly the right sort after all.
We can never overestimate the value of listening to someone’s story, for it takes great courage to share a hurt or even a joy with another person. The fear of rejection, misunderstanding, or criticism often keeps us from telling someone what has made us who we are. But when another person takes the time to sit with us and listen to what we have lived, our hearts grow stronger.
For a day we considered our deepest disposition, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve that we are: we compartmentalize, we believe one thing to be true and behave as if another thing is true, we say “This matters most!” and then live as if it doesn’t really. This tendency has profound implications, for learning, for labor, for love, for liturgy—for all of who we are, for all of how we live.
How do we begin to find our way to coherence? Can we even imagine a way of seeing and hearing that honestly connects what we believe with the way that we live?
I am no carpenter. But my doctor son, with a degree in tropical medicine, volunteers for a humanitarian agency in Burma, exercising his skills with bodies and souls. He is also a poet and artist. His hobby, and a way of calming his mind and expressing his sense of shape and beauty in the midst of suffering and destitution, is to find odd pieces of wood and fashion from them objects beautiful or useful, exposing the wood's inherent quality. Tables, chairs, bowls, spoons! He’s skilled with a scalpel, either on human bodies or on the striated muscles of something that used to be a tree.
Without knowing it, he has given me a metaphor to live by—the sizing up of my trajectory in life.