Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Sitting at a Table in spite of myself...

I am writing this while sitting at a table in the middle of the second semester event to welcome new international students at the RMIT Union. I am trying to look welcoming, not predatory, open for interaction but not as if I am trying to sell something. But if I am not selling something, then why in God’s name am I here?

Maybe I am here to offer the possibility of a kind community for people who are dealing with questions of purpose, intention and meaning. That seems to come with the territory. Looking at the Islamic students to my right as well as the Indonesian Christian Group over there and the Buddhist’s around the corner, at a lot of the other faith groups around here: I am aware they are groups defined by a common search and a common destination. Hopefully, they will help people come together because of a deep commitment to “the most important thing,” which can be a vision of personal wholeness, social justice and mercy, a conviction that the right will prevail, a common liturgy – in the sense of people’s work – or a common task. Buddhist use the term Sangha – I think – where Christians talk about the church as being the body of believers.

Let me tell you a story. For four months in the spring and summer of 1999 I was a resident at the San Francisco Zen Temple. It was a wonderful, and at times, very demanding, experience. Once a month – I think it was that often – we would make sandwiches (with bread baked on the premises, good fresh vegetables from Green Gulch, the farm across the bridge in Marin county, carefully and mindfully prepared), wrap them up and pack them into the Zen Center truck. Then we would drive over to the Civic Center and deliver them to folks from the large homeless population that hung around the plaza next to the BART station.

I hate to write this because it says bad things about me that might be true. But sometimes it struck me that people of the plaza weren’t appreciating the care we took on the sandwiches, prepared in silence, in that clean Buddhist kitchen, with the patience, the silence, the dedication. And they didn’t – I thought – see that, the pains taken, the careful work. That bothered me for several reasons, mostly because I was making it into something that was judged for results by me and, I assumed, by others, “so how did that turn out, what were the fruits of the action in the end?”

Then I realized that I didn’t have to do it for them, or for anyone else. Altruism didn’t have to enter into it at all. I could simply do it for the goodness of the action, take it up mindfully, work with it carefully, enjoy it for all the wrong or right reasons; then simply give it up, fully. That is not unlike the motion of the Eucharist or, for that matter, the Way Jesus lived his life: and maybe not just Jesus but any holy man or woman. T. S. Eliot must be quoting someone when he writes, “Take no thought of the harvest, think only of proper sowing.” That’s the point of it, to be delivered from the hunger for results.

But the fact is that I want to do a good job here, want to be loved, lovable, want my ministry to matter, want to end up with results. And as soon as I follow that path, then I make myself a hostage for results, and put other people in that place as well. Everybody becomes a means for my ends. So how do I get delivered from the appetite for results? Write notes to myself, process all these aspects of my ephemeral reality until they become somehow clearer, and mutate to right action in spite of my mixed motives? Maybe all of the above. Anyway those are unfinished thoughts for the day. I’m out of here today.

PS – I stayed for 3 hours, ended up talking to a couple of people, handed pamphlets to a few others. I am hoping that some folks will see me today and feel easier about approaching me when I am at “The Chaplain Is In” table another time. Mixed motives and all.


Carol O'Connor said...

Dear Rob, I am glad that you are not there to "sell" anything. I think that just being there is enough. Think of Gandhi and just sit.

I wish that I could send hoards of people to you, for I know that they would be enlivened and deepened by your conversation.

Perhaps the sandwiches you made in the San Francisco Zen Temple in 1999 are only being eaten by people now, reading your words in 2005? What are results, if they are not internal realisations about ourselves, our connections with one another and a deeper Reality?

Goodness of action, mindfulness, letting go, the Eucharist, are daily practices. Good soul food.

How do you get delivered from the appetite for results? By believing in yourself. One word, spoken at the right time, might save someone's life. Or relationship. Or whatever. You may never know it. But the 'Chaplain is in' is all that some people are looking for - especially at a university. And maybe in the end, all that matters is that you sit. Right there. To the left of the picture you posted later on this Tuesday.

Robert Whalley said...

What a wonderful thing to wake up to!

I like the idea that the sandwiches abide, their substance, the liturgy involved there and then, shows up here and now, and on to the future. It does give me another reason to sit in the service of something I don't quite understand, even if I don't have to "understand" it - after all, that's the same thirsting for results.

Maybe the only response to "The Chaplain Is In" is, "In What?"

Thanks, Carol, I'm glad we're in all this together! r