Monday, January 31, 2011

Demolition, Canons and Spiritual Direction

About half my career in construction has been fixing other people’s bad work. If it can be done wrong, I think I’ve seen it, but even after 30 years I still see things done so badly or so wrong that I’ve never imagined anyone could possibly think of a way to do something so wrong. Sometimes it takes every minute of my 30 years of experience to figure out how to make something someone else messed up look right without tearing down the entire project and starting over. I don’t know how many times I have been approached when I’m buying drywall materials at Home Depot.  “Hey, are you a drywaller” they ask.  “I’ve been accused of that,” I say.  They ask for a price for sheetrocking and finishing a room.  I give them a ballpark price and they invariably ask: what if I hang the drywall and put the spackle on and you just come and texture it?” (It’s a dead giveaway they haven’t even watched a Youtube video when they call drywall mud “spackle”).  I always ask them, “How many times have you hung and taped drywall?” If they say never or I helped my uncle once when I was in high school, I usually tell them the price is double because to fix a bad job is twice the work to do it right from the start. 

This past week my son and I went to St. Michael’s Monastery to see if we could remodel Fr. Silouan’s cell so it wouldn’t drop below 40 degrees at night. The building was built about 60 years ago, as they say in Canones, “al ojo”, by the eye, according to some sense of building rules.  It had what most buildings have: four walls, a floor and a ceiling. It was functional, looked like a building and served a building’s general purpose, it kept some of the elements out and some of the things inside in.  To the untrained eye it was OK and for the undiscerning with few or low expectations, it was adequate as a storage room but not quite adequate for a monk’s cell when it gets to ten below.  I have seen a lot of things done badly, but I have to admit I hadn’t seen so many things like this all in one place. 

As I was measuring and assessing what it would take to get the building somewhere in the ballpark of air-tight, insulated and functional, I occurred to me that the building was much like the life without Christ: it has some of the parts of the image of God in it, that life actually has legitimate elements of goodness, it can even have great piety and morality and all in all, it works at some levels.  To the untrained eye and the person with low expectations or lack of discernment, this life is adequate and functional in many ways.

However, to the discerning and trained eye buildings and human beings can be a nightmare.  When I walked in to Fr. Silouan’s cell, even without a level or tape measure, I could immediately see the floor was about 3 inches out of level, the room was at least 4 inches out of square, the roof undulated like a snake, and the walls were probably an inch or more out of plumb. 

Like all tradesman, I had the “canonical tools of carpentry” in my truck box:  a level, a plumb bob, and a tape measure.  These are the “canons” or “the rules”, the measuring sticks, and they told me just how far off things really are. But canons and rules in themselves aren’t adequate, you have to know something more than the number of inches and fractions of inches on the tape measure, you have to know what you’re shooting for or what a good building looks like to even know what the numbers mean.  So at one level, the tools are only informative of how far off things really are, it takes another level of knowledge and expertise to know how to use the tools to set things right.  A level may tell you the floor is not flat, but it doesn’t tell you the process of how to make the floor flat or what materials to use.  A tape measure doesn’t give you the skills or knowledge to scribe a piece of drywall to a wall that is out of plumb two inches.  A plumb bob doesn’t draw you a picture of how to fix a door that doesn’t fit in its opening.

The canons of the Church are much the same way.  The Canons were explicit pastoral statements of what was correct in the face of human and institutional issues in the Church. They assume an understanding of the human being in the image of God, the Church, its life, its culture, its piety and an intimate relationship with God.  They assume that those who use the Canons know what the Church looks like and what a true human being looks like because they know Christ, the perfect human person.  They assume an intimate knowledge of repentance, the multitudes of tools and methods and materials of the reconstruction of the Church and the human person and what it takes to get from built wrong from the beginning back to functional and structurally sound.  This kind of knowledge in both construction and the spiritual life does not come from watching videos or reading “how to manuals for dummies” even if they are written by experts, it comes only from hands on personal experience over years. In short, a ruler may tell you you’re off, it doesn’t tell you how to get from here to there.

So I applied my rulers to Fr. Silouan’s cell and was able to interpret the bubbles and numbers and figure out what the proper dimensions should be.  My eye was not far off.  

Our project at St. Michael’s was to simply add insulation to the walls and ceilings.  The original plan for the walls was to cut a two foot swath of sheetrock out of the center of the walls and stuff insulation up and down the cavity and then just patch the wall back.  Piece of cake, done it a hundred times. When we started doing the demolition it turned out there was no framing behind the sheetrock, just random pieces of wood thrown in to hold the sheetrock in place.  The façade looked like a real wall, but when we started to try to remodel it and make it functional, it turned out the infrastructure was bad.  We had to tear the whole wall down and re-frame the entire wall properly in order to be able to put insulation in and new sheetrock on.

The issue was that the façade looked like a real wall, it was finished on the outside and we knew that there was insulation missing on the inside.   But until we removed the façade in order to add what we knew was missing we didn’t know what else was missing.

Our spiritual facades are the same way. We have an outward show of piety, niceness, and correctness.  We say the right things in the proper voice and inflections, we cross ourselves at the right time, we drop the right names in conversations, we know the prayers and services, we go to the right monasteries and read the right books.   The outer appearance looks finished and real.  But sooner or later someone will cut a hole in the façade through temptation, insult, injury, or even praise and flattery.  It is then that people discover there is little or nothing behind the outward show, no foundation, no inner structure to support it.  But until the facades are demolished we don’t realize how dysfunctional the inner structure is and true reconstruction cannot begin.

So, the walls turned out to be two more day’s work than we figured.  Then we turned our attention to the ceiling.  It was a flat roof that actually got warmer when it was covered with snow because the snow kept the below zero air out.  The igloo effect.  The original plan was to add a pitched roof on top of the flat ceiling and insulate it.  It was ten below with snow still on the flat roof so we figured we’d just add a two by four false ceiling under the existing ceiling, insulate it then sheetrock it.  This would be much faster, easier and cheaper, not to mention warmer, than trying to build a new insulated roof structure. It turned out the existing ceiling had two to three inch dips and warped boards so it would be impossible to put a new level ceiling under it.  The existing ceiling was so far out the new ceiling joists would not sit flush to the existing structure, so the new ceiling had bows and dips in it because it followed the existing ceiling’s bows and dips.  I could have scribed each new ceiling joist to the contours of the existing structure and ended up with a flat, level new ceiling, but if I did that then I couldn’t have gotten insulation in the cavity because there would have lost the depth of the studs.  My level told me my new ceiling was a roller coaster but it didn’t tell me what to use to finish the ceiling.  Because I work with it every day, I knew that half inch sheetrock would flex enough to follow the dips and curves of the ceiling but 5/8 sheetrock would not, so I knew what materials were available and their capabilities to apply to this particular situation to get to the end goal. So, a proper and aesthetically pleasing “level ceiling” was sacrificed for the greater good of  “an insulated ceiling” for the sake of keeping a human being from freezing or getting pneumonia for the greater good of the entire monastic community who doesn’t want their Abbot catching pneumonia.

When we approach the Canons and how they apply to a wrecked human being, they are much the same Fr. Silouan’s roller coaster roof and walls.  It requires not someone who knows how to read a bubble in a level, but someone with sometimes 30 years of experience who has been mentored and seen and fixed hundreds of walls in various stages of wreckedness and knows what can and cannot be done with all of the building materials and resources available.  In the same way, it does not take someone who knows how to read the Rudder to heal a wrecked human being, but someone who has been healed and because he has been healed himself.  And then once he has been healed he has years of cautious and humble experience under the spiritual guidance of a mentor dealing with all manners of human weaknesses and knows what spiritual medicine to apply to what illness or tangled array of illnesses.

Whenever someone undertakes a remodel the first set of blueprints or in our case with no blueprints but just an existing structure and an idea, the first thing that has to be considered is the demolition plan.  I’ve learned over the years that the true beginning of remodeling is a skilled demolition. Demolition must be done carefully, methodically, minimally until other things are brought to light through the process.  Demolition done without this kind of care can create more problems, make more work, ruin a building and even kill people.  I once was removing a hallway to open up a living room.  We had removed the sheetrock and had started knocking out the studs of the hallway wall. As I hit the last stud with the sledge hammer I heard a creak and groan.  I stopped and carefully knocked it back into place and when I tried to put a couple more back in, I found the ceiling had sagged over an inch.  I crawled up into the attic and discovered the wall was supporting the entire roof structure of that side of the house.  If I had knocked that last stud out, the entire living room ceiling and roof would have caved in on us all. I had to go in the attic for two days in the summer to shore up the rafters and we had to leave a post in the hallway for the living room remodel. So we cannot just say, this wall is not according to “canon” of an open floor plan, so it must be torn down.  The offending wall might be part of the integral structure of the entire building and must be approached as such and may not ever be able to be torn down completely, but shored up, partly removed and reworked in a way that uses its strength AND it’s dysfunction.  Demolition must be done carefully and with an eye to the end product, with an understanding of  what can be done with the existing structure and where you can fudge, improvise, use existing materials even if they are not ideal, what can and cannot be done at all and what you just have to live with.

So remodeling is done because there is enough good left that is useful, functional and good, and not enough time and money to tear the whole building down and start over.  Most people don’t have that luxury with their houses. When I am dealing with something so far out of whack, sometimes I have to put the level and tape measure aside even though I know what they will say, and I have to do what works, what fits into the existing bad framework and then ends up being functional, basically structurally sound, and still looks fairly good in the finished product.  It does not take a skilled journeyman to read a tape measure or level and recognize that something is not to code.  It takes a person who is intimate with all phases of building, not just from anew but also working with existing structures to know what to remove and when, what to leave in place until other things are in place, what to work around and what cannot be ever completely removed even if it isn’t plumb, square or level.  At that point I am also building “al ojo” but with an “ojo bueno”, a good eye, one that sees with an understanding of codes, tools, tape measures, building materials and their limitations and functions and the goal of the finished product I am striving for.

When we are dealing with reconstructing human being’s lives, each of us have been formed, built and remodeled by amateurs, hacks, clueless and well meaning people and by the time someone who really knows what is going on gets to us, we have far too many code violations and issues to be made perfect before we die. Most people don’t have enough time left in their life to be perfect, so we strive for getting as close as we can with what we have to work with, with all the limitations and issues fully in mind.  In the spiritual life, most people can look at someone else and even sometimes themselves and see that something is “off”, or immoral or unspiritual.  And anyone can quote the code book or the Canons or Rudder and say “just say no to that”, “stop this”, or “do that”.  The fact of the matter is our entire life is now an integrated structure, the good, the bad and the marginal and any reconstruction must be done with an understanding of the inter-relatedness of the varieties of sins, virtues, passions and dispositions. Often the most obvious thing is not the thing that needs to be carefully demolished first, it could be a dozen other small things and a reinforcing virtue firmly in place before that sin can be removed. Sometimes the reality is we never can completely remove a passion so in a sense it is carefully integrated into the over all redesign, surrounded by supporting virtues so it is not the main focus or main support of the entire person.

So to quote the Canons as mere rules, no matter how exactly you can read them or follow them to the letter, is to use them like a sledgehammer in the hands of a blind man or a tape measure in the hands of a clueless construction laborer.  An unskilled use of them can result in more harm to the person, unnecessary or premature removal of integral parts and can mean a total crash of a person’s entire inner structure and the death of the spirit. Neophytes to the spiritual life who read books and try to fix themselves or give advice to others from books or even limited personal experience are like homeowners who watch Youtube videos, TV programs or read a website and try to do their own remodeling work:  most of the time they create more work than they accomplish and the second state is worse than the first and takes longer to fix.  

So, as new converts, we need to be careful to not get caught up in self diagnosis and reading too many “how to manuals” even written by experts.  We need to undertake repentance with zeal, but not zeal without knowledge and guidance from an experienced remodeller. As a wise old contractor once told me, “There’s a big difference between thirty years of experience and one year of experience thirty times” and “Before you learn the tricks of the trade, you need to learn the trade first.”  So choose your contractors and your spiritual guides carefully.  If you want advice on how to find a decent contractor, email me. For finding such a spiritual guide I’ll refer you back to my interviews with Fr. Meletios Webber on “Spiritual Fathers”  HERE  HERE and HERE

The podcast version of this post is on Steve the Builder.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Orthograph #118 - Si Puedo... O no.

How to Grow Old

One of the greatest benefits of gray hair is I can say and do things that I'd never have gotten away with when I was 35. Actually, I COULD have said and done a lot of things but when I was 35 but I was way too proud and concerned about maintaining a facade (or several of them, depending on who I was with). When I got my first AARP piece of junk mail, it was objective confirmation that, yes, I'm old. I'm gray. I have more head than hair. The kids at McDonald's call me "Sir" now. But it was also like I got a "WYSIWYG License" sent to me. If I look or sound goofy people will just say, "Ah, he's old..." rather than "What a dork!" But even being called an old dork is now a badge and not an arrow.

This guy is my new hero. THIS GUY is still my hero, too. I think the two of these guys should do a project together. Watch carefully, kids. He's a role model for you in 30 years.

H/T Silouan

Thursday, January 27, 2011


David Gilmore's guitar effects rack mount alone could probably support a homeless shelter for a year, but I'm still a sucker for his talent.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

If I Were a Rich Man... Dadadadada....

It came down to the wire. I was supposed to leave for St. Michael’s last week to insulate and sheetrock the Abbot’s cell, but with Christmas, all of our kids and the grandchild staying with us for the holidays, our youngest’s 18th birthday bash, and a new daughter-in-law to be who was visiting to meet the family to celebrate, our finances got stretched thinner than angel hair pasta.  Fortunately, I picked up a couple last minute jobs that gave me a daily check so I could afford to buy some winter clothes which we don't have laying around in Arizona, pay for gas to get to the Monastery and leave a few dollars for the Wifey to buy groceries and electricity while I was gone.  I should have had my truck checked out since it has close to 100,000 miles and I’ve never had any “recommended services” done, the “check engine light” has been on for a few months, and it needs an oil change, but I just couldn’t afford it.

As I faced my diminishing bank balance, the “Mega-Millions” lottery cranked up to almost 350 million.  I was broke, so like all broke people, I spent money I didn’t have and bought one wishful thinking ticket. It was a buck, what the heck.  I’ve bought lottery tickets probably a half dozen times in my life and sometimes even when I wasn’t broke when it got up over 200 million. I always tell Wilma the Circle K Cashier that if I win I’ll set her up with a retirement plan.  Of course that's my way of telling God that if *I* win some good would come of it. This morning on the way to the monastery I bought coffee and told her we’re both going to have to keep working, I didn’t win.  She said “Yeah, I saw that..., oh well.” 

If only I had won the lottery…  I’d give Circle K Wilma a life.  I’d pay off my kids’ student loans.  I’d fix up St. Michael’s, St. John’s and St. Paisius’ Monasteries with all the stuff they need, I’d buy a Church building for our Mission parish, I wouldn’t have to worry about electricity, oil changes and whether I can afford a pair of long johns and work gloves.  I could build stuff for churches and monasteries for free, write and podcast all my *ahem* “wisdom” that no one will pay for, hand out hundred dollar bills to random needy people and cartoon all day.  Oh, the good I would do…

“The good I would do for God if I were suddenly rich” (or even slowly rich) idea runs rampant among Christians for some reason, and especially among wannabe full-time ministers like myself.  It is always the big selling point of sucking people into multi-level marketing schemes to Christians who always seem to be more than willing to use their friends to achieve their selfless goals of being independently wealthy in order to do something good for God, but I digress...

I’ve come to realize there’s a lot of problems with the  idea of being rich, problems that, in the still of the frighteningly silent nights in the bottom of the snow crusted canyon of St. Michael’s Monastery, become all too clear because there is nothing else to do but listen intently.

First of all, there is a problem with just the idea of “the good”.  In my wish to be rich I, of course,  think of myself and my intentions as good.  A corollary is that my judgment of what is “good” is ACTUALLY good.  Another problem is thinking that having money I got the easy way to throw at things I’m interested in is a good thing to do for myself and for those to whom I give so they won't have to work for it. And yet another issue is that I might question the worthiness of someone to receive my generosity, but I don’t question my judgment of their worthiness.

But as problematic as those things are, they are not the real problems.

The real problem is me.  If I were rich, the fact of the matter is I would do good for ME first.  I’d pay off MY debts, I’d buy ME a better car (but a used one in order to appear frugal), I’d by ME a better house (or at least a different one, but I guarantee it wouldn't be a trailer), and maybe even more houses around the country close to places *I* want to be (I’d assuage my guilt by making sure they were modest, maybe condos, and not in gated communities). Or, if I didn’t buy houses, I’d just be sure that I’d have enough money laying around to get me to those places and be sure I had enough money to stay someplace while I was there, and not a Motel 6.  And of course I’d buy some more and better stuff than I have now, instead of a 21 inch TV, I might even buy a 32 inch flat screen something or other.  THEN... with what was left over I’d spread it out among my kids and interests AFTER I made sure I’d have an endowment that would sustain MY new lifestyle, even if it is going to or building Monasteries and Churches.  Bottom line: I’d take care of myself first before anyone else, even if my life wouldn’t be extravagant or self-serving by “worldly” millionaire’s standards. 

But as real as that is, the other reality is, my delusion runs deeper than where and how I'd spend the money.  It is the same delusion that fueled my aspiration to priesthood, my illusions of quasi-monastic spiritual disciplines, my ego that torpedoes my good intentions, gets me my rewards early, and the vainglory that has fed a life of public ministries.  It is the delusion that if my life were different or someone else’s I would be a better person. It is the delusion that I am indeed so spiritual that I would rise above the temptations of riches that others have fallen for. It is the delusion that I am so spiritual that I am capable of greater things than others who have what I do not. If only I were rich is just one more in a long string of "if onlies" I've lived in during my life.  If only I were married, or not married, or married to someone else, if only I had a different job, if only I were a priest, if only I were paid to write, if only I didn’t have to worry about paying the mortgage or electric bill, if only I had a reliable car, if only, if only, if only.

The problem is, all of the “if only” scenarios I’ve ever had existed only in my head. “If only” is a fantasy world constructed by my narcissistic and ego driven self perceptions and assessments. “If only” is me telling myself lies and believing them.  “If only” is a foggy distraction from the clear mirror of what is true about myself. 

“If only” is the delusion that I would rise above my current self, my current inclinations and passions and lusts if given more of what I am not a good steward of now, even in the small things. If I hand forty bucks to a homeless mother in a parking lot on Christmas Eve, I think I’d be as generous with 40 million the whole year ‘round. “If only” is the delusion that given others’ circumstances that I desire or even envy, I would be better than the other "worldly people" I sit in judgment of who have what I do not.  “If only” is the delusion that I would manage another life better than I manage the one I have.  “If only” is the delusion that, given different circumstances, I would do great things.  “If only” is the delusion that I even know what a “great thing” is.  “If only” is a lack of faith that what I have been given is according to my capacity for “greatness”.  “If only” is laziness and the delusion that if I am given something other than what I have I would actually work harder at goodness than I do with what I have been given.  

In the end the reality is that when I aspire to an "if only" I am living in a fantasy dream world, not in the reality of the present moment. It is pride, it is thinking I know better than God what is good from evil, what is beneficial and harmful, what will lead me to perfection or perdition.  It is ultimately the antithesis of Eucharistic living, being thankful for this daily bread.  It is ingratitude and grumbling about the manna that falls from heaven each day and sustains me even in whatever martyric wilderness I narcissistically believe I am wandering in.  It is a distraction from holiness which comes only in the present moment of an encounter with God through my attentiveness to  who is or what is before me.  It is a rejection of humble acceptance of this hour, this minute of my life and the grace given in it. 

Indeed those who desire to get rich in this life pierce themselves with many a pang, even if they have good intentions.

It was two below zero in the mornings at the Monastery when we started working.  If I were rich, I’d have bought myself a set of those 60 dollar winter underwear at Bass Pro Shop and made dang sure I was comfortable working in the snow. Such is my life....

Monday, January 17, 2011

St. Michael's Monastery Work Trip

Thanks to everyone who donated toward the insulation project at St. Michael's Monastery Fr. Silouan now has a warm cell with the bonus of a level floor.

My son took a week of vacation from his job and we left last Sunday morning at 4:00AM so we would arrive at the Monastery before dark in case we needed chains to navigate the mile of snow covered dirt road to get back in to the Monastery.

On the way we crossed the Chama River, made famous by Georgia O' Keeffe. It is understandably one of the most frequently painted and photographed sites in New Mexico. It's times like these I wish I had a real camera again instead of a "point and shoot". Oh well, but even with a cheap camera, you get the idea.

The river winds its way down the mountain from Lake Abiquiu which is a couple miles up the road from the Monastery located in Canones, an ancient Pueblo inhabited by families of intermarried Native Americans and Spanish settlers for centuries now.

We started work on Monday morning about 9 AM. The monks by that time had finished Matins, morning prayers and breakfast. Before then the sun was not quite over the top of the mountains of the canyon, and the cold was bitter (at least for me... Yeah, I admit I'm a wimp when it drops below "Arizona freezing": 70 degrees). We had a light snow the first night and the next three days it was below zero when we set up and started working.  There is a footpath from the guest house to the monastery... Hi ho brrrr, hi ho brrrr, it's off to work we go.
I tried to drive my truck with all my tools up to the monks' area.  As I slid down the icy hill from the guest house into the creek, I thought this idea didn't bode well already.  I found out I couldn't get up the other side of the hill out of the creek up to the monastery.  I also found out that I couldn't reverse and back up the hill that I had slid down in order to get back to the guest house parking lot. So rather than wait for the snow to melt off, Fr. Silouan and I put the chains on.  Fortunately I had watched a Youtube video about how to install chains before I left Arizona so I didn't look like a total dope in front of the Abbot. At least not in this matter. We made it up the hill, unloaded the tools, got back down the hill and to the road, took the chains off and went to Lowe's an hour away in Espanola to get the materials for the job.  Thank God to whoever invented snow chains. If I had to carry all the lumber, 12 foot sheetrock and plywood down from the guesthouse and up the hill to the cell, they would have had to bury me there.  Or at least cover me with snow, let me freeze and bury me in the spring.

Hmmmm. Oh, dang.... I missed my opportunity.

Once I got up the hill, I left my truck there for the duration of the job.
While Fr. Silouan and I went to Lowe's, Fr. Ephrosynos and my son removed the sheetrock from the walls so we could insulate them. They discovered there was no framing in the walls, just random boards thrown in to hold the old sheetrock in place. So we bought more 2 by 4's and framed new walls for the insulation. 
In the process of framing and installing sheetrock we found out the room was about 4 inches out of square, 3 inches out of level in various directions and the walls were about two inches out of plumb.
Every stud had to be cut individually to length and every piece of sheetrock was a trapezoid. If you look carefully at the bottom of the door you can see a dark angled piece of wood to cover the gap at the bottom of the door.  This was added to the bottom of the door to keep SOME of the air out because that was how far out of square the floor and door jamb were.  You can also see the top of the door wasn't much better.
We decided it would be cheaper and faster to add framing and insulation to the bottom of the ceiling rather than adding a new roof on the top of the building (which we will revisit as a later project to frame it for solar panels.)  The ceiling presented its own challenges because it too was out of level and square and had a 3 inch dip in the center.  Fortunately half inch sheetrock is pretty flexible and bent around the rollercoaster framing without breaking.
I framed a new header between the two rooms of his cell.  This is the only level thing in the building now. Yes, the ceiling bowed that much... in THAT direction.  It went plenty of other directions too.  The curtain kept the dust from this side out of the other. Once we finished this side we moved everything from the other room into here and did the same thing on the other room.

Fr. Silouan stopped in once in a while to check the progress.  Once we had the walls done the floor issues became VERY apparent. While Jesse cut the tape for the drywall joints, Fr. Silouan looked at where the floor dropped into the corner about 3 inches.  I told him I was very concerned that if he did a prostration he would roll into the corner, bump his head and be in a vegetative coma for the rest of his life.  Or either that there would be dents in the wall and goofy converts would want to come and venerate his dented wall or the bumps on his head and ask him to be their spiritual father. He decided we should try to level the floor the best we could.
Leveling the floor was about as challenging as hanging the sheetrock on St. John's Monastery Church.  The floor dipped and rolled in 3 different directions, so I had to cut wedged shims of varying lengths and heights to create a new subfloor for the new plywood. After cutting lumber kneeling in the snow for 5 days I discovered a set of sawhorses on the other side of the building.
The shims were installed on 16 inch centers and glued and nailed to the existing floor.  I cut off the bottom of the door level to clear the new height of the new floor.
Reader Christopher came up for a short pilgrimage visit from Santa Fe. He helped install the new plywood for a couple hours.  He disappeared the next day for some reason.  (Actually I told him don't feel guilted into helping with the construction... I do have SOME compassion for people who don't lift heavy objects for a living.)
The room was painted, the new floor put in and we stored our "these shouldn't-freeze" tools and materials in the new insulated room instead of the candlemaking factory room overnight.  It is a good thing when the bubbles in your levels actually move, your hoses unravel without breaking and your paint and drywall joint compound aren't blocks of ice.
While I framed the ceiling for insulation in other side of the cell (the other room through the curtain) my son Jesse built some walkways and steps to a couple of the buildings where water run off and erosion had created some steep, slippery little gullies and inclines at the entrance of the buildings.
And, of course while one visits a Monastery there are services to attend.  I managed to get to Vespers a few times.  Matins at 4AM... well, not after working in freezing weather all day and expecting to get anything done the next day.

The Church is simple and beautiful. It has a couple of simple graves in front of it.  The cross on the ground and the cross on the dome is a sober reminder of the connection between His death, the life in Christ in the Church, and the whole meaning of why all of us are called to a renunciation of the things that anchor our souls to this world.
The services are chanted beautifully and peacefully by the three monks.  There are no "kliros ego theatrics", no dramatic readings or operatic renditions. The only light is the glow of the wood stove and the candles. My son said the hardest work of the day was sitting quietly for 30 minutes during the Jesus Prayer before Vespers began. 

We finished the cell Saturday morning.  I did a couple other small "handyman" projects and looked at some major projects to put on the wish list.  By Sunday morning the snow had begun melting off.  We packed the tools into the truck and headed back into the world. 
...But not really back into the world.  While there was no cell phone service in the canyon, they did have internet access, but I chose to stay out of the office and off the 'net while I was there. That was my ascetical feat of the year, like 40 days of Lent packed into 8 days. So as isolated as it was, we were still in the world and it is still accessible at the Monastery because the world is everywhere, even at a Monastery and even among monks and in monks' hearts. They are just as much in the world as we are, in some ways perhaps more so, and they battle with it just as we do, sometimes more earnestly and sometimes not, just as we do.

While I was working on his cell, Fr. Silouan was in the office dealing with car insurance, electric bills, car problems, grocery money, bank accounts and hosts of other administrative things.  For someone who had finally gotten a blessing to live as a hermit at St. John's before he was called out of the woods to become the Abbot of St. Michael's, this is his personal "ironic wilderness". God works in mysterious ways for our salvation, and almost never how we imagine or think He should.

So, I left their wilderness to return to my own. My own, at least, is warmer.  I thank God for that.

God willing I'll return there to build a shower for the monks in their living area and do some remodeling on their kitchen later in the year.  After spring.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

My Own Personal Hell

I've lived in Arizona for 45 years and worked construction for 32 of them.  I work in "traditional hell". Basically, I'm acclimated to hell.

Hell for me is any temperature below 65 degrees.

So, I've never had a shopping/to do list like this:

Thermal underwear:  check.

Wool work gloves: check.

Wool socks: check.

Thermal hat with earmuffs: check.

Compressor filled with 5W oil: check.

Fleece lined waterproof work pants:  check.

Snow chains for tires: check.

Gortex boots and windbreaker: on loan from "Ski Trip Bill".

No internet or cell phone connection.  

In the immortal words of Rambo:  "I'm going in.... don't try to stop me!"

But, if I'm not back in 7 days, send in a sled dog rescue expedition.

Thanks to all those who contributed to The Cause. (It's not too late to send something....)

Hasta luego!