The Woodcutter

Posted: December 31, 2013 in Uncategorized
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“Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The thing about epiphanies, God moments, break-ins of the sacred, is that they are everywhere because, as Browning said, Earth’s crammed with them. That means, of course, that these epiphanies are not as unusual as our ability or readiness to see them. Prayer is more like seeing differently than anything else so a prayerful life is walking through your days attentive to what is happening all the time.

My days have been filled with non-stop epiphanies, some more dramatic than others. They range from as simple as seeing a left over crumb of communion bread in a hymnal, to the moment of one’s last breath, to a unitary apprehension that I am somehow one with that which made me. They are everywhere. But I will share one.

Years ago I was in Nepal and visiting one of the hospices of Mother Teresa. It was a grace-filled place, meant to gather up the dying with gentle care and loving embrace at the end. Characterized by the upmost simplicity, people gathered in the interior courtyard and the surrounding hallways on simple mats. The sisters circulated and offered simple gestures of food, washing and prayer. It was enough.

The hospice was located near one of the sacred rivers. Adjoining the hospice was a Shiva temple with all of its fertility symbols, and by that a cremation pad where the ashes of the dead would eventually tumble into the river and float out to the abyss. Near all this was situated the encampment of a Brahmin holy man who we will call the wood cutter because, well, that’s what he did.

As people passed by, going about their business, this man would, on some time table known only to him, come out of his hut and approach a large log. He was skin and bones and gray-haired. He reached down, retrieved an ax, and held it in his two hands as he regarded the log in front of him. After gazing at it for some time he lifted the axe and delivered one exact cut, no more. And with that his work was done, for the time being, until he returned later to deliver one more cut.

As he turned from the log to return to his hut his eye caught my own, standing as I was in curiosity, entranced with this strange moment. And he smiled a big toothy smile like he had just won the lottery, or passed out cigars at the birth of a first child or received his first kiss. I will never forget that expression, the eyes, the utter contentment and his apparent sense that all was well with the world and with him, that he was doing exactly what he should be doing right then and there, chopping the log one blow at a time.

Because he didn’t tell me what it meant to him and rather returned to his meditation in the tent, he left me to surmise for myself the purpose of his wood cutting ways. I can only share my own impression of what it might have meant, and the strings I pulled together go something like this:

We are compelled to do many things but chopping a piece of wood is just as good as any, depending on what you are contemplating as you do it. Life is doled out one chop at a time, too, and soon enough the chopping will be over and the logs will remain. You can only chop one at a time because that is all there is, really, and doing it with your full heart and mind is what matters. And until you get to the point that chopping a block of wood is fulfilling as, say, building a skyscraper, you haven’t arrived because you’re attached to all the wrong things.

Most of all, though, was the expression of joy in the wood cutter’s face. I suspect that he could have been gathering mushrooms or playing with tinker toys and it wouldn’t have mattered, he would have experienced the same interior thing. If there was ever an epiphany about overcoming the compulsions of life, my compulsions, that would be it. And whenever I think that I must do one more thing to somehow justify my existence I think of his grizzled face, smiling, as the axe found its target one more time.

  1. Mia says:

    Congratulations on the rating! Oh, how dear this post is. There is no greater joy than feeling you are immersed in God, created you for…

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