If not with fruitcake, then how?

Posted: December 13, 2020 in Uncategorized

A few years ago I made a retreat with some friends to Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. Like for most, the pilgrimage was meant to help me shed a skin, discard what needed to be left behind, and to discover the hidden depths that remained concealed in the distracted life. After a few days of solitude, repeating ethereal worship and moving back and forth between the intersection of nature and community, a new space is opened inside. What fills it is a grace, of course, and it can’t be designed or planned.

During my days there I struck up a conversation with a monk during the designated conversation time (since the Trappists hold the discipline of silence). In order to support itself, the Abbey makes fruitcakes, sells them online, and ships them across the country. It’s a big deal. Access to Kentucky bourbon doesn’t hurt. And this monk had made fruitcakes his entire life at the Abbey. Fruitcakes and prayer.

During our brief talk I asked him how that worked, the fruitcake occupation with the spiritual life. He looked at me like I had asked why you get wet when it rains. If you can’t find God in a fruitcake, he said, then you can’t find God anywhere.

That thought has been shared before in the history of spirituality. St. Teresa of Avila famously said to keep watch during kitchen duty because “even when you are in the kitchen, our Lord moves amidst the pots and pans.”

I don’t believe, however, that my fruitcake-making monk read Teresa and then tried out the pots and pans formula with fruitcakes. Rather, I think it is a universal aspect of the spiritual life; there comes a time when one realizes that nothing out there is going to provide more than what can be found where you stand, in your own hands. Which makes sense of the monastic understanding of “stability.” Quit jumping around, here and there, and settle in where you are and find what is meant to be found.

Robert Fulghum is primarily known for his book All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten. The most important Fulghum observation for me came not from his most popular book. It was rather an offhand observation he made that garnered little attention. Except for me.

One time when Fulghum was on a pilgrimage to India, he visited a renowned holy man. He hoped that Atlantis might rise out of the sea and his spiritual quandaries would be forever answered. But instead he said that after a while the holy man came out, scratched his back side, sat in front of Fulghum and said, “Go home.” Fulghum waited. Was the wisdom about to come? It was not as he expected. “Go home and find it. There is nothing here you can find that you can’t find at home.” And then he got up and wandered away.

We know many stories like it, parables and tales that use the long journey to lead us to where we began, but to behold it differently, with new eyes.

If you can’t find it at home, or among the pots and pans, or in the fruitcake in front of you, you’re not going to find it. All those who fret about lack of mobility during a pandemic are faced with the same thing. If you can’t find it where you are, you can’t find it. If you are left with yourself, if the porchlight is on but you discover that nobody is home, then nobody is home. You’ve got a problem. But then again you have the beginning of a journey. That is the first spiritual discovery, that the emptiness cannot be filled with outside things, moving parts, or our own moving feet. It can only be filled with holy things that have slumbered out of sight.

Like a babe in a manger, for example. Be there if you will, watching, beholding. Among the shepherds, animals, the fragile family, pots and pans and fruitcakes. If you can’t find it there, well, then you can’t find it.

  1. Larry E Bernard says:

    Excellent commentary on where joy and meaning and purpose is found. Thanks, Tim. Joyfully, Larry

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