Sometimes I spend quite a bit of time cleaning something only to step back and realize it isn’t very clean at all! This has been especially true when polishing altar ware. Brass and silver can be a huge pain to polish, especially if there are nooks and crannies that are hard to access. Wine and lipstick stains in linen surely are the work of the devil. If you are a church person, then you should know those little old ladies who are part of your altar guild are the hidden mystics in your church. Forget about clergy. Those ladies who spend countless hours, often in silence, year after year, cleaning and polishing, getting stains and spots out of all manner of surfaces and materials, are the real mystics of your parish.
Human beings are programmed to see and criticize the negative. None of us are immune to that programming. The best we can do is become conscious of it and work against it to the best of our ability. It’s so easy to criticize and deconstruct, and we feel insightful and powerful when we do it. How many movie critics couldn’t make a movie if their life depended on it, but have made a career of telling us what’s wrong with movies? I would like to suggest that the reason they couldn’t make a movie is that they have spent all of their time and energy looking for what is wrong with movies and so they haven’t the first idea what is right with movies. That blind spot is their weakness, and it is ours as well.
What the altar guild ladies have learned is that the way to awakening isn’t avoiding the negative but rather going through it. For a time it has been the practice of some well meaning bureaucrats in church circles to apply lacquer to large objects that would otherwise have to be polished regularly, especially if they aren’t easy to reach or lift. An old parish of mine had six very large brass candlesticks behind the altar that were heavy and not easy to reach and so they were lacquered. How great was that? No polish brass! Over time, however, lacquer develops an orange cast to it that doesn’t polish out. Your beautiful brass candlesticks start to look like Halloween decorations. The only thing to do is to send them out to be dipped in a chemical solution to remove the lacquer. Most often a new coat of lacquer is applied and the process begins anew.
I believe this is a metaphor for the spiritual life. When we find ourselves too preoccupied with deconstructing the negative, we gradually become more and more negative. A pig farmer smells like…pigs. Rather than seeing the negative as a problem to be eliminated, me might choose to see it as an opportunity to work through. After all, problems and obstacles don’t just drop from the sky unbidden. We create them! We can choose to complain about them without taking action, or we can investigate how the problems developed and what the alternatives might be. In short, problems are a path to wisdom, but we will never get to wisdom with the mindset of an exterminator. We need to live with our challenges until the path past them becomes clear. That is most often not a quick process and there are no overnight solutions. Then again, do quick solutions ever lead to satisfying outcomes? Maybe they just turn everything a different, undesirable color.