Thursday, August 06, 2009

Contemplative Concrete

A few weeks ago I was in Costa Rica on a mission trip. Pretty much all I've written about the trip thus far was how it was abbreviated by the church fire. Initially I was upset that I was out of the country when this disaster occurred, preventing me from being on the scene right away. But in a way it was actually a good thing for me, in that it created a kind of liminal space between the type of everyday ministry I was used to and the new, chaotic reality I came back to.

I also found the trip to be a great opportunity to engage in some contemplative practices and focus completely on the moment I was in, which has been so crucial for me in these last few weeks.

In Costa Rica we were working on the orphanage in Coronado (a town in the mountains just outside San Jose) that the Methodist Church of Costa Rica hopes to open next year. The foundation had been dug, so we were doing concrete work all week. Here in the States we usually see one or more large concrete mixing trucks doing all the work, requiring only a few people and very little time. This was not the case at the orphanage.

The only power tool we had was a cement mixer with a loud diesel motor. Everything else was done by hand.

A massive pile of silt had been taken from a river bed, and we had to sift it, separating the gravel from the sand.

We then had to shovel the sand and gravel into buckets, so they could be poured into the cement mixer in the correct proportions along with water and cement to make mortar to lay block and concrete for the foundation.

Once the mixer had done its thing, we had to take the concrete one wheelbarrow-load at a time over to the foundation to pour over the re bar, which was being hand tied by some other members of our group.

Needless to say, the progress was very slow and the work was as physically strenuous as most of us had ever experienced. And some folks very quickly got frustrated by the slow progress and how much effort was required for the smallest result. "Let's pass the hat and rent us a cement truck!" was frequently overheard, not always jokingly.

I had the good fortune of having brought Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation along with me. The book is a series of essays where Merton is attempting to explain the contemplative life to people who aren't in a monastery. It's not a series of exercises, just reflections.

In one of the chapters, Merton talks about how much we let other things distract us from what is happening in the present moment. We worry about unpaid bills, what our neighbor thinks of us, etc. We let a million thoughts run through our heads and it becomes very hard to focus.

Being one of the younger, stronger guys on the team, I had the "privilege" of doing a lot of the heavy lifting, which often meant pushing heavy wheelbarrows full of concrete up and down the very steep hillside. I quickly became overwhelmed when I thought about how many more loads it would take to finish a certain task, how long it was until lunch, or how badly my back was going to hurt the next morning.

So I decided to try and follow Merton's advice and do everything I could to concentrate on what I was doing at that moment. I only thought about filling the bucket in front of me with sand or gravel, not about how many buckets I would fill the entire day. I concentrated just on the wheelbarrow I was pushing at the moment, not how many I would push all day. I concentrated on each breath I was taking.

A very strange thing happened as I did this. I became very aware of my body and how I was using it as I did this hard physical labor. I quickly realized that when I was pushing or lifting something heavy I wasn't breathing at all, or taking very shallow breaths. This, combined with the altitude, was why I was out of breath all the time.

I discovered that when I was pushing the wheelbarrows up the hill, I was keeping my arms tense unnecessarily, and that I was pushing my hips forward, putting all the pressure on my lower back, instead of letting my legs do the work. Because I was focusing on what I was doing at the moment, I was able to make small corrections and more effectively use my body to do the work.

At the end of each day I found myself exhausted, but not very sore at all. Even though I was burning more calories each day that I probably do in a normal week, I found myself very relaxed and refreshed. It took every ounce of mental discipline I have (which is, admittedly, not very much), but focusing solely on what I was doing in each moment enabled me to enjoy the whole experience more, quiet my soul, and draw closer to God.

In the three weeks since the church fire that forced me to cut the mission trip short, I've had no shortage of things to worry about. Whenever I consider the totality of the task before us, I get overwhelmed, scared, and depressed. But if I can quiet those voices in my head and focus solely on the task before me, it doesn't seem so daunting, and I'm actually able to get more done.

All because I was able to practice some contemplative concrete work! God works in mysterious ways, indeed!

1 comment:

NALA said...

Yes He does, Matt, yes He does.