working trees together

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is dismissed in his hometown. “Is he not the carpenter?” That he is. I’ve been complaining to him a lot lately about having to spend all day every day staring at page after screen, consuming massive amounts of data on the Spanish literary canon so I can pass my comps at the end of March. It’s the most miserable thing I’ve ever done, and this is my second round of it. So I complain to him—knowing full well carpentry is much harder work than I’ll ever do—to get through it.

Among my more joyful tasks is reading St. Rafael Arnáiz, whose complete works I am translating for Cistercian Publications. The other day I was working on one of his most well-known passages, when he was peeling turnips in the scullery. Bored and annoyed, he thought back on his wealthy family’s warm estate: “To think that I left my house to come here in this cold and peel these stupid turnips!!” Then:

…suddenly, quick as the wind, a powerful light pierced my soul… A divine light, lasting but a moment… Someone saying to me, “What are you doing?!” What do you mean, what am I doing? Good Lord!! What a question! Peeling turnips…peeling turnips! … “But why?” … And my heart, leaping, gave a wild answer: I’m peeling turnips for love…for love of Jesus Christ.

Rafael puts me to shame, he really does. Our Lord said the most absurd thing to me today: I work with wood, you work with paper. We are the same, you and I. He knows quite well I write on a computer, and that’s not even the most ridiculous thing about that equivalency. Nevertheless, he stood by it. Come on, let’s work trees together! You study, I’ll carve, we’ll even invite Rafael along to peel turnips. He makes it sound so delightful, but I can’t make myself feel that way.

A few years ago I wrote a little meditation on my schedule, and how I tried to resist idolatry of work in my day-to-day life. I did my best, but it didn’t last. I revisited that post a year later in light of some conversations I had with religious about the value of an horarium, and Rafael has me thinking about that again. On a brighter day, he wrote a note of thanksgiving for freedom from the “complications of the world”:

Here, in the peace of my monastery, how well we live without anything… Without newspapers or radios… with only one outfit that we never take off, not even to sleep… With our Rule that sets our schedule and tells us what we must do, with the assurance that what we are doing is the will of God…

The truth is that I have nothing here, neither my own will nor my freedom, but in exchange I have God…this God that [the world] cannot give me. In short, there are some things that do not compare.

I have to tell you, the choice of whether I’ll be trapped reading at my office or the library or the café on a given day doesn’t feel like freedom. I long for the certainty that pervades Rafael’s life and writings. I want to know that I am peeling turnips for love of Jesus Christ, to know that what I am doing is the will of God.

I’ve written myself an horarium of sorts, and it helps. I wake up at 6, get ready for the day, try to meditate over breakfast (there’s an app for that). I head to the café down the block for my only caffeine of the day (doctor’s orders) and knock out the daily drudgery (emails, grading, lesson planning, duolingo, processing meeting notes). After praying my way to school on the 9:40 bus, I keep at those tasks during my office hours. I teach at 11. Any drudgery that remains has to wait until tomorrow. At 12:30pm, we have Mass on campus. Prayer time and lunch follows. Then it’s comps comps comps until my wrist tendons give out for the day, or my eyes, or my brain, whichever comes first. Eat, pray again (or forget to pray again), sleep, repeat.

It’s working alright, but there’s simply no way to consume the amount of information I need to consume in the time I have left, and what lies ahead feels completely insurmountable and never-ending. No amount of therapy or nutrition or mindfulness will make me want to get up in the morning and keep going. This process is designed to crush you, and it’s crushing me. And to be clear, I think turnips and carpentry would crush me equally. Work is always and everywhere a cross, it just is.

The other day I visited my friends at the monastery, and Sr. María said the wildest thing. (Subscribe to her channel, by the way.) “Waiting is a terrible feeling,” she said, “but waiting for
someone
is what turns anxiety and boredom into hope and excitement.” When she said that, it finally clicked. This is what makes comps so unbearable: the feeling that you’re always going to be waiting for your degree, that it’s on a forever-receding horizon, that the whole enterprise is a mirage, that you’re stuck here, precarious, exhausted, pathetic, for good. Waiting is a terrible feeling.

But I’m not just waiting, as she reminded me. I’m waiting for someone. I am, in fact, studying for love of Jesus Christ. I am, in fact, doing the will of God. I know this because no matter how awful it is to wake up in the morning or how horrible I feel spending hours typing and retyping late into the night, there’s a Eucharistic moment when I am completely at peace. On the other side of these stacks of books is a whole life I get to spend with Christ. All this will pass away. I will eventually delete my comps notes from my Google Drive. Three people will read my dissertation. I will go by Dr. Addington for, at most, a week. And Christ will still be there, whittling and woodworking away just as he was before. This will pass, but we have the rest of this life together, and the next.

What a shame that the world is so distracted… Everyone suffers, but they don’t know how to suffer… If they were to lift their eyes up above, surely what happened to that monk with the turnips would happen to them too: many tears would be wiped away, many sorrows would become sweet, and many crosses would be embraced as offerings to Christ.

Let us know how to suffer. Let’s work trees together, not because it’s delightful, but because it’s together.

Published by Catherine Addington

I am a translator from Spanish to English and a writer on saints, myths, and icons in both religious and secular contexts.

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