Last evening, I walked through our dishwashing area before supper and saw the strange site of a concrete block on a kitchen cart. Next to the concrete block was something flat and rectangular, covered neatly and precisely with a kitchen towel. My curiosity could not be contained and I lifted a corner of the cloth to take a peek. Underneath the towel was a stack of five serving trays.
A concrete block. Five trays. A towel laid with precision. On a cart in our dishwashing room. There was no telling what sort of project this could be. But whatever it was, it had to be the genius idea of one of the 37 of us dear souls in this community.
We get used to seeing each other’s projects here and there around the monastery, adorning the orderly surface of things. Seemingly random bits of this or that are left here or there – traces of someone’s personality or idea or genius project or not-so-genius project or maybe just evidence of someone’s forgetfulness scattered around our monastic home. It’s part of what makes this a home. As trace elements added to a base give greater strength to the whole, our personalities form our monastic home as surely as our hands have smoothed the banister rails and as certainly as our feet have worn creaks into the soft pine of the 100-year-old floors.
In our community there are 37 of us. That means there are 37 of us to have genius ideas, 37 of us to sometimes have not-so-genius ideas, 37 of us to sometimes fail, 37 of us to come to the rescue, 37 of us to need rescuing, 37 of us who need forgiveness for one thing or another, and 37 of us to lavish forgiveness as if it were a fountain that could never run out, and if the fountain ever spilled over, there would be 37 of us to rush in with towels.
With 37 of us, there are also bits and pieces of human failure scattered here and there – a word spoken in the wrong tone of voice, a promised errand forgotten, a good intention gone awry… But there are 37 of us to lavish forgiveness like an endless fountain.
I’ve heard monastic life described using the biblical term of “the hundredfold.” But really, in our community, it’s like a 37-fold of a hundredfold, or maybe a hundredfold to the 37th power, or maybe 37 to the hundredth power, or something extravagant like that. Our personalities may help make this a strong and enduring home, but God’s grace expressed in and through our day to day community life is the real element that gives strength to the whole – a 37-fold of a 100-fold of an infinite amount of grace, a fountain that never runs dry.
Postscript: The genius idea was truly genius. Some of our trays have gotten slightly warped over the years and no longer lay completely flat. One of our 37 geniuses had the idea to take them straight from the heat of the dishwasher while they were still a bit malleable from the heat, cover them with a clean towel, and lay a concrete block on top of the stack to flatten them out. Four or five at a time was the right number, she said. Genius. But the best genius part of this idea was what she said when describing the process to us at dinner – she made sure that she had the approval of one of our monastic leaders. Not just genius. Monastic genius.