Robert Frost may be Mowing, but slicing expresses love all the same.
Fifteen minutes passed before I realized how great a task lay before me. Two large bags of Brussels sprouts sat on the kitchen counter. I’d been slicing them up, one at a time, to make a slaw for the 40-some-odd guests staying at the retreat center I was working at, and I’d barely made a dent in the pile.
“Thank you for doing that. It’s a real labor of love,” said Dawn, the hard-charging chef responsible for the dining experience of our guests. I sensed the irony in her voice.. The task was drudgery, a solid hour and a half of the same action, one-by-one slicing sprouts by hand. The story of Sisyphus came to mind.
“Your knife skills are getting very good,” Dawn added.
It came across as an attempt to make me feel better for spending half my kitchen shift doing the same thing ad nauseum. But somehow her compliment found its mark. One thing that mystifies me about the human heart is how the quality of its spirit can hinge so drastically on a single offhand comment. A few words can raise you to glorious heights of joy or send you sliding to the brink of despair.
In this case it was closer to the former. My chore came alive, and I tasted of what the poets call the sublime. Here was not a boring, menial task, but an opportunity to improve culinary skills that will help me to love others better through hospitality in the years to come. It was indeed, in a sense far truer than perhaps Dawn realized, a labor of love.
In that moment my eyes were opened to see how God shows up in the everyday. The act of realizing the good that can come out of any given moment — while in the moment — is a mark of grace. It is a sign that God cares about the dozen slices I make to prepare every single Brussels sprout to be savored.
“Think that the least gift that He gives is great, and take the meanest things as special gifts and as great tokens of love,” wrote Thomas a Kempis in The Imitation of Christ. “If the dignity of the Giver is well considered, no gift will seem little.”
Yes, this moment is a gift. I thought of what my friend Mark Potter said about the triumvirate of love of God, love of neighbor, and love of craft. Mark is an artist and a handyman. He becomes equally enraptured by the prospect of turning a stump of wood into a beautiful sculpture or the opportunity to unplug a blocked toilet. Both are acts of love toward God and neighbor. Both demand our creative crafting of materials from Creation. For me, the slicing is the craft, and the sprouts my creative use of God’s creation. I could pick up my knife with joy.
In his poem “Mowing,” Robert Frost writes about a time when he took his scythe to cut grass for hay. His tool whispered to him in his work, he says, drawing his heart to the sweetness of work done skillfully:
“Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows…”
As the kitchen bustled about me, I channeled the spirit of Frost’s mower wielding his scythe with affection, diving into the work with love.
I must take care at this point not to sentimentalize. The next two lines of Frost’s poem speak of the cursed side of work. He encountered “feeble-pointed spikes of flowers” and “scared a bright-green snake.” Likewise, I cannot cast this experience in the kitchen as some untainted moment of Zen.
After a few minutes, the surging thrill that I felt in doing my task unto the Lord began to wane. My neck and back grew stiff from standing in the same position and making the same motions. I nicked my finger and a tiny sliver of blood formed on my knuckle. There were a dozen other things I’d rather have been doing.
And yet on I sliced — slice, slice, slice — with an earnest love that sliced the sprouts in rows.