In Gail Godwin’s novel Father Melancholy’s Daughter, a character named Katharine shares a lesson she learned while on retreat at a monastery. It’s a lesson that Jesus and the writer of Hebrews conveyed long ago.
A retreat among the brothers can involve full participation in the rhythms of monastic life. St. Benedict famously summarized the pattern of their community with the phrase ora et labora: pray and work. At set times each day the monks pray together and work together. Katharine gathered with the community for prayer, and she accepted a work assignment. Between 9:00 and 1:00 she and one of the monks served in the laundry room.
The washing machine was an ancient, outdated model. It had one of those wringers for the clothes. On their first day together, the monk steadily put each item of clothing through the wringer. Katharine took each item and hung it out to dry in the sun.
As the morning stretched toward the afternoon, Katharine realized that there were still heaps and heaps of dirty clothes. She began grabbing the clothes from the monk and rushing to the clothes line. Finally, he asked her why she was in such a frantic hurry.
Here’s their exchange:
“We’re never going to finish all these baskets by one,” she said, almost in tears. “We don’t have to,” he told her. “Someone else will finish them. All that is required of us is that we work, steadily and for the glory of God, from nine until one, at our appointed task every day.”
The wise monk, the writer of Hebrews, and Jesus himself are telling us an essential truth about following Jesus. God has a mission. In Jesus, God is restoring and healing this shattered, wounded creation. Over time. Over lots and lots of time. Waiting and watching and persevering come with the territory.
Jesus engaged God’s mission with his own earthly hands and feet throughout Judea. He befriended outcasts, cleansed lepers, liberated people from their demons. Jesus fed multitudes, brought the dead back to life, and faced down power figures who exploited the weak, the powerless, and the needy.
Jesus continues the very same work with earthly hands and feet. Our hands and feet. The Church is the people of God saturated by the Holy Spirit at Baptism. We are the very hands and feet of Jesus.
Jesus did not come to provide an escape hatch from here to paradise. Leaving the creation behind isn’t in God’s game plan. Everything that is came to be from the depths of God’s love. God doesn’t abandon, much less destroy, the beloved when things get rough. God makes things right again.
Think about how Jesus taught us to pray: thy Kingdom come. In The Revelation to John, we read that the New Jerusalem will descend. God will dwell forever in our midst, and God’s presence renews the heavens and the earth. As we say in our Creed, Jesus will come again to reign.
God created the world to be a place of justice and mercy, compassion and peace. Suffering and hunger, prejudice and violence, terror and sorrow are hideous distortions of God’s beautiful handiwork. And through the hands of Jesus—through your hands and my hands—God is restoring the whole creation to its intended grace and harmony. Eventually.
In a world tossed by war and crime, rent by deprivation and oppression, degraded by greed and indifference, we can grow discouraged. Our courage and kindness and generosity can seem pitiably inadequate to enormous tasks like bringing lasting peace, eradicating hunger, and restoring trust among races.
And yet, Jesus tells us to do the good that we can do. Stay alert and keep our lamps burning. God is already at work in ways that we cannot fully discern. God is not finished, but God is surely at work. At work in the things great and small that we do each day to engage God’s mission.
Like Abraham, we may catch a glimpse of the promised completion. As the writer of Hebrews says about many of our forerunners in the faith, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” (Hebrews 11:13)
I suppose you might say that God assigns each of us to some version of the laundry room. There are piles and piles of dirty clothes to wash and dry. We won’t finish them all in the time God has allotted.
But this does not mean that our work has been pointless or that it has come to nothing. We are doing our part, and that is all that God is asking. When our appointed time comes to an end and we pass from life to eternal life, others will come and take up their part in completing the laundry.
Faith becomes real when we put our hands to the wringer and pin clothes to the line. Our hope lies in the belief that we do not do this on our own. This is, after all, God’s laundry. And God is doing it through us. And once God starts something, God brings is to completion. Eventually.