The expression on the novice’s face could have curdled cream. He heaved a sack onto the kitchen table and slit it open with an aggressive swipe of his knife. Muddy carrots spilled onto the table and floor.
The elderly monk gave a brief glance at the damage. Without comment he selected a carrot and silently began to peel it. The novice hacked at one with impatient jabs.
Five despoiled carrots later, he could contain his frustration no longer. ‘I can’t believe they’ve got us wasting our time doing this!’
‘Wasting our time?’ the monk looked up in mild surprise. ‘I’m sorry you feel that way. But this is no waste of my time. This is my vocation, mon frère.’
‘No, your vocation is following God. How can you do that when you’re stuck here peeling vegetables while everyone else is at Compline?’ The novice scowled at his elder.
The monk shook his head, his eyes gentle. ‘No, mon frère, you’ve missed the point. If I serve God as I work, the work itself becomes an act of worship. I am missing out on nothing.’
The novice pointed with his knife in emphasis. ‘How can peeling a carrot be worship? It’s just a carrot, for heaven’s sake!’
The elderly monk took a carrot in his hands and hands and appraised it reverently. Grasping his knife, he began to pare it neatly. Finally, he took the fresh, glistening vegetable and sniffed it, his eyes closed.
‘Just a carrot? I am on a journey with God every time I peel one. Minute by minute he shows me his goodness. Hour by hour I bless him for his provision.’
The novice examined a carrot for a minute, turning it in his hands as if seeking some secret it concealed . Finally, he tossed it back onto the pile in disgust. ‘No, monsieur, you’re wrong. If I had to work here all the time, I’d be bored beyond words. But you – you must have been here for months!’
A wry smile came over the monk’s face. ‘Bored? Perhaps you would. I thought so, too, when I started in this kitchen twenty-three years ago. But this I have learned: my faith is meaningless if it cannot find its expression in the mundane.’ He sliced off the ferny heads of four carrots with a neat stroke. ‘The simplicity of the task is a blessing. It allows me to see God with uncluttered eyes.’
The novice opened his mouth to reply, but bit his tongue. There followed a respectful silence, broken only by the gentle whittling of two knives.
Finally, the younger man’s impatience took the upper hand. ‘Yes, I would be bored – and miserable. As I am now.’ He threw down his knife and rubbed his sleeve across his eyes.
The elderly monk hobbled round the table and laid a chapped hand on the other’s arm. ‘What makes you think you know more about happiness that God does, mon ami?’ He spoke softly. ‘You have found what is important while you are still young. Me, I wasted many years searching for happiness and finding only emptiness. See, you are ahead of me already.’
He took a carrot and placed it into the novice’s hands, guiding his knife until a perfect strip of skin coiled away and spun to the floor. Still holding the young man’s hands, he looked earnestly into his eyes.
‘Make no mistake, mon frère, this is not just a kitchen – it is a sanctuary. You said this was just a carrot. No, mon ami, it is much more than that. It is a sacrament. It mediates the presence of God to me. And I am content.’
Based on the true story of Brother Lawrence, who spent 40 years ‘practicing the presence of God’ in the kitchen of a Carmelite monastery.
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