“It’s challenging.”

“It’s challenging.”

A guest in the backyard of Manna House shared his approach to living in the hot and still humid early September Memphis weather.

“It’s challenging.”

A slight breeze tried to move the dense air. This guest shared that he does not expect the heat to break anytime soon.

“Looks like it will be another week or more. But what can you do? Make the best of it. Keep living.”

I thought, this is Job who has heard God speaking out the whirlwind, reminding Job that God is the Creator, and the world (including its weather) does not exist under Job’s direction but under God’s (Job 38-41).

Like the biblical Job, the Job of the backyard has learned that there are powers so great that the best one can do is adjust to them, survive them, acknowledge their presence, make peace with them, and keep going.

“It’s challenging.”

I heard in this response, the biblical Job’s response to God. Here is a willingness to listen, to learn, and to go on, chastened but assured of God’s loving presence.

“I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.

“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.

Therefore, I humble myself
and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:1-6).

The great illusion that I live under so often is that I am in control. This illusion drives my attempt to control my own life, and the lives of others, and even the world around me. The illusion of control tempts me to do violence, to try and force the world to meet my expectations.  At the very least I get angry and live with a kind of frustrated smoldering resentment because I cannot make the world fit into my expectations. My desire for control can even make me try to make God into my own image, giving divine sanction to my efforts to control others.

This teacher at Manna House, this Job of the backyard, points to another way. This is not passivity or resignation to the inevitable. Rather it is a way of compassion, of acknowledgement of shared suffering, shared vulnerability, and the commitment to live through it together. It is a way of modesty about my place as a human being in a world which is not centered on me.

“It’s challenging.”

The reality of struggle is not denied, but it is also not defeating. I can live with this Power greater than me because it is not out to get me, even if it is not organized around my desires, and not amenable to my control. God is disclosed to us, James Gustafson wrote in “Theocentric Ethics,” as the powers bearing down upon us, sustaining us, and ordering human life within the complex interactions of the natural and social worlds. God both makes possible our lives and places limits upon us.

“It’s challenging.”

The Job of the backyard teaches me humility. This word, derived from the Latin “humus,” means earth or dirt. I am of this earth. I live within the heat and humidity. And with others, I can do this with hope, and maybe even love. And that is challenging.






“Memento mori”

“Sonia died last Thursday.” A guest, who had been her companion for the past several years, spoke to me with resignation in the backyard at Manna House.

“I knew it was coming,” he said, “She’d been sick you know for a while.”

Some five years ago Sonia had a stroke. But she was stubborn. She persistently worked through rehab to where she could walk again. She was tough and resilient.

Sonia had a big personality, lots of good sass. She held her own on the streets. She did not take an insult or a slight quietly. At her best, Sonia had a boisterous spirit, a passion for life about her, a quick wit and a sense of humor.

But in the last year or so she began to lose weight. Never big to begin with, she became increasingly frail. Her sass became somewhat subdued, but never went away.

“I don’t like what’s happening to me” she told me once, “this ain’t right.”

She knew death was coming, but she was not going to go quietly; that was not her style.

I do not remember the last time Sonia came to Manna House. As she became increasingly ill we simply saw less of her. Her companion gave occasional updates. None of those were particularly encouraging even though he would always end with, “She’s not giving up.”

Now he shared with me what he remembered of her before her illness came.
“We had a lot of good times. Those are gone now. She’s gone.”

I shared my sorrow at her death, and that I would keep her in my prayers.

“Thanks,” he said, and he walked away to quietly share the news with others in the backyard.

Sonia’s death hung in the air, as people remembered her, mourned her passing, and offered condolences.

Somehow an old Latin phrase came into my thoughts. “Memento mori” which means, “remember that you must die.”

Many years ago, my novice master, Fr. Alfred, when covering the Rule of St. Benedict with us monks in training shared that Latin phrase as part of his commentary on a line in Chapter Four of the Rule that states, “Remember to keep death before your eyes daily.”

For Benedict, the reminder of death’s reality is a reminder of what is important in life. A life well lived is ordered by love, by compassion, by a simplicity of life that affirms our dignity is in our being made in the image of God. We are to live with a faith in God, not in our possessions, our power over others, or our pathetic attempts to stave off vulnerability.

I thought of Sonia who in her death reminded me of something important about life, including her own life. Each of our guests comes as a gift from God, and in that respect, Sonia was no different than the hundreds of others who have come over the past fourteen years. Yet, Sonia also brought her own distinctive gifts. She brought her unique self to Manna House, in all of her complexity and hopes, sorrows and dreams. She brought her sassy spirit. And thank God she did.