Audio length: 16:50 minutes
Steve reflects on the limitations and dangers of the tools of his trade and how it applies to how we approach the Canons of the Church.
About half my career in construction has been fixing other people’s bad work. If it can be done wrong, I think I’ve seen it, but even after 30 years I still see things done so badly or so wrong that I’ve never imagined anyone could possibly think of a way to do something so wrong. Sometimes it takes every minute of my 30 years of experience to figure out how to make something someone else messed up look right without tearing down the entire project and starting over. I don’t know how many times I have been approached when I’m buying drywall materials at Home Depot. “Hey, are you a drywaller” they ask. “I’ve been accused of that,” I say. They ask for a price for sheetrocking and finishing a room. I give them a ballpark price and they invariably ask: what if I hang the drywall and put the spackle on and you just come and texture it?” (It’s a dead giveaway they haven’t even watched a Youtube video when they call drywall mud “spackle”). I always ask them, “How many times have you hung and taped drywall?” If they say never or I helped my uncle once when I was in high school, I usually tell them the price is double because to fix a bad job is twice the work to do it right from the start.
This past week my son and I went to St. Michael’s Monastery to see if we could remodel Fr. Silouan’s cell so it wouldn’t drop below 40 degrees at night. The building was built about 60 years ago, as they say in Canones, “al ojo”, by the eye, according to some sense of building rules. It had what most buildings have: four walls, a floor and a ceiling. It was functional, looked like a building and served a building’s general purpose, it kept some of the elements out and some of the things inside in. To the untrained eye it was OK and for the undiscerning with few or low expectations, it was adequate as a storage room but not quite adequate for a monk’s cell when it gets to ten below. I have seen a lot of things done badly, but I have to admit I hadn’t seen so many things like this all in one place.
As I was measuring and assessing what it would take to get the building somewhere in the ballpark of air-tight, insulated and functional, I occurred to me that the building was much like the life without Christ: it has some of the parts of the image of God in it, that life actually has legitimate elements of goodness, it can even have great piety and morality and all in all, it works at some levels. To the untrained eye and the person with low expectations or lack of discernment, this life is adequate and functional in many ways.
However, to the discerning and trained eye buildings and human beings can be a nightmare. When I walked in to Fr. Silouan’s cell, even without a level or tape measure, I could immediately see the floor was about 3 inches out of level, the room was at least 4 inches out of square, the roof undulated like a snake, and the walls were probably an inch or more out of plumb.
Like all tradesman, I had the “canonical tools of carpentry” in my truck box: a level, a plumb bob, and a tape measure. These are the “canons” or “the rules”, the measuring sticks, and they told me just how far off things really are. But canons and rules in themselves aren’t adequate, you have to know something more than the number of inches and fractions of inches on the tape measure, you have to know what you’re shooting for or what a good building looks like to even know what the numbers mean. So at one level, the tools are only informative of how far off things really are, it takes another level of knowledge and expertise to know how to use the tools to set things right. A level may tell you the floor is not flat, but it doesn’t tell you the process of how to make the floor flat or what materials to use. A tape measure doesn’t give you the skills or knowledge to scribe a piece of drywall to a wall that is out of plumb two inches. A plumb bob doesn’t draw you a picture of how to fix a door that doesn’t fit in its opening.
The canons of the Church are much the same way. The Canons were explicit pastoral statements of what was correct in the face of human and institutional issues in the Church. They assume an understanding of the human being in the image of God, the Church, its life, its culture, its piety and an intimate relationship with God. They assume that those who use the Canons know what the Church looks like and what a true human being looks like because they know Christ, the perfect human person. They assume an intimate knowledge of repentance, the multitudes of tools and methods and materials of the reconstruction of the Church and the human person and what it takes to get from built wrong from the beginning back to functional and structurally sound. This kind of knowledge in both construction and the spiritual life does not come from watching videos or reading “how to manuals for dummies” even if they are written by experts, it comes only from hands on personal experience over years. In short, a ruler may tell you you’re off, it doesn’t tell you how to get from here to there.
So I applied my rulers to Fr. Silouan’s cell and was able to interpret the bubbles and numbers and figure out what the proper dimensions should be. My eye was not far off.
Our project at St. Michael’s was to simply add insulation to the walls and ceilings. The original plan for the walls was to cut a two foot swath of sheetrock out of the center of the walls and stuff insulation up and down the cavity and then just patch the wall back. Piece of cake, done it a hundred times. When we started doing the demolition it turned out there was no framing behind the sheetrock, just random pieces of wood thrown in to hold the sheetrock in place. The façade looked like a real wall, but when we started to try to remodel it and make it functional, it turned out the infrastructure was bad. We had to tear the whole wall down and re-frame the entire wall properly in order to be able to put insulation in and new sheetrock on.
The issue was that the façade looked like a real wall, it was finished on the outside and we knew that there was insulation missing on the inside. But until we removed the façade in order to add what we knew was missing we didn’t know what else was missing.
Our spiritual facades are the same way. We have an outward show of piety, niceness, and correctness. We say the right things in the proper voice and inflections, we cross ourselves at the right time, we drop the right names in conversations, we know the prayers and services, we go to the right monasteries and read the right books. The outer appearance looks finished and real. But sooner or later someone will cut a hole in the façade through temptation, insult, injury, or even praise and flattery. It is then that people discover there is little or nothing behind the outward show, no foundation, no inner structure to support it. But until the facades are demolished we don’t realize how dysfunctional the inner structure is and true reconstruction cannot begin.
So, the walls turned out to be two more day’s work than we figured. Then we turned our attention to the ceiling. It was a flat roof that actually got warmer when it was covered with snow because the snow kept the below zero air out. The igloo effect. The original plan was to add a pitched roof on top of the flat ceiling and insulate it. It was ten below with snow still on the flat roof so we figured we’d just add a two by four false ceiling under the existing ceiling, insulate it then sheetrock it. This would be much faster, easier and cheaper, not to mention warmer, than trying to build a new insulated roof structure. It turned out the existing ceiling had two to three inch dips and warped boards so it would be impossible to put a new level ceiling under it. The existing ceiling was so far out the new ceiling joists would not sit flush to the existing structure, so the new ceiling had bows and dips in it because it followed the existing ceiling’s bows and dips. I could have scribed each new ceiling joist to the contours of the existing structure and ended up with a flat, level new ceiling, but if I did that then I couldn’t have gotten insulation in the cavity because there would have lost the depth of the studs. My level told me my new ceiling was a roller coaster but it didn’t tell me what to use to finish the ceiling. Because I work with it every day, I knew that half inch sheetrock would flex enough to follow the dips and curves of the ceiling but 5/8 sheetrock would not, so I knew what materials were available and their capabilities to apply to this particular situation to get to the end goal.
So, a proper and aesthetically pleasing “level ceiling” was sacrificed for the greater good of “an insulated ceiling” for the sake of keeping a human being from freezing or getting pneumonia for the greater good of the entire monastic community who doesn’t want their Abbot catching pneumonia.
When we approach the Canons and how they apply to a wrecked human being, they are much the same Fr. Silouan’s roller coaster roof and walls. It requires not someone who knows how to read a bubble in a level, but someone with sometimes 30 years of experience who has been mentored and seen and fixed hundreds of walls in various stages of wreckedness and knows what can and cannot be done with all of the building materials and resources available. In the same way, it does not take someone who knows how to read the Rudder to heal a wrecked human being, but someone who has been healed and because he has been healed himself. And then once he has been healed he has years of cautious and humble experience under the spiritual guidance of a mentor dealing with all manners of human weaknesses and knows what spiritual medicine to apply to what illness or tangled array of illnesses.
Whenever someone undertakes a remodel the first set of blueprints or in our case with no blueprints but just an existing structure and an idea, the first thing that has to be considered is the demolition plan. I’ve learned over the years that the true beginning of remodeling is a skilled demolition. Demolition must be done carefully, methodically, minimally until other things are brought to light through the process. Demolition done without this kind of care can create more problems, make more work, ruin a building and even kill people. I once was removing a hallway to open up a living room. We had removed the sheetrock and had started knocking out the studs of the hallway wall. As I hit the last stud with the sledge hammer I heard a creak and groan. I stopped and carefully knocked it back into place and when I tried to put a couple more back in, I found the ceiling had sagged over an inch. I crawled up into the attic and discovered the wall was supporting the entire roof structure of that side of the house. If I had knocked that last stud out, the entire living room ceiling and roof would have caved in on us all. I had to go in the attic for two days in the summer to shore up the rafters and we had to leave a post in the hallway for the living room remodel. So we cannot just say, this wall is not according to “canon” of an open floor plan, so it must be torn down. The offending wall might be part of the integral structure of the entire building and must be approached as such and may not ever be able to be torn down completely, but shored up, partly removed and reworked in a way that uses its strength AND it’s dysfunction. Demolition must be done carefully and with an eye to the end product, with an understanding of what can be done with the existing structure and where you can fudge, improvise, use existing materials even if they are not ideal, what can and cannot be done at all and what you just have to live with.
So remodeling is done because there is enough good left that is useful, functional and good, and not enough time and money to tear the whole building down and start over. Most people don’t have that luxury with their houses. When I am dealing with something so far out of whack, sometimes I have to put the level and tape measure aside even though I know what they will say, and I have to do what works, what fits into the existing bad framework and then ends up being functional, basically structurally sound, and still looks fairly good in the finished product. It does not take a skilled journeyman to read a tape measure or level and recognize that something is not to code. It takes a person who is intimate with all phases of building, not just from anew but also working with existing structures to know what to remove and when, what to leave in place until other things are in place, what to work around and what cannot be ever completely removed even if it isn’t plumb, square or level. At that point I am also building “al ojo” but with an “ojo bueno”, a good eye, one that sees with an understanding of codes, tools, tape measures, building materials and their limitations and functions and the goal of the finished product I am striving for.
When we are dealing with reconstructing human being’s lives, each of us have been formed, built and remodeled by amateurs, hacks, clueless and well meaning people and by the time someone who really knows what is going on gets to us, we have far too many code violations and issues to be made perfect before we die. Most people don’t have enough time left in their life to be perfect, so we strive for getting as close as we can with what we have to work with, with all the limitations and issues fully in mind. In the spiritual life, most people can look at someone else and even sometimes themselves and see that something is “off”, or immoral or unspiritual. And anyone can quote the code book or the Canons or Rudder and say “just say no to that”, “stop this”, or “do that”. The fact of the matter is our entire life is now an integrated structure, the good, the bad and the marginal and any reconstruction must be done with an understanding of the inter-relatedness of the varieties of sins, virtues, passions and dispositions. Often the most obvious thing is not the thing that needs to be carefully demolished first, it could be a dozen other small things and a reinforcing virtue firmly in place before that sin can be removed. Sometimes the reality is we never can completely remove a passion so in a sense it is carefully integrated into the over all redesign, surrounded by supporting virtues so it is not the main focus or main support of the entire person.
So to quote the Canons as mere rules, no matter how exactly you can read them or follow them to the letter, is to use them like a sledgehammer in the hands of a blind man or a tape measure in the hands of a clueless construction laborer. An unskilled use of them can result in more harm to the person, unnecessary or premature removal of integral parts and can mean a total crash of a person’s entire inner structure and the death of the spirit. Neophytes to the spiritual life who read books and try to fix themselves or give advice to others from books or even limited personal experience are like homeowners who watch Youtube videos, TV programs or read a website and try to do their own remodeling work: most of the time they create more work than they accomplish and the second state is worse than the first and takes longer to fix.
So, as new converts, we need to be careful to not get caught up in self diagnosis and reading too many “how to manuals” even written by experts. We need to undertake repentance with zeal, but not zeal without knowledge and guidance from an experienced remodeler. As a wise old contractor once told me, “There’s a big difference between thirty years of experience and one year of experience thirty times” and “Before you learn the tricks of the trade, you need to learn the trade first.” So choose your contractors and your spiritual guides carefully. If you want advice on how to find a decent contractor, email me. For finding such a spiritual guide I’ll refer you back to my interviews with Fr. Meletios Webber on “Spiritual Fathers”.