The Slow Work
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability –
And that it may take a very long time…
(Teilhard De Chardin Prayer: “Patient Trust”)
On the feast day of St. Ignatius I was invited into the woods with three wannabe monks and one real one. Our gracious host was a former Jesuit high school teacher who now lives part-time in a tiny cabin he spent years to envision, design, construct, and sanctify. Whatever activity he engaged in (preparing delicious meals, leading us up mountain peaks, sharing true stories of the trails we trod) was marked by intentionality and non-urgency. He just drafted his first novel with a pen. At one point while preparing a late dinner by candle light – the cabin has no electricity – our host confessed with a grin, “There is nothing you can do to speed me up.” Though he meant to sound silly and self-effacing, there was something very strong, even subversive, in his statement. He is committed, despite the pace of the rushed world around him, to living slowly, to not sacrificing the process for the product.
I used to think faster was better. As a teenager in Montana, I developed a lead foot because the legal speed limit was officially “Reasonable and Prudent,” a phrase which we interpreted loosely. In my twenties I fell in love with running, and became used to thinking of ways to save time, shave off minutes, hurry to each day’s finish line. More recently, as a young adult in the efficiency-obsessed Silicon Valley, I live in a culture that prizes the immediate gratification of curiosity and ever speedier delivery of services and information. Slowing down can be risky, so why does it feel so healthy?
When I came down the mountain from the mini-retreat, I dreaded the re-immersion into fast-paced living. Just hours after returning to the hustle and bustle of being a stay-at-home father, however, I realized that perhaps I didn’t need to escape to the hills to slow down. In fact, the kind of slow attentiveness I found so inspiring in my friend is quite accessible in the ordinary ups and downs of parenting small children. I am literally moving through my days at the pace of a double stroller, or more often now that both children are walking, at the pace of their pitter-patter. It’s not just the smallness of their gaits, but the wonder of their gazes, that determines our tempo. A one-block walk is a discovery quest. Slowing down with my children has helped me notice both the beautiful that I might ordinarily miss – low-hanging fruit, tiny bugs, the miracle of road construction – but also to engage with issues that I might normally speed past – the homeless encampment along the river, garbage on the sidewalk, the handicapped lady alone on her porch. Slowing down helps me to see differently, and engage more deeply, what’s actually happening in front of me.
We took an epic walk to the nearest street corner last night after dinner. I tried to hurry them along to bedtime as they stopped again to smell the flowers, throw a rock. They sensed my impatience, stuck their tongues out at me, and seemed to say, “There is nothing you can do to speed us up.”
Michael Downs serves as director of justice and kinship at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland. He is also a member of the California Catholic Conference’s Environmental Stewardship Committee and the Vatican’s Laudato Si’ Action Platform Working Group.
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