The Slowest Virtue


breadking bread in denmark

Grabbing the radio nob, I nudged up the volume. The man explained how he decided to craft a hand-hewn casket, the box they would use to place his 94-year-old mom in the ground. The task would take a little time, though, because he wanted to cut each board and plane each angle himself. “A machine makes things too perfect,” he said. “That’s not life.” The funeral home agreed to hold his mother’s body, and he went to work, each cut of the saw an act of love. The son did not dally, but he did not rush. He took care with his labor, but he expected the casket to bare its blemishes without shame. The son shared a line from his credo: “I do not strive for perfect,” he explained. “I strive for fulfilling.”

I heard this story the same weekend the reader at church gave us St. Peter’s words explaining how each of us would need to “grow into our salvation.” It seemed to me these two bits of wisdom scratched at a similar truth. Pine boxes, when they’re built for the sake of love, cannot be rushed. The dead are happy to wait. In the same way, salvation (our well-being, our return to our good life in God) works on a slow, slow schedule. God, it seems, is happy to wait.

I imagine Peter amused at our self-important bluster, our fervent and so very serious spiritual disciplines, our flashes of theological indignation, our cause de jour. “Well now…” Peter says, play in his voice, “you’re ready to strip a gear.” If it’s true that we grow into our salvation, then this means we’ve got a ways yet before we get to wherever it is we’re going. The idea of growth assumes perpetual imperfection. The tomatoes and the cilantro in our raised garden beds will likely flourish in time, but wringing my hands or hovering over them with vigilant scrutiny will do nothing other than ruin my joy and provide Miska with cause to wonder if I’ve finally gone the way of the loon. I’m not aiming for apathy, but I would like to suggest at least a dose of calm the heck down.

If there’s a triumphant sin of our age, it just might be impatience. Many of us believe we exist on the razor edge where our well-being, reputation or identity always teeters in immediate jeopardy. We’ve got no margin to spare, no grace to spare. With so much at stake, we brandish this same sharp threat toward everyone we encounter. We are quick to denounce, heavy with sarcastic critique, wicked swift to pounce on someone’s blunder or poor judgment. We have so little patience with one another.

In God’s economy, however, there’s plenty of time. Time for mistakes. Time for new possibilities. Time for those zany detours that later just make you scratch your head. There’s time to accept our own foolishness as well as the foolishness of others. We have miles to go, and if we’ll allow it, love will get us there. But love is patient. And because love is patient, love is also kind.

Teilhard de Chardin suggested that to nurture gentle patience (towards ourselves and toward others), we must “accept the anxiety of feeling incomplete.” We’re all beauty-in-process. We’re all finding our way. We’re all just growing up.


*The image above is from sometime around 1929, on a rugged farm in Western Jutland, Denmark. The woman is baking bread in an oven dug into the rise of the hill. The wooden pole keeps the door shut while she watches over the bread. Slow, patient work.