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Archive for July, 2009

Off With His Head

July 2009

I recently made a fundamental error; actually, made one such blunder all on my own and participated in committing another, both in the space of a few short days. As one of my favourite literary characters—Harriet Vane—learns in the book Gaudy Night, fundamental errors are the result of not paying attention.

I wasn’t really paying attention when I said yes to this particular commitment. I felt strongly that the event should happen, but I wasn’t willing to take the time and energy to think it all through, to see the best way to do it. I wanted other people to pick up the slack. Well, they did. But not the way I wanted. And I ended up disappointed, feeling like I’d been involved in something uncomfortable and not necessarily in keeping with my values. I am sure that good resulted from the occasion; I am also sure that some people whose opinion I respect were put off. In retrospect—ah, the vision of hindsight is spectacular!—if I’d paid attention to what my gut was telling me from the beginning, I would have known this, would have done things differently.

In the other fundamental error, George and I jumped the gun on the carport/guest house building project. Having been assured that our existing septic field was more than adequate to handle a small one-bedroom unit that I’d taken to calling the hermitage, we didn’t wait for the building inspector’s approval before we started excavation. Well, oops. The building inspector decided that even though we didn’t intend this as a permanent rental, the next owners (may they be many, many years away) might not see it the same way. Every separate unit needs its very own septic field. Not just a lot more money, but a lot more digging—on the other side of all the holes for the foundation footings.

The thing that’s interesting about fundamental errors is not just their commission, but all that flows from them. In particular, I’ve been watching how easy it is to continue to make bad decisions to fix an error in judgment instead of just backing up and saying, oops. I’m wrong. Guess I have to do something different.

In an amazing and generally gut-wrenching two-week period, we decided first to expand the guest house. If we had to dig an expensive septic field, then by God we would use it. But this presented its own problems: where to expand without impinging on the finally-fenced, raised-bed, greenhouse-built-with-our-own-hands vegetable garden? What kind of design would work without overwhelming everything around it? How could we arrange the work so that it didn’t require multiple concrete pours and many extra hours of machine work? And what did all this mean for our vision of the space? (Even just writing all this down makes my stomach hurt.) But at one point in this process, my dear husband said out loud, “We don’t want to correct a bad decision by making other bad decisions.”

In the midst of this feast of discernment, I read the gospel for next Sunday. If you care to look it up, it’s Mark 6:14-29, the beheading of John the Baptist. In this reading, Salome dances for her stepfather Herod and his friends at the king’s birthday party. Herod is so pleased—and probably so drunk!—that he promises her whatever she wants. The girl, who isn’t sure what to ask for, seeks advice from her mother, whom Mark tells us has a grudge against John. In the final horrific and unforgettable moment, the head of John the Baptist is brought into the banquet on a platter.

Not a happy passage, and no great role models to be found; but a good object lesson. John’s murder was the result of Herod’s rash promise, a fundamental error born of misguided exuberance. More deadly than his initial mistake is the next bad decision: Herod can’t figure out how to back up and say oops. As Mark puts it, “The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.” In other words, Herod didn’t want to be embarrassed.

The kind of admission that Herod needed to make takes a lot of humility, as in eating humble pie and admitting that you really blew it. And therein lies the difficulty. Who wants to admit this? Who wants to say, “I was wrong and I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m going to anyway—because I screwed up.” I can read this scripture passage and say, “Herod, your weakness is evil. You committed murder to keep your pride intact.” But I really DO understand that it is hard to change directions once you begin making mistakes!

I didn’t make that admission of error in the midst of my first bad decision. I guess I didn’t want to upset other people: I got lost in the eternal and impossible quest to make everyone happy (which never works). But in the second mistake I had George as partner, and that helped immensely. It always helps to check my thinking with someone I can trust.

One of the most fruitful realizations that came out of our hours of discussion about the guest house has been a deeper understanding of what we are doing here at Heart’s Rest. We’re not actually running a retreat centre, with a full schedule of events and a cadre of consultants who lead them. We are rather a place of hospitality. As a place of hospitality, we offer affordable and lovely space as well as thoughtful support to people who need restoration: ministers and academics, friends and family and spiritual folk. We lead some retreats and workshops here, and make our home available for appropriate community events. But the thrust of life is to be an “easy offering,” as George has put it for years. This means offering a place of silence and woods and gardens and the sun going down behind the mountains and conversations with depth and attention.

And hence there is no need to “maximize space” in order to fill retreats or make sure that we have the ideal commercial rental unit. And so, the hermitage is back on track in its original compact and lovely configuration. With a full-sized septic field, of course.

So this brings me to my final thought, that notoriously variable passage from Romans 8:28. It comes to mind because of the grace-filled result of this process of error and compounded error and final correction. I print it here in my favourite iterations: We know that God makes all things work together for good. We know that in all things God works for good. I believe both of these are true. Our God, the God of all grace, toils to draw all things into harmony. Our God, the God of possibilities, labours in every minute part of life to bring forth good. To participate in this beauty and joy, all I have to do is pay attention. Oh yeah—and let go of my pride.

Copyright © Mary Therese DesCamp 2009