At Home on Earth: Chop Wood, Carry Water

A Zen Buddhist teacher I know recently shared with me a famous saying from his tradition: “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.”

As a Catholic, I often find these sorts of Zen koans, or teaching riddles, frustratingly inscrutable. But this one spoke to me immediately.

On one level, “chopping wood and carrying water” represents the small, necessary day-to-day tasks that support our lives; the modern version might be “changing diapers and doing dishes.” In an age when some priests-in-training claim that “these hands are for chalices, not calluses” (when I worked at a Catholic seminary, I heard that very phrase) and when our secular prophets foresee a world where automation will free us from all labor, I really appreciate the reminder that spirituality isn’t about escaping this world through some sort of esoteric transcendence. It’s about engaging our responsibilities with a new perspective, seeing them as the sacramental gifts that they are. It’s a blessing and a privilege to be alive in this world and to do the work we are given to do—dirty fingernails and all.

There’s another meaning to this saying, though. Not only does it keep spirituality firmly tethered to earth, but it also puts the kibosh on ambition. Chopping wood and carrying water are, after all, very humble tasks.

I’m beginning to see how much I’ve been driven by the idea that enlightened people end up doing great things. They have big visions and big dreams—and they deliver. After all, Paul’s zeal ultimately helped convert the entire Roman Empire to Christianity. Martin Luther King Jr. brought about tectonic changes in civil rights. Gandhi freed an entire nation from British colonial rule. The mea-sure of one’s spirituality, in other words, is what one accomplishes.

Part of my midlife journey is the struggle to let go of such ambition, which comes from the ego, not from God. What a profound relief might it be simply to do what I discern is mine to do, however small it seems, and leave the rest to God? What if that simple approach is actually the deepest form of discipleship and even delight, both for God and for me? What kind of lovely world might we have if we yearned not to escape it or to impose our grand plans upon it, but simply to dwell in it gratefully and gently?

Your Spiritual Path

1. Jesus spoke in parables, which are very similar to Zen koans. Look up a few koans online and see if you can find any parallels with Jesus’ teachings.

2. What are the humdrum tasks in your life that you’d like to leave behind? For a day or a week, could you do them as if they were an essential part of your spiritual path?

3. An essential part of spirituality is radical self-honesty. What ideas or ideals do you hold about holiness that may actually get in the way of authentic spirituality?

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