My main job today was chipping away old paint.
Yesterday we worked on painting the worship space of the church in Santa Rita. There were two big sections, however, along the bottom of the streetside wall, that we could not paint, because the surfaces had deteriorated and needed to be scraped clean before new paint could be applied. That job fell to me.
I am not a builder by trade, nor a restorer of old homes by avocation. I don’t know if this sort of thing is common in certain kinds of construction or not. But here in Honduras, most of the building is done with masonry block. When a wall is completed, its surface is still pretty rough, since the block itself is pretty rough. A wall is typically finished by “mudding” it with a cement mixture, which is thrown onto the wall (yes, thrown; it can get pretty vigorous) and then smoothed out with a trowel. When the wall is mostly smooth, a caustic mixture is spread over the wall, which partially dissolves the cement, and then dries to a hardened, smoothed consistency.
Over time, however, and especially with lots of moisture, that thin outer layer can break down. It gets weaker, it’s prone to holes, and in some cases it can even bubble up with air pockets between it and the block beneath. Such a rotten surface cannot be painted – you could do a beautiful paint job and then watch as the whole thing fell right off the wall as the layer separated! – so it had to be removed.
I was given a steel implement that looked like a short crowbar with an exaggerated bend on one end, pointed toward the wall, and let loose. And for the next several hours I scraped and chipped and pounded to do my best to get the loose layer off and the harder wall exposed.
Sometimes it was easy, when I came across a bubbled patch, and the scraper nearly glided through the rotten surface, peeling it away in nice satisfying chunks.
Sometimes it was harder, when it took multiple swings of the crow-hammer-scraper (I’m still not sure what that tool is really called…) just to chip off a small area.
Sometimes there were surprising little momentary rewards, when I’d pound away in futility for awhile, and then one good stroke would bring a palm-sized piece off all at once.
But easy or hard, it took a long time, and progress was slow, and it left me with time to think.
And it occurred to me that chipping away at the wall like that might be a metaphor for parts of the spiritual life. We are all created good by God; but years of experience, hurts done to us, hurts we’ve done to others, living enmeshed in social systems of injustice and oppression, bad habits repeated until they grow into self-destructive patterns of behavior, things like this over time build up a kind of hard shell around our good hearts. And spiritual disciplines can be tools for chipping away at that hard shell, chipping away at the things that keep our hearts from loving God and our neighbors in joy. It can be hard work; there can be days when it seems to be going well, and days when we’ve no idea how we can keep at this exhausting task; sometimes we seem to pound away with no effect, and sometimes the rotten spots just fall right off and the true heart shines through. And with the spirit, as with that wall, the only way to really get anywhere is to keep chipping away.
I think that metaphor hits close to home for a lot of us. We read about sudden conversions, and we hear about people turning their lives around all at once, and we imagine that God could snap the divine fingers and “fix” us in a single moment. But most of the time life doesn’t work that way. Most of the time the real change comes through patient, repeated, faithful work, chipping away at the shell of sin so that the presence of God within can be revealed.
There is a saying in the stories of the Desert Fathers, in which an older monk counsels a younger monk to “Sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” I won’t claim it’s everything, but a church wall taught me a thing about chipping away today.