Let the Room Guide You

With only two working days remaining, we are already starting to think about finishing up. While tasks are still in progress, there are some that we are steering toward completion.

Painting, for instance, reached its big conclusion today – and mostly because we’d used up all the paint! The church interior is a beautiful sunny yellow. The church façade is an apricot/peach color, with bright white trim and a rich red outer wall. A room on the bottom level, which will become a place to stay for the local homeless and/or people visiting for church events, used up the apricot from the church façade. And the interior yellow went to the last drop to a room in the “undercroft” of the church, which is used for children’s Sunday school, along with some bathrooms and a storage area.

Some of us spent the better part of Friday in that room, painting the walls. But when there was more yellow paint left, the local overseer of the job, Jose, decided we should paint the columns, the beams, and the ceiling as well. Besides, there was a big mural of Noah’s Ark on one wall; they didn’t want that painted over! – but they did want the yellow background refreshed all around it.

So five of us grabbed brushes and rollers and went to work in that one room. At first I feared we’d be bumping into each other all the time. But it didn’t take long until we’d sorted the room into distinct tasks. Tom painted around the mural, as he had so well days before around the Holy Spirit dove upstairs. Lee climbed on top of tables and chairs and, at one point, a stack of bags of cement, to paint the tops of the beams and the ceiling edge. She pointed out the irony of being the shortest member of our group and painting at the top of the room. Lorain and Margaret worked in the back storage area and the ladies’ room (baño de damas, according to the sign). And I took a roller and stood on tiptoe to do the beams throughout the room and the ceiling in the baño de caballeros. At one point I even climbed up onto the edges of a large cistern to paint the beam and ceiling above it, wondering all the while how much the water would break my fall if I slipped and fell in.

And for a couple of hours or more, the five of us went about our painting tasks, talking occasionally, give each other room when we needed it, refilling our pans or bowls from the big paint bucket in the center, weaving back and forth in a way that couldn’t really be called cooperation, since we weren’t actively and intentionally operating together, but formed a kind of emergent synergy, each one contributing one piece to a growing functional whole. We almost didn’t need to consult each other, because it was the room itself, with its particular geometry and its as yet unpainted surfaces, that dictated the work. None of us really had to figure out too hard what to do, we only had to let the room guide us.

There is a Taoist story of a master butcher, whose artistry and skill in cutting meat was renowned throughout the province. When the emperor asked him what he had to do to develop such skill, he answered that he really didn’t do anything: he said he let the knife find its way through muscle, past bone, parting joints. All he did was let the knife guide him. For him, butchering was not a matter of hacking through resistant meat, but instead a matter of letting the flesh and the knife be his guide. He found a kind of serenity in that, and the artistry and skill other people admired was nothing but their perception of his serenity.

Perhaps there was something like that in painting that room. Perhaps the five of us didn’t need to plan or organize, because we had the room to guide us, and we let the beams and ceiling and geometry direct our energies, and there was a sort of serenity in that guidance. And there was just enough paint – no less and no more – to finish off that room. That was our tao, our shared way, today.

Sometimes I think we feel as though God is calling us to battle with life, to struggle with what is missing, or what is lacking, or what is less than the ideal we think God wants. And while I think the spiritual life does include struggle, I wonder sometimes if we don’t resort to the struggle metaphor a little too much. Because God doesn’t want us to fight our way toward him; God is the one who comes to us. God comes to us in Jesus, God comes to us as the Holy Spirit, who guides and encourages and inspires. God is the one who makes a way – might we even say a tao? – where there is no way. And our role is to let ourselves be guided, to let ourselves be encouraged and inspired, to move in the directions God moves us to go. Sometimes the situation of your life is not an enemy to be battled or a cage to be escaped, but is the room with beams and ceiling and geometry, the room that shows you itself what it is you need to do. Sometimes the heart of the spiritual way is just to let the room guide you.

That’s when you find you have enough – nothing more and nothing less – to do the task you’ve been given to do.


  1. Nice thoughts! Thank you.

  2. Thank you for all that you have shared.

  3. Mary Schwaner says:

    I can hear your voice in these words, Paul, and they bring me a sense of peace and hope–encouragement to give up the sense of “struggle” and just see what the room has to offer, to accept the space we find ourselves in and see how the Holy Spirit guides us and works with us and through us….Thank you for sharing this account of the work you have all been doing, the Taoist tale, and most of all your own reflections. They never fail to inspire, instruct, surprise, and take me down new paths of thought and reflection on the ways God moves us and moves among us! Thank you! And safe travels and much appreciation to you all for the work you are doing!