Practicing with tools

In eighth grade shop class, the first day we were introduced to all the terrible things that can happen to inattentive or willful students using power tools — The Girl Who Got Her Long Hair Caught in The Drill Press, The Boy Who Forced a Wayward Piece of Wood Through the Table Saw, and so on.

When we were sufficiently bug-eyed and subdued, we were introduced to the wood and to all the hand tools for beginning to make stuff: the crosscut saw, the ripsaw and the coping saw, the plane, the hand-drill, and stacks and stacks of different kinds of sandpaper. We had to get to know the wood, how it acted under the hand, what tools worked best with what wood, practicing all the fine motor skills of the artisan’s craft. We didn’t get turned loose on the power tools until we learned to use the hand tools with sufficient accuracy, skill, patience, and respect.

Above all, we learned that one does not come to a block of wood to impose one’s sovereign will upon it and make it conform to a particular pre-conceived vision. The wood had something to say and its innate configuration would, if we were attentive, become an integral part of the finished project.

In this workshop of the monastery there are only a few things on the apprentice’s syllabus: to learn to listen to and love God, to learn to listen to and love the community, to learn to listen to and love the place, and as Jesus told the religious authorities at the beginning of his ministry, to “go and learn what this text means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’”

So we are, in the monastery, not yet master artisans but apprentices, supplied with all the necessary tools and what seems like mountains and mountains of sandpaper. The template we are working from is Jesus, but the end result will be Jesus uniquely realized in each and every student.

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