On the Specialness of Mismatched Spoons

Ade Bethune once fashioned a lovely word picture for the Catholic Worker about the sacramental beauty of mismatched chairs and hospitality that was so breath-taking to me that I began copying it onto the final page of Acts in nearly every Bible I ever used afterward. It was almost as if she had taken Brother Lawrence by the collar, breathed him in, whole and deep, and then exhaled him onto the page with her black-smudged brush in fine, deliberate strokes–proof, indeed, that absolutely everything physical is potentially sacramental.

In 1999, at the old convent christened Star of the Sea, I sat with Ade and told her that two of her creations meant the most to me: the black crucifix that hung above the mismatched maple plank tables in the white house at Peter Maurin Farm and this simple paragraph about sharing hospitality in simple things. Should I have been surprised when she looked up from the page and asked, “Do you live it?”

This memory came again to me last night as I was getting ready for bed. I have a favourite chair that sits in my room; an old highback kitchen chair with a carved back and hollowed seat that has been painted at least a dozen different colours over the years. Its paint is chipped and worn, it’s grimy black in places and its legs are battered. My mother is a master wood-craftsman; I know how to fix this, so why haven’t I stripped and refinished this thing in the dozen-or-so years that I have had it in my stewardship? Because it is art, and it is too perfect on its own to touch. It goes with nothing, it stands alone, a pale blue eyesore with a checkered past of changing hands and changing hearts, discarded, passed on and neglected….until it passed to me. This chair is one of my finest treasures. It reminds me that beauty is found in the uncommonly commonplace if only you open your eyes to see it. It is, to me, at the deepest level a symbol of family. It is also a key to the mystery of my affections.

Few of the plates in our cupboard match, none of the bowls match the plates. Forks and knives and spoons in the drawers all come from different decades, different sets long ago lost, divided and forgotten. Blue, green and brown bottles from who-knows-where sit in window casings to catch and scatter the sunlight in the mornings. The dining room is littered to overflowing with plants that have been abandoned and adopted from just about everyone we know; the ivy is from a cutting my grandmother once snatched from the crannies a castle wall in Spain and snuck home in a book unnoticed. The living room and the library are stuffed with books once loved by others, then rescued from the dumpsteres of Thomas Loome, et al (I truly have no shame–my parents taught me well); I read them and share them as best as any truly gluttonous bibliophile is capable. You’d probably look at this place and be calling for a garbage truck, but for me? This is home, this is heart….this is a picture of real life.

I believe that family just happens to be whomever GOD chooses to set down in our path in any given moment. I believe that most of my family are as varied and as fragile and, yes, just as useful and as valuable as the books in our shelves, the chairs at our table, the spoons in our drawers. And I believe that heaven on earth is found in merging the whole lot together in the breaking of bread, the sharing of comforts, screaming and yelling at each other until the pain we each carry subsides, and those quiet moments resting with one another’s company in the refracting blue-green light when nothing needs to be said at all.

Family isn’t always pretty. Often they are old and needy and not terribly nice. Sometimes they have minds that are bent and souls that are chipped. All too often they smell like ashtrays or stale beer bottles or footlockers left far too long without a good scrub-down. Sometimes they act for all the world like a tenacious weed that you’d just love to strangle to death and be done with. Yet whilst their lives seem shallow, or sordid, or completely out-to-lunch, their souls’ hearts are not. But if they weren’t here? If they didn’t fill my house with their cracked, broken, totally unorganised selves? This place would be empty and it would cease to be home.

Do I live the ideal of hospitality in mismatched chairs? I try. Often I fail…and then I remember that everything has some intrinsic value and beauty all its own…and I try again, saying to my own soul, “There is no such thing as a mismatched spoon, only a bit of art waiting to be cradled safely in the drawer with all the others.” I need reminding and forgiveness if I somtimes forget.

*Note*: Originally written and published 20 October 2009

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