This originally appeared as part of the Daily Sip, a website from Charles LaFond, a spiritual companion, author, potter and fundraiser who lives on a farm in New Mexico with his dog Kai. offering regular meditations and reflections on spirituality and church fundraising
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the monastery sent me, the next day, to help the Bishop of Louisiana. I was not much help, so I snuck off, and spent time serving as a Chaplain to the Disaster Mortuary Unit – the morgue to which the 1,000 corpses were taken.
The D-MORT Camp was a big little city in the midst of a sugar cane field; 300-600 pathologists in a M.A.S.H-like encampment directing decayed corpses all day. It had been a leper colony in the 19th century and some decayed buildings still remained from that rotting flesh, to welcome this new rotting flesh. I wished then (as is the case now) that I could not smell. It was sickly sweet, fetid, heavy and moist. A smell draped with the swags of “end.”
My job in those cane fields in early September 2005 was to greet the refrigerated trucks at the gate and walk before them with my legs a few inches from their massive, hot chrome bumpers (in the black floor-length habit of a monk in 100 degree moisture) slowly praying the 23rd psalm out loud, as a sort of crucifer – a procession-leader. It’s just that the 10-30 people who followed me in procession were in a refrigeration truck. In bags. Horizontal. Silent.
But we would process with dignity and gentleness until I got the truck to the decontamination unit for the guys in white space-suits to take over the hospitality of death.
The 5th verse of Psalm 23 always struck me as odd: God prepares a table in the presence of our enemies. It’s only now that I better understand what it means for God to set a table (read: altar?) in the presence of our enemies.
Robert Mulholland Jr. , a recent seminary dean, notes that in the desert-times of our lives, we are alone with God and can then, and only then, see that our false-self (our demons) would rather become “religious” than loose its life to union with God.
I remember life before the Church surrounded me. My 20’s, my 30’s. Those early tables were full of good friends. Those YMCA colleagues were the salt of the earth. And yet, in the church, the tables at which I have sat have been, quite literally, prepared by my God with enemies all ‘round. Not everyone of course, not at all! Many good people have been part of my life these past 18 years. But never before the turn of the millennium had I felt surrounded by enemies.
Why would the psalmist say that God prepares a table of our enemies? Well, in part it is because “hospitality” in its etymological root comes from the word “hostile.” In other words, real hospitality is nothing more than being vulnerable to being wounded.
And second, it is among your enemies – standing there in the fires of their insecurities, that we are formed. A close friend recently reminded me that “When your “enemies” are bullying you, none of that anger and vitriol is really about you at all. It is about THEIR own demons, THIER own losses, THEIR own griefs. You are just the wrong person, at the wrong time, and in the wrong place as they vent the pressure-cooker of their lives.”
I said, “How then do I get out of the way of their anger and cruelty?” He said, “Just stand there, lovingly, firmly, gently in the fire. It is your demeanor of peacefulness which will douse the flames.”
The thousand corpses that summer and fall in the cane field between Baton Rouge and New Orleans were quiet. They smelled, sure. But they were quiet. No anger. No vitriol. No resentments or insecurities. Quiet. But also dead.
Life is going to include enemies. Clergy with angry vestry members. Minions with angry Bishops. Children with angry fathers. Husbands with angry wives. Colleagues with angry colleagues. Our table is set by a loving God; but the guests are not invited by our pen. The guests are invited by life.
And in the end, we can choose death and its gentle silence; or we can choose life, a table set and some friends and some enemies.
The work of the spiritual life, if there is such a thing (and I think not… just life, really) is that we work hard to tend to the inner life WE live – our mindfulness – such that the enemy at our table is not sitting on our own seat, inside us, seething.
image: John Sanders of Biloxi spends a quiet moment on the once quiet, pristine stretch of Biloxi beach on September 2, 2005 in Biloxi, Mississippi. Officials say the damage left by Hurricane Katrina could take years to undo. (Photo by Marianne Todd/Getty Images)