Last week, Jim Quigley (who writes this blog on Mondays) came into my office, face lit up like Christmas, and said, “You’ve got to come see the art in the basement!” Now, in his former life, Jim was a painter and metalworker, so I figured maybe he had a new piece to show me. Instead, he took me to the boiler room, where a gleaming mass of new copper pipes shone like a dream of a microbrewery. Jim spent about ten minutes showing me the metalworking techniques, then told me, “I’m going to write my cup about this this week!”
A few hours later, however, he was back in my office. “Did you see Ron scooped my Cup?” Sure enough, Ron Hicks had beaten him to it, with his own excellent post about the piping. I was left to wonder: How strange is it that members of our staff are competing to write a blog post about the art inherent in plumbing?
Sometimes, people wonder what it’s like to work at a church. The answer is: it’s strange, and it’s strange in unpredictable ways. Anyone preparing to be ordained knows that a lot of the job involves responding to emerging events: deaths, births, illness, marriages — these happen at unpredictable times, and everything else gets set aside to embrace them.
Nobody tells you about the rest of it. A friend who works at a suburban church recently found herself carrying out an impromptu burial service for a kangaroo mouse, and then followed it up by feeding muffins to a raven — both of them requests from parishioners, and all of it sandwiched between the Sunday morning services.
I have found myself eating quail shot and cooked for us by a senior warden who was an avid hunter; leading a group of women on a hike along the side of a steep hill in a pounding downpour, all of us laughing like banshee; and wondering with a child over the marvels of squid. (As in, finding a small child from my parish in a supermarket with a large stuffed animal of a squid and saying, “Great squid!” only to get the response, “I love cephalopods” and a long disquisition about their biology.)
What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that working in churches brings you into intimate contact with the quirkiness of people, which philosophers and theologians call their quiddity. Quiddity is the name for the quirks and peculiarities that make each person or creature distinct, unlike anyone else on earth.
Instinctively, this is what we savor in the people we love: this person’s smile, this one’s crazy love for birds, that one’s terrible puns, or dry humor, or passion for losing baseball teams. It’s what’s at the root of our relationships, including our relationship with ourselves and with our God. Quiddity lets us buy the perfect present, which is the one no one else would want, and make the silly jokes that glue a relationship together, and know how to comfort a child who will not walk out the door without her raccoon-shaped hat.
There is not much space for quiddity in the “official” world. That world looks for good workers, interchangeable with others who have the same skills. It segments us into demographic categories and then tries to sell us things, as if all Millennial women will vote for the same candidate or want the same telephone. As Rowan Williams has written, “advertising standardizes our dreams.”
Against all of that, quirkiness pushes with an exuberant, inexorable force. It shatters the perfect images of magazines, breaks the mold at work, introduces playfulness and laughter and allows the sheer weirdness of life to seep in the cracks and around the corners and bring the prepackaged containers of our lives into vibrant life.
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins coined a word he called “inscape,” by which he meant the fingerprints of God in every created thing, like a watermark that reveals its maker. We who attend churches tend to take a high-minded approach to that idea; we think of goodness and mercy and self-sacrifice. And those are real, but I don’t think they’re all of it. What if it’s our very imperfections, our silliness and our bad handwriting and our inordinate love of beetles, that shows us something of our maker’s mind — the thing in us no one else has brought to life in quite that way? How would we learn to cherish one another then?
[ Credit where credit is due: the eminent biologist J.B.S. Haldane once commented that if there is a Creator, “he has an inordinate fondness for beetles.”]