Excellence: Finding It In The Little Things

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Brother Lawrence wrote about his spiritual journey in the 17th century.

A series of monthly reflections on the virtues presented in the new Values for Living 2.0 Character Development program for cadets of the Civil Air Patrol.  February’s focus virtue is the core value of excellence.

by Chaplain (Captain) Lindsey Moser, CAP
Virginia Wing, Civil Air Patrol

I have a dishwasher but I never use it because washing dishes by hand can produce excellence.

Several years ago, I ran across a thin little paperback called The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, a 17th century Carmelite monk. This book talks about finding spiritual satisfaction in mundane, tedious chores. In this text, he said that “[I]t is not needful that we should have great things to do…We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him, and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before him.” For Brother Lawrence, the tasks which kept him busy as a kitchen aide in the Discalced Carmelite monastery in Paris prepared his soul for worship and the presence of God because, as he states, God has “given me grace to work…It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God.”

Brother Lawrence was not always known as Brother Lawrence. He was born in 1611 as Nicholas Herman, to peasant parents in Lorraine, France. Because he was too poor to learn a trade or make a decent living for himself, he joined the army where he was paid and given meals.

One winter day, Herman looked at a tree wrapped in the bare frost of the quiet season. It seemed to him that the tree, although it looked dead on the outside, was waiting and hoping for the summer season when its boughs would droop with fruit. Herman realized that he was like that dead tree, waiting for God to bring a season of fruitfulness and growth to him. This supernatural vision caused him to develop a love for God that never died out and which caused him to seek a monastic life after injuries forced him to separate from the army.

Herman’s transition from soldier to monk must not have been easy for him. We know a lot more about how to transition from a military lifestyle back into a civilian lifestyle, things Herman could not have known. But he took his new name, Brother Lawrence, and his post as a lowly kitchen aid with gratitude and used it as an opportunity to worship God and develop in his faith. He said: “I began to live as if there were no one save God and me in the world.” He scrubbed each pot and pan as if he were doing dishes for God and not just rounds of dirty after-the-meal cleanup.

This month, as we look at the core value of excellence, we can think of Brother Lawrence’s example. He never failed to treat each sink brimming with soapy, dirty water as an opportunity to do his best work as an act of worship for his God. When I came across his story a few years ago, I was so compelled by his simple act of excellence, his attention to such a mundane chore with so much focus, that I decided I could raise my own standard and treat every sink overloaded with dishes as an opportunity to be excellent in something small.

I don’t always look forward to washing and scrubbing every dish, stacking them on the drying mat, and putting them away an hour or two later. Sometimes at the end of a long day, a few dishes get left overnight. Sometimes I’m tempted to rush through this chore. Excellence is not a trait we either have or don’t: it’s a skill, and to get good at any skill, we have to practice it. I’ve noticed that I no longer groan at the sight of those dishes! I take the opportunity to enjoy the warm water and buy tropical soaps to make the kitchen smell nice; I think about the events of the day, mentally plan for upcoming tasks, and even take this chance to pray. Most importantly, however, it builds my capacity to be patient and take the extra time to scrub my dishes until they are clean and sparkling.

Excellence in the little things of life will build your capacity to pursue excellence in the big things, things which may not always be as easy as scrubbing a pot or bowl.

This Month’s Reflection

Pick three small things you can do with excellence this month. How would doing these little things impact your ability to do big things with excellence?

Note: All images used are public domain.

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