The earliest and most enduring lesson the Jesuits taught me can be summarized in one word: slop. This may take a bit of explaining, but not as much as you might think. For it has to do with learning to find the sacred in the mundane. Other than paper routes, my first real job came in high school, when I was assigned a work-study position in the kitchen and dining room of the Jesuit residence at Creighton Prep in Omaha, Neb. Initially I dreaded it, having hoped for the plum job of switchboard operator or the mobility and fresh air of the grounds crew. No such luck. My bailiwick was to be the awkward decorum of the Jesuit dining room and a towering, bottomless, stainless steel sink (which I could reach only with the aid of a wobbly stool) full of scalding water and recalcitrant pots and pans. Andwoe unto me, a normal (i.e., insecure) 14-year-old boyI had to wear an apron.
In a humbling twist that has repeated itself on rare (i.e., countless) occasions since, I couldn’t have been more wrong. For starters, I soon realized that the apron was indispensable to preserving my not prodigious wardrobe. In another surprise perquisite, during pre-dinner preparation the low-key dining room was a sanctuary of calmnot only from the bright lights and clanging din of the kitchen, but from everywhere else I spent any timeand during dinner a hub of friendly jibes, sincere greetings and a fascinating glimpse into human behavior. From the school-of-hard-knocks warmth of the cooks, Gwen and Myrtle, to Father Dieter’s irrepressible fondness for bad puns, to Father McAuliffe’s mumbly, prayerful perambulations around the empty dining room as I wiped tables and shut off the lights for the night, I was a watchful server, seeing myself as both part of and foil to this motley community. Most surprising of all, the dish-washing and pot-scrubbing proved, if not quite enjoyable, oddly compelling in that hypnotic sort of way that concentrated hard work can draw us so deeply into the ourselves that we lose ourselves. In no time at all, I had shed my dread and was in my element.
After a year in the Jesuit kitchen, I moved on to bigger and better thingsbigger pots, more dishes and better payat a large hospital kitchen, a job that enabled me to graduate from Prep and paid a chunk of my first year at Georgetown. At Bergan Mercy Hospital I found myself among another cast of charactersalbeit none wearing cassocks and muttering an examen under their breath. I was thrust into a menagerie stocked with full-timers so impenetrably odd that they seemed to have stepped out of the pages of Charles Dickens or Joseph Heller, and fellow teenagers, whose use of language, prohibited substances and the opposite sex strained the bounds of civility and tore to shreds the envelope of my rather limited knowledge and experience. I would seem to have been decidedly ill-suited for such a place.
There was a variety of tasks to be done on any given shift, but the nerve center of the job was the Dish Room, where there was a silver-gray, 25-foot colossus of a dishwashing machine and the perpetually steamy air was redolent of industrial chemicals used willy-nilly in a desperate attempt to soak burned food off enormous pots and pans, and where one lucky stiff stood alone for hours at a time doing a job aptly named Slop.
Picture a long conveyor belt jammed with trays of barely touched or half-eaten meals as far as the eye can see, all coming your way like a relentless, runaway train. The volume of food waste was staggering, to say nothing of its nauseating look and smell. Between you and the ceaseless stream of masticated and rejected mush is a trough. Your job: to be a whirling automaton, reaching over the trough for each tray, dumping everything once considered ingestible into the trough while sorting all plates, bowls, cups and silverware. When operational, the trough has a constant stream of water to wash its contents into a large disposal drain several feet downstream. When broken, which invariably occurred five minutes into your shift, a crucial part of your job became manually shoving aside the fast-accumulating heaps of slop to make room for more. And more.
To excel at Slop you needed to get into a zen-like rhythm. I did, and I loved it. Not just Slop, but the whole bizarre spectacle. Like Slop itself, much of what and whom I came to know at that job shocked, surprised and stretched me, and my eventual success there cost me a part of myself. Call it innocence. It was losing myself in something outside myselfthe same trick to sailing through Slopthat led me to a stronger sense of self, cracking me open and exposing me to a new domain of possibilities beneath life’s messy surface and beyond my limited ken.
Dreading, surviving, then thriving in the Jesuit kitchen marked the beginning of my education: it drew me out of myself. Being forced to face down an unsavory situation, to turn drudgery into opportunityfor self-deprecating humor, for losing narrow prejudices about friendship or simply for using one’s energy to do good workwas an inadvertent, irreplaceable gift.
Far be it from me to romanticize life’s slop, which generally is best appreciated through the philosophical lense of hindsight. But I hope to live inspired by Slop: with a radical, ingenuous embrace of the present that can transform something life-sucking into life-giving and, just maybe, life-changing.