Spilt milk: a monastic lesson for activists

spilt milk

She spilt it

It was during the time I left teaching to make coffins that our Dexter cow had her first calf and began to give milk.

For readers just joining, we are Piedmont Pine Coffins. We make our boxes with hand tools and take our inspiration from farmsteads and monasteries through the ages: self-sufficiency, hospitality, and a slower pace of life. We are activists for green burial.

Yesterday morning, on the last squirt, the Dexter kicked the pail. A half gallon of milk spilt and, through the slats in the stanchion, drained into the hay. Dadgummit. But there’d be no crying.

It is now springtime in the year 2016, and as I write I’m taking a break from painting tung oil on the lid of a coffin. Fifty years ago, in the spring of 1966, Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote a letter to a young man who’d asked advice about Christian peace activism. How to proceed, how to win the “war” for peace?

Merton’s counsel works well even today for any of us who throw ourselves behind a movement, whether it’s green burial advocacy or something else. Just last night, for example, here in North Carolina, the governor signed a law that brings back free and easy discrimination to a once moderate — nay, progressive — state. Back we go to 1966.

The hope of results

“Do not depend on the hope of results,” Merton writes. You may enjoy the fruits of your fight, but equally possible, Merton cautions, is the outcome exactly opposite the one you’d hoped for. What, then, was the meaning of your struggle?

“In the end,” writes Merton, “it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.” Fight for people, fight for a few friends, fight the fight you believe in — and leave the ending to the heavens.

If you’d like to read more, Merton’s whole letter to Jim Forest is published in The Hidden Ground of Love: Letters of Thomas Merton, edited by William Shannon and published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux.

As for me, tomorrow morning I’ll gather my pail and go milk.