Ulysses Grant rolled with the punches when a paperwork snafu at West Point changed his middle initial from H to S. He didn’t sweat it when he, the best horseman of his generation, was not given a commission with the cavalry upon his graduation.
Then, during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), the army made him a quartermaster, and it was too much.
Bond movies glamorize the work of a “Q,” but Grant did not deal in exploding pens or poisonous lipstick. He had to acquire boots, cornmeal, gunpowder, canvas, and cannon balls, in an age without phones, trucks, or a transcontinental railroad.
One day, as the enemy barraged the American fortifications, Grant’s commanding officer called for a volunteer to ride out for more bullets. Failure was likely. This maneuver is like football‘s naked bootleg - a gutsy move that can succeed when the other team isn’t shooting at you with heavy artillery.
Grant volunteered! Did he do it because he felt guilty for not securing enough ammunition? Did he just want to show off his fancy action-hero moves (he hung from the side of the horse with one hand and shot his pistol with the other)? I have a theory:
He was so completely, utterly done with being a quartermaster that a near-death experience was preferred.
Boring + Essential + Complicated + Difficult = Horrible
First World Quartermaster Problems
If online shopping has programmed your credit card into your brain; if children regularly ask you for new socks to replace the 83 socks they each have but that have holes in the heels and don’t match one another; if your spouse asks if we have sour cream for the tacos tonight; if you can tell whether that grocery item is actually on sale - you are your household’s Quartermaster.
As Q, it is not enough to get the stuff; you also have to organize, ration, clean, and repair the stuff. As a Parent-Q, you find yourself wondering what godless prankster invented Legos and why a gallon of milk never makes it to Wednesday.
The only time it’s fun is school supply season, but even that joy evaporates under the harsh sun of vaguely written lists.
Gratitude from the troops is a pipe dream. Q doesn’t get much attention until she makes a mistake.
And yet - having sufficient resources to carry out my Q duties is a definite privilege. The typical American household today has a better quality of life than the kings and queens of old, even when the Q is lousy at her job.
Cathedrals and The Blood of Christ
The experience of being my family’s Q makes me read history a little differently than I did when someone else took care of provisions. In particular, I look at cathedrals in a completely different way.
Medieval households made real sacrifices to bring into existence "unnecessarily" beautiful cathedrals. How can you look at your young children and decide that what they really need and so what you must procure for them is beauty in service to God Most High? You can’t afford paint or rugs for the corner of your hut that counts as the nursery, but you invest in a mosaic floor in a nearby shrine. The faith of a “Dark Ages” quartermaster must have run deep.
The same was true for early generations of Catholic immigrants to the U.S. Their homes were cramped and too hot or too cold; their liturgies involved silver, gold, rich fabrics, marble, and incense.
When we worship, we bring the best. When we celebrate, we make sure to have more than enough. When we feel a place is truly home, we offer generous hospitality to guests.
When it comes to the liturgy and the places for liturgy, the Q's must throw out all their frugality and common sense. New standards of stewardship apply, and different questions must be asked:
Would we be glad to have saved $100,000 on the parish church's construction if we found out that 100 fewer people had been drawn to Mass on account of the diminished beauty?
What does it profit us when we do not use enough wine to fill the chalices with what is now the very Blood of Christ for the congregation? Have you ever had the Minister of the Cup wave you away and turn his back on you because there was not enough for you? When that happened, were you glad the sacristans had been conservative in their estimates?
Do you think that the liturgy is essentially educational, or perhaps therapeutic? If it is instead the total offering of the Son to the Father in the Spirit, what then should we hold back?
Do you trust the rhythm of the liturgical year, the repetition of the Lectionary, and the rubrics of the Sacramentary as limits enough on the lavish, extravagant grace which we encounter, join, and praise in the liturgy? Are simplicity and solemnity in true tension with festivity and liberality?
Homeowners budget money for improvements in their most-used spaces. When we resist appeals for money to build, fix, or improve our places of worship, is that because our church visits are too infrequent? Do we inhabit our churches? Should we go there with our children more often, as if we part-owned the place? Should they stay unlocked more of the time to encourage this?
As full of drudgery as it is to be a quartermaster, we must each fill that role: we have been commissioned as stewards of His creation.
As the household of the people of God, at least we have a whole fleet of Q's to figure out the provisioning together. More importantly, we have the assurance that the Holy Spirit will guide us, sustain us, and bring us healing when we fail spectacularly. Such faith allows us to risk it all, in a naked bootleg that might result in a season-ending injury.
In closing, let us be encouraged by the Word of God in a cutting from the Book of Proverbs:
Honor the LORD with your wealth, with first fruits of all your produce; then will your barns be filled with plenty; with new wine your vats will overflow. Proverbs 3:9-10