Every morning, I spend a couple of minutes making the bed my husband Barry and I share. First, I smooth the wrinkles of the bottom sheet, then I pull up the top sheet, plump the pillows, and finally align the duvet. I do all this early, before breakfast or yoga, because it gets my day off right. Housework is a very mixed bag for me, but I do enjoy making the bed.
Washing the dishes is another pleasure. I love the way the warm soapy water slips through my fingers. Sometimes I remember what the 16th-century Carmelite nun St. Teresa of Avila said: “Entre los pucheros anda el Señor” (“The Lord walks among the pots and pans”). She repeated this to her sisters, who thought spirituality was somehow pristine and divorced from the everyday mess of the kitchen. Evidently Teresa cooked for her fellow nuns while they prayed in the chapel, and it was said that when they returned, they found her holding the frying pan high above the stove as she prayed in ecstasy.
A century later, Brother Lawrence also lived in a Carmelite monastery, but as a lowly layman, not a monk. Despite his great aversion to the kitchen, he treated it as a sanctuary. In his short book, The Practice of the Presence of God, he wrote, “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great a tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”
I want what Brother Lawrence had—to overcome my “great aversion” to my messy desk, with its puddles of papers, file folders, spiral notebooks, journals, books, and scribbled sticky notes strewn here and there. It takes all the discipline I can muster to half-heartedly straighten all the piles and put the papers where they belong. How can I treat it like a sanctuary?
Nesting and taking care of our environment is universal and timeless, something that humans and even certain animal species have done throughout history. Mikel Maria Delgado, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis, has done research on the organizational patterns of different species. In her Aeon article “Tidy Birds and Neat Bees: On Conscientiousness in Animals,” she notes those spiders that construct tidy webs catch more prey, while fish that maintain orderly nests attract potential mates.
The Christian Approach to Housework
I doubt that spiders, birds, and fish find housework burdensome at times. Why is it that some household tasks flow and others are a chore? In my search for answers, I came upon a book from a Christian perspective. According to Margaret Kim Peterson, author of Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life, when God created the heavens and the earth, God started with chaos and ended with a finely differentiated universe. Housework, on a smaller scale, has the same end in mind: bringing order out of chaos. Without constant organizing and cleaning, things fall apart. Dust accumulates, weeds proliferate, food goes bad. Entropy is the natural order of things.
Peterson suggests that housework also has another purpose: to create an intentional space bound by certain rules and set apart to foster the growth of relationships. Yes, I think, remembering years ago when my troubled teenage stepdaughter came to live with Barry and me. I made a commitment to cook dinner every night and to eat together as a family. This may sound like normal behavior, but for me, it was a stretch—yet I wanted to do my best to create an “intentional space” to nurture our relationships. I would not have called making dinner a sacred practice, but maybe it was. Breaking bread together did help my stepdaughter overcome her problems, and it strengthened our family life.
Peterson goes on to say that housework is like chanting the litany in that it is repetitive, ongoing, and recurring. She didn’t use the word tedious, but one certainly could. You wash the breakfast dishes, and everything looks great—but then there’s lunch. And then dinner. On and on. Far from tedious, though, I find repeated actions like washing dishes and making the bed soothing and serene. They take me out of my analytic, discursive brain. I don’t have to think. Nothing calms me down more than folding laundry.
Organizing my papers is also repetitive, but unlike putting away the dishes or the laundry, I have to decide where each paper goes. Keep or toss? Into the recycling bin or a file folder? These choices tire my brain because I’m not fond of decision-making. I don’t like to have to think.
Does the Lord walk between the piles of papers, too, St. Teresa?
A Zen Perspective
Then I came upon a book by Zen priest Gary Thorp, Sweeping Changes: Discovering the Joy of Zen in Everyday Tasks. Thorp invites the reader to take a mindful approach to housework. Sweeping, for example, connects us with people throughout history. From cave-dwelling times until now, people have gathered bundles of straw and grass in order to clean surfaces. Cleaning windows, he writes, allows for greater openness to the outdoors. Dusting is an opportunity to enhance our sense of touch, and a way to experience intimacy with the objects in our environment.
I muse about the texture of paper. Some paper does feel sensual to the touch, like parchment, but the type I’m dealing with is just plain old printing paper. Nothing especially sensual about it.
Calling on My Cloud of Witnesses
In despair I decide to invoke both St. Teresa and Brother Lawrence and ask for their help with my desk. After all, Brother Lawrence overcame his aversion to kitchens; maybe he can offer me guidance. They’re part of my Cloud of Witnesses—those who went before us, whom we are invited to lean on for inspiration and support.
After making a cup of tea, I sift through all the papers and notebooks and place them in their respective homes. Twenty minutes later, I’m done, and it wasn’t as painful as I expected. As Thorp writes, the mind can spend hours dreading a simple task that takes the body only minutes to perform. Each activity we undertake is an opportunity to observe the ways mind and body work together—or don’t.
My desk virtually empty, with its beautiful wood surface revealed, I now feel restful and at peace. Suddenly I remember a Saturday afternoon when I was 9 years old. My sister and I had swapped rooms that morning. I’d moved my belongings over, putting my clothes into the closet and the chest drawers, my stationery and school supplies in the desk drawers. After lunch, I returned to my new room, took off my saddle shoes, and sat cross-legged on the bed beholding my kingdom. Scanning the room from left to right, I rested my eyes on the chest of drawers, then the desk, then the closet, these simple, ordinary objects overwhelming me with joy. In that moment I recognized how strongly my room shaped my emotional state.
Gazing at my desk now, I feel the same sense of deep delight. Maybe there’s nothing more fundamental and sacred than taking care of shelter, clothing, and food. The humble, ceaseless work of sustaining life.