The Monastic in the House: Prayer versus the Dishes

I've recently been reading through the Rule of St. Benedict in anticipation of a series I might do. And when you read the Rule it's not uncommon to begin thinking about adding some monastic structure to your life, mainly about being more intentional in prayer and the reading of the Psalms.

So the other day I was kicking that around. Where in my day could I carve out 30 minutes for prayer? In the morning? Midday? At night? How about all three, praying at Lauds, Sext and Vespers?

And as I pondered this spiritual pursuit a thought drifted through my mind, "Why don't you just do the dishes for Jana everyday? Isn't that a better use of 30 minutes?"

I think this thought came to me for two reasons. The first, obviously, has to do with my own writings where I've argued that we use spirituality to replace being a better person. In this case I was indulging in a private spiritual fancy rather than helping out more around the house.

The second reason has to do with the Rule itself. Prayer isn't the only thing the Rule discusses. A large part of the Rule is in describing the various ways the monks are to take care of the monastery. And kitchen cleanup is a part of that.

All this to say, I eventually dropped my pursuit of a structured prayer time. I'm now using that time to do the dishes. Not that I've given up on prayer, it just remains an irregular practice. For God has called me, through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, to do the dishes rather than to prayer.

This is, I believe, one of the few times where Jana has agreed with how I've discerned the spirits...

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35 thoughts on “The Monastic in the House: Prayer versus the Dishes”

  1. I like this a lot Richard. I spend much of my ministry working with people to integrate their mundane day-to-day with the sacred "God-connected" experiences. I like this particularly, because I find my motivation to do the dishes very low, while my motivation to expand my contemlative practice is quite high. I can imagine lots of things I feel obligated in doing brought into this kind of approach. Tidying, mowing, cleaning, where will it end.

    It reminds me of some work I did last year on a spirituality of music. The basic premise was, "Why do I look for spiritual exercises and disciplines to help me feel close to God when I feel that closeness already through music?" Your reflection is a similar thing: why add discipline and self-denial to my day when I could reinterpret something I already do? I like it a lot.

  2. You da man, Dr. Beck!

    It probably doesn't take a lot of imagination to believe that a continuous monologue is taking place in my thoughts while I'm awake.  A lot of the work I do day in and day out is mundane, repetitive -- cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc.  Since I'm talking to myself most of the time anyway, I make every conscious effort to invite God into the conversation by turning my thoughts, questions, concerns into prayer.  They're not fancy prayers, just intentionally dialogue-oriented.  The really funny thing, typically, is that when I slow down (often at night when I'm trying to get to sleep, or just waking up, or occasionally in a meaningful dream) and am quiet and attentive to listen for God's response, I sense answers beyond the usual inner monologue!

    Is there any task too small or unimportant to be outside the bounds of sacred?  I think our work as well as our words have the potential to *be* the prayer.  My kids and I are in the practice of praying in the car, before we even enter the nursing home for our weekly Bible Fellowship.  I ask for the ability to empty ourselves of distractions and the ability to focus our whole selves on *being* a blessing to all whom we encounter; the ability to listen and sense the needs of each individual, and to respond as Christ would. In essence, to *become* the prayer.

    I think that reading the Psalms, or other formal prayers (e.g., Common Book of Prayer) are wonderful ways of claiming the healing truths of and from God, for ourselves and others.  But, prayer can be like breathing -- it is natural and automatic as we go about the earthy, mundane workaday routine -- which, if we see it as such, is *all* sacred.  ~Peace~

  3. I do the same thing, Susan; conversationally pray/think out loud during the course of the day doing all the household tasks. Only in the last few years it's more of a tone that the "if-you-can't-say-something-nice-don't-say-anything" crowd wouldn't approve.  I can't escape theodicy, and I expect God, most of all, to be a realist.

    Good job, Richard! I'm sure helping Jana in the kitchen will have other payoffs as well. :-)

  4. Hi Patricia, I hear you, friend...  God isn't surprised by my honest complaints and questions.  He can take it, and He's not going to "smite" me with His "wrath" for thinking/saying it straight to His "face."  Holy smoke!

    As far as others' reaction to such "inappropriate" conversation...  As long as it's not a malicious attack on the other person, I don't see how honesty is a bad thing?  If people feel they need to defend God from such indelicate truths, that's their problem.  Is that too harsh of me?  :-/

    A friend of mine invited me to a women's book club discussion this Saturday, and one of the perks for attending was a free laminated bookmark with a quote about women's friendship on it.  There were a variety of bookmarks with different quotes.  I purposely chose this one, because I liked it so well (a truth that I need to be reminded of often, because I have been conditioned to shut up if I think someone will not like what I have to say; that love will be withdrawn if I do not agree and affirm the other at the expense of my own voice):

    "No person is your friend who demands your silence or denies your right to grow."  ~Alice Walker

    I think this holds true with God, also.  He is "for" us, "with" us, and "within" us.  Nothing is too inconvenient a truth for Him to want to hear.  I have come to believe that God's desire is relationship with me.  Relationships go both ways; healthy ones, anyway.  So grateful you are a part of my life, Patricia; you are a treasure.  ~Peace~

  5. Haha, I was about to say - I thought Richard was going a whole other direction with this, because I assumed he had heard of Brother Lawrence. Or maybe he just forgot about him?

    Richard, if you read this, look up "The Practice of the Presence of God" by Brother Lawrence. It's pretty much my life goal to get to that place.

  6. Whilst I agree with the overall sentiment of your choice  I remain a little surprised at your terminology.
    I feel it’s telling that when men speak of doing a mundane and necessary household chore they tend to frame it in terms of doing it FOR their partner!
    It then feels, to me at least, that in some manner they’re doing their partner a favour for which they almost need to be thanked, “Oh how generous, thank you for doing one of ‘MY’ jobs...”
    Us guys eh? We have so much to learn about TRUE servanthood. Surely, anything that requires DOING in a house is the responsibility of ALL of those who live in the house and not just the female who happens to reside there.
    Just a thought...

  7. To clarify a bit, the fact that Jana was doing the dishes wasn't due to gender stereotypes. It's just the way we chose to divide up the work around the house with her doing some things and me doing other things. For example, I clean the bathrooms. The point being, when I say I'm doing the dishes "for Jana" I simply mean moving something off her list onto my list. I don't think of the housework in any gendered way.

    So the story isn't meant to be self-congratulatory or about crossing gender boundaries in housework. I was mainly wanting to illustrate, with a story of my own life, the spirituality of things we often don't think of as spiritual.

  8. In response to Martyn's excellent comment... you are right that the task of keeping things going in the house does belong to everyone in the family, and I appreciate you pointing out that fact. However, in this particular case, the "doing of the dishes" really is MY job because of an agreement Richard and I made several years ago. I don't enjoy folding and putting away laundry and Richard does not  enjoy doing the dishes. So, we decided that we would let those jobs belong to the people who didn't really mind them that much. So, in that since, Richard's doing the dishes really IS doing MY job which makes it all the sweeter. And, by the way, he never really told me what he was doing. He just started doing it. Imagine my surprise when I can home from work to start supper and found a sparkling kitchen (that I had not left there). It was like a little kitchen elf had suddenly moved in. I discovered that it was not a kitchen elf, but my own husband who had been reading The Rule and taking it seriously. Boy, that was a GREAT purchase.! Don't you think?
    And, in case you are wondering, yes, I have occasionally found myself folding and putting away the laundry (with an actual smile on my face). Who knew ?

  9. I think some of the other commenters have been getting at this, but what about dishes AS prayer. It seems to me that simple tasks, done well, have a way of easing the mind into a contemplative state. 

    Instead of prayer beads, why not prayer plates?

  10. Some monks came to see abba Lucius and they said to him, "We do not work with our hands; we obey Paul's command and pray without ceasing."  The old man said, "Do you not eat or sleep?"  They said, "Yes, we do."  He said, "Who prays for you while you are asleep? ...Excuse me, brothers, but you do not practice what you claim.  I will show you how I pray without ceasing, though I work with my hands.  With God's help, I collect a few palm-leaves and sit down and weave them, saying, 'Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness; according to the multitude of thy mercies do away with mine offences.'"  He said to them, "Is this prayer or not?"  They said, "Yes it is."  And he continued, "When I have worked and prayed in my heart all day, I make about sixteen pence.  Two of these I put outside my door and with the rest I buy food.  And he who finds the two coins outside the door prayes for me while I eat and sleep.  And so by the help of God I pray without ceasing."  --Translated in The Desert Heart, 1988 Benedicta Ward

  11. Thanks everyone for the feedback, particularly the mentions of Brother Lawrence and how this shouldn't be an either/or.

    My point in the post is less about choosing than about how we often gravitate toward spiritualized activities rather than to things like taking out the garbage or inviting a lonely coworker out to coffee when we are trying to get "closer" to God.  It's the point I'm making in the old Bait & Switch post.

  12. Doing dishes (my job as well) is something that often helps me to clear my head and think. Also, I find that, since it's mindless, I can use the time to pray, so then it's like a 2 for 1 deal and we're all happy!

  13.  I had the exact same thought, Martyn.

    And then the thought after it was, "Hm. This doesn't work for those of us who live alone."

    And then the third thought was, "Why isn't he praying while doing the dishes?"

    And then the fourth thought was, "When was the last time I did the dishes? Oh Lord, save me from the horrors that are likely growing in my sink!"

    (I eat out a lot. And won't be home until tomorrow, between work and Major League Soccer First Kick.)

  14. I'm glad you explained, Jana - I was beginning to doubt Richard's reconstructedness.  I wonder if you've read 'Sir Gibbie' or whether (like my wife Amy), you're married to a spouse who makes you determined NOT to read MacDonald?  Anyway, there's a great 'kitchen elf' in the story - I wonder if he inspired Richard...

  15. The Quotidian Mysteries by Kathleen Norris, subtitled 'Laundry, Liturgy and "Women's Work."  (The 1998 Madeleva Lecture in Spiritualiy)

    I'll have to read it again.

  16. This sounds like Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. His best time with God was in the kitchen! You'll definitely win your wife's heart. I say, genius :)

  17. Holy crud.  Bait and switch.  Nailed it.  This actually puts some other vaguely unsettling propositions that I've encountered today into perspective.  Thank you!

  18. Hi Jana :-)  In our household, we have divvied up the responsibilities based on what makes the best sense.  Generally, I don't mind, but occasionally I feel that the others are taking my efforts for granted.  And, I do like to be acknowledged for the mountains of laundry I do, and such.  Once year, I had a bad series of health upsets, culminating in a case of shingles in Nov/Dec.  My family had to pull together to do all the tasks that I ordinarily do (cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc.).  Ever since then, my husband will jokingly say, "Don't die on me!  I can't do all this -- especially, all that's involved in caring for and parenting the kids -- by myself!"  I think a part of doing a job that wasn't originally in the "contract," is being flexible, learning to appreciate through hands-on experience what the other does, and being willing to grow and change.  It never occurred to me that Richard's idea to do "your" job (dishes) was somehow sexist.  I guess I have this idea from the consistently magnanimous nature of this blog content and commentary that he is not that kind of person.  If it were someone else who had made that statement, I might have had Martyn's reaction...  I guess that's the benefit of seeking to know a person and understand where they're coming from before making assumptions.

    Do you all have a dishwasher, or are dishes done the old-fashioned way (by hand) in your household?  I did so many dishes growing up that I sure do love my dishwasher now.  Next to my washer and dryer, I love my dishwasher second-best.  :-)  I spent a good deal of my 20's doing laundry at the laundromat.  Ugh.  When my old 14-year-old basic Roper washer finally bit the dust about 6 years ago, my husband bought me a then top-of-the-line Maytag top-load/front-load machine.  He won my heart, more than diamonds or gold could ever have done.  He knows me pretty well, I guess...

  19. This is right on the money in my opinion. I come from a long line of spiritual junkies and naval gazers (the male's anyway). Mundane things like doing dishes, being kind to our wives or paying attention to our kids just have a hard time making it onto the radar when there are spiritual/religious things to be done (usually alone or, if necessary, with another like minded guy). And by spiritual/religious things I mean things like Bible study and prayer, reading religious books, solitude and silence... well, you get the idea. Real life and real people are just such a damn distraction.

    Peter Rollins is mostly above my intellectual pay-grade, but one thing I think I've gotten from him is this: If we don't encounter God in "the other" we're not likely to ever encounter God at all. We're searching and searching for transcendence or some such thing when all along the transcendent has been in residence in the sea of humanity all around us. Just waiting for our time, our touch and our attention. No wonder He/She/It seems so far away. We're looking up there and out there somewhere, when we should be looking down here, right next to us.

  20. "I can't escape theodicy."  That's where I've been for the last couple of years.  God and I have a running argument which seems far from being resolved.  I'm reminded of Madeleine L'Engle's statement that her theology is always subject to change.  My theology always gets a boost when I see a photo of space taken through the Hubble telescope.  It's the nitty-gritty of life here below that is hard to understand and work through.

  21. Hi Seniorcit, It seems God is most silent when He's asked to be accountable for what He has permitted. I read "Wrinkle In Time" for the first time in 4th grade. It was the first hope I'd ever had that somewhere "out there" there was a grown-up who would or could give a damn.

  22. I do the dishes all of the time. I'm a wife. I pray while I wash. Also, I pray -- intentionally and desperately -- every morning. Dishes and prayer are NOT mutually exclusive you know! :)

  23. Ha!  I thought of that when I read Richard's blog, in fact, I thought that was where he was going with it.

  24. Yes!  What brings you close to God?  That is prayer.  For me, it is photography.

  25. FYI Richard....some monastics, such as those with whom I work, do not get up at 3 to pray but sort of morph together the night offices with the early  morning ones.

    Good to hear from Jana!


  26. Patricia , your first sentence of your comment contains a truth that I hope does not go unnoticed. As a former Christian, I find mowing , raking , changing the oil, and dishes are a great way to clear the mind of clutter. Those out there who read up on Zen understand.

  27. As someone who suffers from schizo-affective disorder I sometimes wonder if the Bible writers also suffered from some sort of mental disorder like mine. It can be triggered by stress. It's simply my conviction at this point that people create a God helper out of insecurity. Instead of embracing death and loving themselves and others some people become obssessed with religion because they are insecure about themselves and death. I now accept the fact that I have only so much time to live and that life involves pain and separation. By embracing this I embrace life itself and accept everything about it. Depending on a belief in an afterlife or drowning myself in the moment to avoid pain is to despise reality, which is to despise life itself. Tonight, I'm choosing to affirm life by confronting my mortality. What matters to me now is to live my days well and as fully as possible. I am converting the terrified, denial-type relationship to death into something active and positive as I am released from anxieties and fearful, timid responses by embracing death and not repressing it.

  28. Oh dear. I suppose that means that by this token you've decided that I am at best a 'man of assumptions' and at worst judgemental. Oh the joys of internet 'interractivity'. :) 

  29. Thanks for the insight. Richard can now be fully restored to the realm absolute Sainthood. lol. :)

  30. With this and Patricia's comment above about the tone of voice being something others might not approve of, I feel like someone is reading my mind! There's just something about the dishes that makes me talk to God. And like you, I can't get past theodicy and the stuff I see around me.
    It's good to know I'm not alone.

  31. Haha, Martyn.  I've had my moments (I'm sure you can think of a few right off-hand), so make room in the life raft when I walk the plank for the crime of 'presuming.'  I put the "dumb" in dumbfounding, it would often seem.  ~Peace~  :-)

  32. I've had times in my life when I could spend uninterrupted time in meditation and prayer.  The last number of years uninterrupted time is growing meager.  A disabled spouse (so no help there for dishes, laundry, vacuuming, ironing, grocery shopping...), a "40" hour a week job (read 50-60 hours a week with a 40 hour paycheck), and quickly fading energy meant that my focus was always, always, on the next thing I had to do.  Last fall I had a mini-crisis that provoked a reorientation.  I still wash all the dishes (by hand, rats ate my dishwasher; but there's only two of us), etc etc, BUT I find I MUST have some time in my morning when I stop all other activity and say, Okay God, here's this day ahead of me, I have no idea what is waiting for me, so let me refocus from chores and work and remember that the day is ahead for me with you beside me. 

  33. Hmm. I just don't know this "we" who gravitate toward spiritualized activities rather than fix-it actions. I'm a people-pleaser, and I found that even as a "preacher" I was all over any chance I got to sweep up, give someone a ride to the airport, etc., etc. Yet there was a lack of inwardness, a lack of gracefulness (in both the theological and the aesthetic sense--if they are even separable), in my dish-washing and garbage-taking and coffee-inviting behavior.

    So purely autobiographically, in my usual stint as devil's advocate, I do want to suggest that all the people I am trying to please in the busy-ness of my life would probably be the first to say:  Cut it out and take some time for inwardness!

    (I'm also struck by the fact that this looks laudable because you are MALE. If you were a female, suggesting that you DON'T need time alone and for renewal but need instead to take on one more task in order to please the males in your life, I think people would rightly be very suspicious of the underlying view of spirituality.)

    So keep on doing those dishes. But I'd love a fairer discussion about the "we" who spend time on practices of inwardness, not just the "practical" business of trying to help/ please people.

    Finally--did you think about the old Mary/ Martha story here? It's a fun one to trace through the history of interpretation, and if you're really interested in contemplation vs service, this is where the church has talked about it.

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