Tuesday, June 28, 2016

the blessings of ordinary tasks...

Today is a cool, but humid grey morning in the Berkshires - perfect for housecleaning and packing. I am by nature prone to the quotidian mysteries of the home: washing the floor, baking bread, cutting the lawn, setting the table. There is a profound satisfaction for me in these ordinary tasks that hint of their veiled beauty and grace, blessings that are well-disguised as boring and burdensome in an already too busy life. Quite simply, I love to do them.

In my early days of ministry I stumbled upon the joy of baking bread. Or preparing dinner for my family. Or late morning breakfast crepes on vacation. Sometime earlier, the concealed joy of scrubbing the floor on my knees was revealed, too. There was a finitude to these acts, a clear beginning and ending, to say nothing of the contentment felt after the floor wax had dried or the butter spread on fresh whole wheat bread. That was an early clue: most of my life has been spent in my head - or in the realm of delayed gratification among broken people like myself - where the seeds planted may not bear fruit in my lifetime. To nourish balance, therefore, I needed to create something that I could touch, taste, smell or experience in the moment. It is well and good to trust St. Paul's aphorism, "now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face," but my flesh, blood, heart, soul and strength required that the Word become flesh from time to time. To up-end the words of Jesus: we may not live by bread alone - but damn if it doesn't help.

So let me be clear: there is authentic joy and value for me in the process of being creative, and, in the production of something clean, beautiful, tasty or fun. Period. The very creation and enjoyment is prayer for me without ever once mentioning the name of the Lord. Yes, like Kathleen Norris observed, there are activities in the home that foster contemplation. "The ordinary activities I find most compatible with contemplation are walking, baking bread, and doing laundry," she writes in The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women's Work. But unlike Brother Lawrence, who urges that all of our work be a conscious act of doxology, I am rarely aware of the Lord when I am getting mud off the kitchen floor.

And maybe that's the point. In such moments I am not trying to do anything except be fully present - and that in itself is doxology. Robert Browning put it better than all the theologians: "If thou tastet a crust of bread, thou tastet all the stars and all the heavens."

Fifteen years ago, Dianne and I spent three days wandering around the Isle of Iona. I attended prayer and Eucharist regularly. It is a land we both hope to return to before this race is over, but who knows if that can happen? I took home with me a book that has grown in significance: Joy Mead's The One Loaf - An Everyday Celebration. She, too, expresses the unity of women at the altar and women at the kitchen table.

My thinking has been particularly about the kitchen as a field of nurturing (making the connection between women at the altar and women at the kitchen table) and the way we experience bread in all its moments: growing, making, breaking, sharing. In bread we see the true connectedness of all life - the uniting of body and soul, spirit and material. Bread is central: right there in the middle of the Lord's Prayer we say, "Give us this day our daily bread." It is central to the Eucharist... for without food life is impossible, so eating becomes sacred. Take and eat means take and live. To share food is to share your life.

What I cherish is the effortless integration I experience of spirit and flesh, taking and sharing, being in the moment fully and letting that shape me for eternity. Joy Mead opens her book with this poem:

Out of fire it comes
with bodily contours
satisfying to all senses:
a warm loaf; seed and grainy
soft and being-shaped,
its yeast smell, homely
and heavenly,
of fungus and damp autumn
woodlands... and the sun's warmth.

All life is here:
ordinary, good and beautiful:
growing things an cow dung,
woody roots and seeds,
bodies of creatures
long dead in the soil;
all in this given
bread of our beginnings;
all in our breaking
and sharing
our one loaf.

In his attempt at explaining the heart of spirituality to a secular author, Henri Nouwen organized his words in Life of the Beloved according to the arch of a Eucharistic prayer saying: our lives find meaning when we live as people who give ourselves to the Sacred to be taken, blessed, broken and given. In this, Brother Lawrence, is spot on: “Whatever you do repeatedly has the power to shape you, has the power to make you over into a different person— even if you’re not totally engaged’ in every minute!”

Et maintenant son temps pour obtenir sur le nettoyage de la maison!

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful! I think this is why I enjoy mission trips so much. Working on houses, actively building and creating and fixing and doing things with my hands and feet and arms feels so...REAL after all the heady and emotionally centered stuff we usually do.