When Jesus Did the Dishes

Last week I wrote about dishwashing as a spiritual discipline. By channeling the wisdom of a Buddhist monk and a medieval master, we can “wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.” We introduce tenderness into a chore that usually invites frustration.

Did you know that Jesus himself was said to have done the dishes?

We can thank the Middle Ages for this insight into the Savior’s life. In the fifteenth century, Jean Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris, wrote a narrative poem called the Josephina. This poem celebrates the life and faith of Jesus’ earthly father, St. Joseph. In the poem, we find all kinds of scenes about the daily life of the holy family, including the boyhood of Jesus. And this brings us to the dishes. Gerson writes:

Thus Christ was subject, as he was to you, Mary and Joseph,
What kind of subjection did he wish for himself?
Was he not showing obedience in your midst, as one who rightly serves?
Carefully and often he lights the fire and prepares the food;
He does the dishes and fetches water from a nearby fountain.
Now he sweeps the house, gives straw and water to the donkey.*

This tidbit about Jesus is, as you’ve doubtlessly realized, extra-Biblical. Gerson uses his imagination to bring to life the Bible’s brief statement that the boy Jesus was obedient to his parents (this was after Jesus was “lost” for three days in Jerusalem–see Luke 2:51).

Gerson’s poem represents the medieval imagination at its finest. Like Ludolph of Saxony’s Life of Christ (discussed in my previous post), it paints a picture of Jesus meant to delight us and to invite us into his daily life.

There’s some good theology behind this and related scenes. Jean Gerson says that there is no better way to soften hard hearts than to see God acting as a child. He wanted to help Christians delight in the boy Jesus and to affirm that God became human—a small human with parents, chores, and child-like faith. Gerson’s imagination is in service of the incarnation.

I think we could use a little more imagination in our faith today. We are so good at studying the Bible. We parse its meaning verse by verse and even word by word. We defend our beliefs with arguments and analysis. We listen to three-point sermons that tell us how to live.

But sometimes, this approach leaves me exhausted. I feel like I’m drowning in interpretation. I recently turned down an invitation to join a Bible study because, frankly, it seemed too labor intensive. It involved too much homework, too many workbooks, and too many lectures. I love God’s word, but sometimes, instead of study guides, I need to be guided to some lighter moments. I need to enjoy my faith and to delight in who Jesus was and is. “God laughs into our soul and our soul laughs back into God,” writes Richard Foster about experiencing delight in our Lord.

Gerson’s poem opens the door to a moment of delight, one I can experience even at the kitchen sink. Thanks to this medieval chancellor, I can no longer do the dishes without imagining the boy Jesus scrubbing away at the nearby fountain. I think of the incarnation, which is good. I remember that Jesus participated fully in the messiness of life.

But more than all that, I smile. I like thinking that God did the washing up, in more ways than one.

***

*Source: Brian Patrick McGuire, “When Jesus Did the Dishes: The Transformation of Late Medieval Spirituality” in The Making of Christian Communities in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, ed. Mark Williams (London: Anthem Press, 2005), pp. 131-152.

How to Wash the Dishes

In last week’s post, we explored what I call a kitchen sink spirituality. Can we find a worthwhile practice in the mundane task of washing the dishes? What can it teach us? We looked at three references to a spirituality of dishwashing.

There is a fourth reference I’d like to explore today.

dishesOn his website, author Jim Forest tells a story about his friend, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. One evening at a dinner party, Forest was annoyed at the pile of dishes he was stuck washing while everyone else was having a great conversation in the other room. Sensing his annoyance, Nhat Hanh told him, “You should wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” Forest was puzzled. Then his friend advised him to “wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”

I’m really drawn to Nhat Hanh’s response. When I first read it, I was immediately transported to the Middle Ages, my favorite time period. Nhat Hanh may have meant to impart advice on mindfulness, but he sounds just like a medieval devotional master.

In the late Middle Ages, many devotional texts invited their readers to experience the humanity of Jesus in a new and startling way. Their goal was to foster an experience of intimacy with the savior. The Life of Christ by Ludolph of Saxony (14th c.), for example, asks lay Christians to imagine holding and caring for the baby Jesus:

Kiss the beautiful little feet of the infant Jesus who lies in the manger and beg his mother to let you hold him a while.

And later:

[T]he holy Virgin, following the law that had been established, left the city of Bethlehem with Joseph and the infant Jesus to go to Jerusalem, five miles distant, to present Our Lord in the temple. You go, too, in their company, and help them carry the child.

I never fail to be moved by the tenderness of this invitation. Ludolph asks his readers not just to meditate on Jesus, not just to think about him or rehearse the events in his life. He invites every person to enter into Jesus’ life. This reverses the way we usually approach Jesus. Instead of asking our Lord to help us, we help care for him. We kiss and hold and carry his infant self. For a moment, we are his mother.

I’m fascinated by the way a contemporary Buddhist monk channels this text. I doubt that Nhat Hanh meant to get medieval on us, but he did–-and together with Ludolph of Saxony, his advice helps to transform a small part of our daily life. Hold the infant Jesus a while. Wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.

Doing the dishes can make me so angry. I’m tired at the end of the day. I see the piles of dirty plates, not all of which will fit into the dishwasher, and I simply don’t want to wash them. But how could I be angry washing the baby Jesus? How could I refuse an invitation to take him into my arms?

I need this kind of spirituality, one in which tenderness and imagination melt away my frustration. One in which Jesus becomes startlingly present in my life. What, after all, could be more startling than suddenly seeing Jesus in your kitchen sink? It’s the jolt needed to restart and soothe my troubled heart.

If henceforth my family sees me weeping at the sink after dinner, it will be because I hold not only dishes, but also the infant savior.

Dishwashing as a spiritual discipline? Surely so. One that I practice each day. One that brings me to Jesus. One that washes me of anger even as I wash the dishes clean.

 

Kitchen Sink Spirituality

Sink. Soap. Suds. Plates. Pots. Pans. And . . . prayer?

Washing the dishes isn’t included in the big books on spiritual disciplines—not in Richard Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline nor Adele Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, which describes a whopping 62 disciplines.

But maybe it should be.

DishesIn recent months I’ve come across no fewer than four references to people who have made doing the dishes into a discipline of sorts. Four! That can’t be a fluke. Is there something about dishwashing—other than its obvious need to be done—that recommends it to Christians today?

Let’s take a look at what people are saying about the dishes. Today we’ll explore three of the references I found. I’m saving the fourth (my favorite one) for next week.

Christine Berghoef gets poetic about dishwashing in a post at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation:

In the predictable rhythm of liquid warmth swirling through my washcloth as I swab away remnants of the day’s nourishment, the liltingly light splash of the faucet rinsing the suds, and the movement from rinse to dry rack, I am soothed. Unwound. Almost tranquilized. It forces me to pause, to ruminate over the events of the day, to be still.

In Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (IVP Books, 2013), Andy Crouch, describes the small discipline of doing the dishes as an exercise in humility. Tackling the crockery before he leaves for a speaking engagement, he says, helps him to limit “my own exercise of godlike freedom and significance” (pp. 241-242).

Finally, Tish Warren mentions dishwashing in her book, Liturgy of the Ordinary. The disciplines needed to sustain our spiritual life, Warren says, are often quiet, repetitive, and ordinary. This may be counter-intuitive, but it’s how growth occurs:

I often want to skip the boring, daily stuff to get to the thrill of an edgy faith. But it’s in the dailiness of the Christian faith—the making the bed, the doing the dishes, the praying for our enemies, the reading the Bible, the quiet, the small—that God’s transformation takes root and grows (35-36).

I love all three of these! Each brings to the fore a different spiritual benefit of doing the dishes:

  • being still
  • being humble
  • finding Jesus in the mundane

Given my natural approach to life, I need all of these benefits. I tend to get frustrated by daily chores. As I wrote in a previous post, I believe that I should be doing something more “exalted” with my time. And that means I need a good dose of humility. It also means that I need a reminder of Jesus’ presence. He is there, even (or maybe especially) in the mundane tasks of the day. These tasks show care for my family and slow me down enough to be present in the little moments of my life.

Which means that I may need fewer mountain-top experiences and more mountains of dishes. A kitchen sink spirituality.

What about you? Where do you need to see Jesus reaching into the mess of your daily life?

 

Long Night of Struggle: A Post via Prasanta Verma

Today’s post is by Prasanta Verma, a member of The Contemplative Writer team.

***

“It is clear we must embrace struggle. Every living thing conforms to it. Everything in nature grows and struggles in its own way, establishing its own identity, insisting on it at all cost, against all resistance. We can be sure of very little, but the need to court struggle is a surety that will not leave us.” – Rainer Marie Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet

No one can see the internal dialogue while I sit at my desk and gaze out the window or while I sit at a coffee shop, quietly sipping a cup of coffee, while others bustle about, my laptop on the table with an empty screen facing me.

“I have this deadline—and the article isn’t coming together.”
“How should I rearrange these particular paragraphs?”
“I’m too distracted.”
“This is digging up too much emotion.”
“Can I even do this? Why did I say yes?”
“Why didn’t they accept my submission?”
“What do I even write about?”

Based on what I have read from other writers, I believe I am not the only one who has said the above; I am sure you could add your own statements to the list.

For many of us, we are sure to encounter a season of struggle in our writing at one time or another. Maybe we even find ourselves in longer seasons of dry spells, struggling to put something of value and beauty onto the page.

Perhaps the struggle is against a deadline. Perhaps a struggle ensues in seeking the exact word or phrase, or the overarching purpose and length of a particular piece. Perhaps the struggle arises from within—a struggle with ourselves—of willpower or motivation or something else.

If struggle is inevitable, how can the writer “embrace struggle” as Rilke describes it? Must we?

I came across something recently that gave me some hope in those times of struggling and digging.

In Luke 5, Jesus was speaking to a crowd of people near the Sea of Galilee. He spotted two boats on the shore, climbed into Simon’s boat, and continued speaking to the crowd from the boat. After he finished speaking to the crowd, Jesus told Simon to go into the lake and do some fishing.

Trouble was, Simon had been fishing all night long, and had come up empty, and was even cleaning his nets. He says, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.” (Luke 5:5, NIV). He pretty much says, “Been there, done that, Jesus.”Furthermore, it is not just any place in the water that Jesus is asking Simon to fish: he tells him to fish in a deep part of the lake (Luke 5:4).

Jesus asks Simon to take the nets he’d just cleaned, and go out try again. I don’t know about you, but I’m usually tired after I’ve been out fishing all night! (I’m joking, of course; I have never been fishing all night.)

Presumably, experienced fishermen already know where the fish bite, when to fish, what parts of the lake are best, etc. I wonder if it felt somewhat insulting to be told where to fish and to go out again.

I can’t say I blame Simon. When Jesus, a carpenter and not a fisherman, tells them to go out again and drop their nets in the deep part of a lake, it must have sounded like a strange, fruitless, and unnecessary request.

Sometimes, writing (or service, or a job, or ministry, or some other activity requiring long-term diligent focus and attention) can feel like a long night of fishing with no catch. Maybe it can feel fruitless.

Yet, Simon and the others, already tired from the long night of fishing, do what Jesus asked: “But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” (Luke 5:5).

When they pulled up their nets, the nets were overflowing with such an abundance of fish they had to summon the other boat to come and assist them.

I do not know how long the particular obedience has been for each one of us. I do not know how many times we have dipped down our nets and come up empty-handed.

Rilke says, “embrace struggle”, and “everything in nature grows and struggles…establishing its own identity.” If the need for struggle is a “surety”, instead of fighting these seasons, viewing them as blockages, perhaps we are meant to embrace them. Perhaps the struggle is part of the formula needed to forge our own identity, the part that takes us to a deeper, truer level while also resulting in an astonishingly abundant net. Perhaps the growth occurs as we struggle; that one cannot occur without the other.

This little passage reminds me that no matter how many long nights have yielded nothing, that words and hope-filled stories are swimming and breathing underneath. A treasure is stirring in the deep, waiting for its time to surface. The next net pulled up may contain tender morsels of light and love for a reader who needs them.

***

Prasanta Verma is a writer, poet, and artist. Born under an Asian sun, raised in the Appalachian foothills, Prasanta currently lives in the Midwest, is a mom of three, and also coaches high school debate. You can find her on Twitter @ pathoftreasure, Instagram prasanta_v_writer, and at her website: https://pathoftreasure.wordpress.com/.

We All Wander – But Do We Return?

Perhaps it’s no wonder that I’m drawn to the medieval mystics. Having spent the better part of my life researching and studying, the mystics teach something I need to hear: we come to know and love God not through our intellect, but through our heart.

One of the most popular mystical texts was written by my favorite author — Anonymous. In the late 14th century, this man (probably an English monk) penned a guide to contemplative prayer called the Cloud of Unknowing.

These days, the Cloud of Unknowing is one of the main texts used in the practice of centering prayer. It has many techniques and words of wisdom. I’m especially drawn to the section in which the author talks about failing at prayer. Because we all do. Our monk says:

No sooner has a man turned toward God in love when through human frailty he finds himself distracted by the remembrance of some created thing or some daily care. But no matter. No harm is done; for such a person quickly returns to deep recollection.

I like this monk’s down-to-earth approach. When our mind wanders, we return to God. We don’t worry about it; we don’t dwell on it. We simply return. I find such grace in this message!

One of the most beautiful stories in Scripture, and one of the most familiar, is about returning to God. It’s the story of the Prodigal Son (reference). I love the way Rembrandt paints the moment of the wandering son’s return. The tender embrace between father and son captures, for me, the way God longs for each of his children to come home — no matter what we’ve done, no matter how far away we’ve gone.

Prodigan Son

We often think of the Prodigal Son as a parable about returning to God after a long time spent away. Might it also be about the way we return to God each day? I’ve come to see the Prodigal Son as a metaphor for my everyday prayer life. When I pray, I begin strong. I’m ready to take hold of the riches. Then, despite my best intentions, I begin to wander. Before I know it, my treacherous mind is far from the place it began — I end up, alongside the prodigal son, in a metaphorical pig sty of my own making. But God is always waiting, arms outspread, for me to return.

I hear the reassurance of God’s untiring welcome when I read the Cloud of Unknowing. I can return. We can all return to God.

It’s also nice to hear this assurance from people I know and trust. One day, after “failing” an exercise in contemplative prayer, I told a friend about my problem.

“I had to restart my prayer about thirty times,” I complained.

“Thirty times? That’s great! You actually thought about Jesus thirty times!” my friend exclaimed.

She sounded, in her own way, a lot like the Cloud of Unknowing. And I realized she was right. During my prayer exercise, I’d drifted away. There’s no question about it — I’m full of what our 14th-century monk calls “human frailty.” But when I wandered, I came back. And each time I did, Jesus was there. It’s reassuring to know that I may drift away, but he never will.

We all wander. But do we return? That is the real question.

What I Wish St. Augustine Had Said

When I read Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead several years ago, I was struck by something the character of John Ames proclaimss towards the end of the story: Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true.” (2004, pp. 245-46)

It certainly rang true to me. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea that God loves the whole world. Doesn’t he play favorites like the rest of us do? When I read that line in Gilead, I immediately took to the idea of being God’s only child. One of a kind. Special. Uniquely loved.

Historian that I am, I went to look up this quote in Augustine’s works. I was pretty sure it came from the Confessions. But try as I might, I couldn’t find it. As I searched, I came across the same loosely quoted phrase, with no citation, in a nonfiction book. And I’ve seen it other places on the web.

Finally, after consulting a friend who specializes in the early Christian tradition, I discovered what Augustine really said:

You are good and all-powerful, caring for each one of us as though the only one in your care.*

Here’s the context. Before his conversion to Christianity, Augustine’s mother, Monica, wept for his soul. God comforted Monica in a vision. Augustine writes:

How could this vision come to her unless ‘your ears were close to her heart?’ You are good and all-powerful, caring for each one of us as though the only one in your care, and yet for all as for each individual.

In this statement, Augustine paints a vivid picture of God’s overwhelming love. God rests his ear on Monica’s chest and listens to her heartbeat, her tears, her pain. In Monica’s moment of need, everything and everyone else fades from God’s view, and Monica becomes his only care and concern.

But Augustine did NOT say, “God loves each of us as an only child.” He does not explicitly cast God as a parent. Augustine might have been thinking about God as a father, but maybe not. Perhaps he was thinking of God as a pastor, a doctor, a mentor, or a teacher — someone who has another in his or her care.

I have to admit that I was disappointed. How I long to be told that I’m God’s only child! I yearn for the undivided attention of a beloved parent; to climb up on God’s knee and know that I am his only one. He’s not going to get distracted by the other children out there. He’s not going to run out of time or energy for me.

I’m not above acting like a child desperate for attention, either. “Look at me!” I cry out to God. “I bet those other kids can’t do a one-handed cartwheel!” Do you do that, too? (I mean the showing off, not the cartwheel.)

We look to the greats of the Church to tell us about our deepest longings. Augustine didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear, but he did teach me something about myself. My search for Augustine’s quotation, and my subsequent disappointment, reveals the state of my heart: a heart that longs to be someone’s one and only.

I know I’m not alone in feeling this way, since this passage from the Confessions has been misquoted (perhaps a better word is paraphrased) more than once, even by the likes of Marilynne Robinson! I think it points to one of the tensions of the Christian faith — we have a God who stretches his arms around the whole world yet loves each of us as the one perfect and beloved child he’s always longed for. It’s a tension I’ll wrestle with for a long time, since I’ll always be a child at heart.

*****

*Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 3.11.19, p. 50.

This post was originally published on my website, lisadeam.com.

How to Pray Through Interruptions

“The kingdom of self is heavily defended territory.” – Eugene Peterson

I usually think that whatever I’m doing is soooooo important. I have my schedule. I guard my time. I’ve made my plans. Woe to the person who decides to burst in on them!

I especially worry about being interrupted when I’m working — which means writing, thinking, dreaming. Writing is often how I pray. It’s when I sort through my ideas about God and praise him in the best way I know how.

Except when it’s not the best way.

In the mid fourteenth century, an Augustinian canon named Walter Hilton wrote a treatise addressed to a wealthy layman. The recipient of this treatise loved God and seemed to feel guilty that he was not a monk or a priest. Hilton’s response is wonderfully down to earth. Embrace the life you have, he says. And that means embrace interruptions.

A contemplative quality of life is fair and fruitful, and therefore it is appropriate to have it always in your desire. But you shall be in actual practice of the active life most of the time, for it is both necessary and expedient.

 

Therefore, if you are interrupted in your devotions by your children, employees, or even by any of your neighbors, whether for their need or simply because they have come to you sincerely and in good faith, do not be angry with them, or heavy handed, or worried — as if God would be angry with you that you have left him for some other thing — for this is inappropriate, and misunderstands God’s purposes.*

Hilton is believed to have lived as a hermit for a time, but he seems to know how things work for those leading the active life. He knows that the second you try to pray, your children need you. The moment you find some blessed peace and quiet, your neighbor comes around wanting you to take her to a doctor’s appointment. And on and on . . .

How often have I gotten angry about these kinds of interruptions? Or worse, how often have I told my children, “Just a minute — I’ll be right with you,” never taking my eyes from the computer screen?

In Hilton’s advice I find a gentle reproof. Do not be heavy handed, Hilton says. Don’t be so worried! And I find a spirituality of interruption. This spirituality assures me that I don’t leave my devotions when I take my children into my arms. This interruption is my devotion. I don’t leave my work when I assist someone. The neighbor who needs me is my work. This spirituality is, frankly, a challenge. It doesn’t come naturally.

I’ve seen other thoughtful people wrestling with this idea. A post by Ken Chitwood explores those moments when someone, perhaps someone unknown, is “thrust into our hectic schedule.” He calls these moments momentary vocations — they are God’s invitation to join him in caring for the world. They are our job for the next hour or the day. “Momentary vocation” is a lovely term for interruption, isn’t it? God puts these interruptions, er, vocations, right under our noses, if we’re not too busy building our kingdoms to notice them.

I’m coming to believe that God has written these interruptions into my schedule, as immovable and sacred as fixed-hour prayer. I imagine God adding them to my calendar when I’m not looking. “Won’t she be surprised!”

Yes, she usually is.

We all need times of sustained and focused prayer. But Hilton has helped me look at the problem of interruptions from a different angle. When people approach us in need, perhaps they are not interrupting our prayer or devotions — they are teaching us a different kind of prayer.

Be blessed in your momentary vocations today.

*****

*Toward a Perfect Love: The Spiritual Counsel of Walter Hilton, trans. David L. Jeffrey (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1985), p. 18.

This post was originally published on my website, lisadeam.com.