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.

 

WEEKLY PRAYER: St. Teresa of Avila

This week’s prayer is more of a meditation or a loving admonition. It comes from St. Teresa of Ávila (1515 – 1582), Carmelite nun and mystic, whose Feast Day is today (October 15).

 

Teresa of Avila

*****

Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing upset you.
Everything changes.
God alone is unchanging.
With patience all things are possible.
Whoever has God lacks nothing.
God alone is enough.

(Source)

 

WEEKLY PRAYER

A prayer before writing or studying from St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274):

*****

Ineffable Creator,
Who, from the treasures of Your wisdom,
have established three hierarchies of angels,
have arrayed them in marvelous order
above the fiery heavens
and have marshaled the regions
of the universe with such artful skill,

You are proclaimed
the true font of light and wisdom,
and the primal origin
raised high above all things.

Pour forth a ray of Your brightness
into the darkened places of my mind;
disperse from my soul
the twofold darkness
into which I was born:
sin and ignorance.

(Source)

 

WEEKLY PRAYER

Today’s prayer is adapted from a passage in Walter Hilton’s spiritual treatise, The Scale of Perfection. Hilton (ca. 1340 – 1396) was an English Augustinian canon and mystic. Hilton is not a saint, but the Episcopal Church (USA) honors him this week, on September 28.

*****

Lord, thou art in me and shalt never be lost out of me,
but I am not near thee till I have found thee.
Nowhere need I run to seek thee,
but within me where already thou art.
Thou art the treasure hidden within me:
draw me therefore to thee that I may find thee
and serve and possess thee forever.

(Source)

WEEKLY PRAYER

A prayer from St. Gertrude the Great (1256 – ca. 1302), a German Benedictine nun, mystic, and theologian:

*****

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God,
Help me—
in every need,
with all my heart
and a thirsty soul—
to reach for You,
and in You who are sweet and happy
may I find my rest.

With my whole spirit and self,
let me desire You,
for You’re the only One who holds true happiness.
In Your priceless blood, Lord of mercy, write
Your wounds in my heart.
Help me read there both Your pain and love.
May the memory of Your wounds
forever remain in my heart’s secret places,
kindling compassion in me.

Help me focus solely on You,
who are the sweetness of my heart.

(Source)

WEEKLY PRAYER

The Contemplative Writer is back with weekly prayer each Tuesday. These prayers are drawn from the annals of church history–contemplatives, mystics, and other women and men of faith who enrich us with their conversations with God.

When I pray one of these prayers, I feel part of the great cloud of witnesses that makes up the church eternal. This year, I’ve made an effort to coordinate our weekly prayers with the major Feast Days of the year. I hope you’ll join us each Tuesday.

All-Saints

This week’s prayer comes to us from St. Gregory the Great (ca. 540 – 604), Pope, Doctor of the Church, and Church Father. St. Gregory’s Feast Day is today (September 3).

*****

O Good Jesu, Word of the Father and brightness of his glory, whom angels desire to behold: teach me to do thy will that, guided by thy spirit, I may come to that blessed city of everlasting day, where are all one in heart and mind, where there is safety and eternal peace, happiness and delight, where thou livest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

(Source)

BOOK OF THE MONTH: THE PRACTICE OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD


Week One: Practicing the Presence
Presence of God cover

This month I wanted to return to a book I’ve always liked – The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. Brother Lawrence (c. 1611 – 1691) was a lay brother in a monastery of the Discalced Carmelites in Paris.

Brother Lawrence is well known for what he calls “practicing the presence of God.” He speaks of this practice as “a quiet, continual conversation with God” and also as “the habitual sense of God’s presence” — a habit of allowing yourself to be always with God.

Brother Lawrence says that, to draw close to God, we don’t need anything but this habit of continually conversing with him. We don’t need lots of complex practices or prayers. In fact, Brother Lawrence admitted in a letter that he had given up all spiritual practices except the ones specifically required by his office. He writes:

People seek for methods of learning to love God. They hope to arrive at it by I know not how many different practices; they take much trouble to remain in the presence of God in a quantity of ways. Is it not much shorter and more direct to do everything for the love of God, to make use of all the labors of one’s state of life to show Him that love, and to maintain His presence within us by this communion of our hearts with His? There is no finesse about it; one has only to do it generously and simply.

I’ll be honest. Brother Lawrence’s method of being with God is so simple that it sometimes seems difficult. Perhaps we are trained to expect drawing near to God to be complicated, to be a method with many steps and a steep learning curve? Or to intellectualize our relationship with God? (Guilty.) But maybe it doesn’t always have to be this way.

In a letter giving advice about the spiritual growth of a mutual friend, Brother Lawrence describes the practice:

Let him think of [God] as often as he can, especially in the greatest dangers. A little lifting up of the heart suffices. A little remembrance of God, one act of inward worship . . . are prayers, which however short, are nevertheless very acceptable to God . . .

Let him then think of God the most he can. Let him accustom himself, by degrees, to this small but holy exercise.

***

The following quotation from a letter provides a good overview of how this practice might be worked out in everyday life:

[God] requires no great matters of us: a little remembrance of Him from time to time; a little adoration; sometimes to pray for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, and sometimes to return Him thanks for the favors He has given you, and still gives you, in the midst of your troubles, and to console yourself with Him the oftenest you can. Lift up your heart to Him, sometimes even at your meals, and when you are in company; the least little remembrance will always be acceptable to Him. You need not cry very loud; He is nearer to us than we are aware of.

***

More quotes for us to ponder:

I cannot imagine how religious persons can live satisfied without the practice of the presence of God. For my part, I keep myself retired with Him in the fund or center of my soul as much as I can; and while I am so with Him I fear nothing, but the least turning from Him is insupportable.

***

In order to know God, we must often think of Him; and when we come to love Him, we shall also think of Him often, for our heart will be with our treasure.

***

There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful than that of a continual conversation with God. Those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it; yet I do not advise you to do it from that motive. It is not pleasure which we ought to seek in this exercise; but let us do it from a principle of love, and because god would have us.

***

The Practice of the Presence of God consists of the letters of Brother Lawrence, some of his Maxims, and four conversations with him as recorded by a contemporary, Abbe de Beaufort. You can read them here (other editions are widely available).

***

For Reflection

Brother Lawrence week 1

THOMAS MERTON’S PRAYER FOR PENTECOST

Sunday, May 20 was the beginning of the season of Pentecost. Here is Thomas Merton’s prayer for the Vigil of Pentecost. It’s long but worth reading and praying in its entirety.

***

Today, Father, this blue sky lauds you. The delicate green and orange flowers of the tulip poplar tree praise you. The distant blue hills praise you together with the sweet-smelling air that is full of brilliant light. The bickering flycatchers praise you together with the lowing cattle and the quails that whistle over there. I too, Father, praise you, with all these my brothers, and they all give voice to my own heart and to my own silence. We are all one silence and a diversity of voices.

You have made us together, you have made us one and many, you have placed me here in the midst as witness, as awareness, and as joy. Here I am. In me the world is present and you are present. I am a link in the chain of light and of presence. You have made me a kind of centre, but a centre that is nowhere. And yet I am “here,” let us say I am “here” under these trees, not others.

For a long time I was in darkness and in sorrow, and I suppose my confusion was my own fault. No doubt my own will has been the root of my sorrow, and I regret it merciful father, but I do not regret it because this formula is acceptable as an official answer to all problems. I know I have sinned, but the sin is not to be found in any list. Perhaps I have looked to hard at all the lists to find out what my sin was and I did not know that it was precisely the sin of looking at all the lists when you were telling me that this was useless. My “sin” is not on the list, and is perhaps not even a sin. In any case I cannot know what it is, and doubtless there is nothing there anyway.

Whatever may have been my particular stupidity, the prayers of your friends and my own prayers have somehow been answered and I am here, in this solitude, before you, and I am glad because you see me here. For it here, I think, that you want to see me, and I am seen by you. My being here is a response you have asked of me, to something I have not clearly heard. But I have responded, and I am content: there is little to know about it at present.

Here you ask of me nothing else than to be content that I am your Child and your Friend. Which simply means to accept your friendship because it is your friendship and your Fatherhood because I am your son. This friendship is Son-ship and is Spirit. You have called me here to be repeatedly born in the Spirit as your son. Repeatedly born in light, in knowledge, in unknowing, in faith, in awareness, in gratitude, in poverty, in presence and in praise.

If I have any choice to make, it is to live here and perhaps die here. But in any case it is not the living or the dying that matter, but speaking your name with confidence in this light, in this unvisited place: to speak your name of “Father” just by being here as “son” in the Spirit and the Light which you have given , and which are no unearthly light but simply this plain June day, with its shining fields, its tulip trees, the pines, the woods, the clouds and the flowers everywhere.

To be here with the silence of Sonship in my heart is to be a centre in which all things converge upon you. That is surely enough for the time being.

Therefore Father, I beg you to keep me in this silence so that I may learn from it the word of your peace and the word of your mercy and the word of your gentleness to the world: and that through me perhaps your word of peace may make itself heard where it has not been possible for anyone to hear it for a long time.

To study truth here and learn here to suffer for truth.

The Light itself, and the contentment and the Spirit, these are enough.

Source

WEEKLY PRAYER

A prayer from John Wesley (1703-1791):

O Lord, take full possession of my heart, raise there your throne,
and command there as you do in heaven.
Being created by you, let me live for you;
being created for you, let me always act for your glory;
being redeemed by you, let me give to you what is yours;
and let my spirit cling to you alone, for your name’s sake.

Source

WEEKLY PRAYER: JULIAN OF NORWICH

The English mystic Julian of Norwich (1342 – c. 1416) is remembered on May 8 (in the Anglican, Episcopalian, and Lutheran churches). This week, let’s pray one of her beautiful prayers:

In you, Father all-mighty, we have our preservation and our bliss.
In you, Christ, we have our restoring and our saving.
You are our mother, brother, and Saviour.
In you, our Lord the Holy Spirit, is marvellous and plenteous grace.
You are our clothing; for love you wrap us and embrace us.
You are our maker, our lover, our keeper.
Teach us to believe that by your grace all shall be well, and all shall be well,
and all manner of things shall be well. Amen

Source