For The Someday Book

The Spirituality of Housework

Posted on: November 28, 2011

I’ll freely admit it. I am a terrible housekeeper. When people ask me, “how do you do it all?” I tell them the answer: “I don’t clean my house.” There are almost always dirty dishes in the sink, dust on the shelves, laundry piled up and a kitchen floor in need of mopping. It would not be unfair to call me a slob.

In my mind, there have always been so many more interesting and important things than cleaning house. With the limited time in my life, maintaining a clean living space seemed to pale in comparison to the opportunity to go to the zoo, watch a movie, go out with friends, or engage in conversation with my family. Why fold clothes when you can probe the questions of the universe with a good book? What’s more valuable: playing a game with my son or dusting the picture frames?

That’s the logic I followed for the last 20 years or more (probably more, if you ask my mother). “Cleanliness is next to godliness” had no place in my theology.

Much to my surprise, I have begun to discover a deep spiritual practice in housecleaning. Doing housework is the simple act of service, and a way of bringing order out of chaos. It grounds me in my humanity, in my body, and in the earth. It connects me to the rest of humanity, all of whom must attend to the daily tasks of keeping order amid the flurry of life. Housework is humbling, and it reminds me that I am just one person among six billion, not God.

Recently, I attended at three deaths in one day, including two unrelated deaths in the same family. It was holy, powerful and emotionally exhausting. When I returned home for a brief hour in the afternoon, I desperately needed to be reminded of the things of life, to restore my sense of balance in the midst of such grief. I had been in prayer all day, and had no more words. Even the silence felt overwhelming. I was too exhausted to talk through the day with my spouse. I couldn’t compartmentalize the emotions enough to enjoy playing outside with my son. What did I do? I washed the dishes and folded laundry. It was the most healing thing I could have done.

Simply attending to those necessary tasks for my family reminded me that life goes on. The act enabled me to separate from the grief of the families I had sat with throughout the day, and return me to my own living family. In a day of such brokenness and messiness, I found a way to bring some order and peace. I remembered that God would take care of the dying and the grieving, but I had to make sure that my son had clean underwear. Rather than a chore, attending to the housework grounded me in God’s love for me and my family and their mundane concerns—not just the urgent needs of others pulling us in a thousand directions. It was an act of spiritual self-care.

Yesterday in church, we sang “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” for the first Sunday of Advent. I heard this verse in a new way:

O come, O Wisdom from on high,
and order all things far and nigh.
To us the path of knowledge show,
and help us in that way to go.

How often do we long for order in the midst of the chaos? From the opening chapter of Genesis, we learn that ordering chaos is the work of God. In that pleading hymn of Advent, we ask for God’s wisdom to come and straighten us up, to take this mess of a world and somehow put it right again. We beg for Wisdom to show us the path, so that we can follow God and help in the work of making meaning out of madness.

The practice of keeping house is a way of bringing order out of chaos. Like prayer and other spiritual disciplines, it is a practice—something that you must do over and over again, sometimes with no effect and sometimes with transcendence. Slowly, I am coming around to see housework as more than drudgery, and perhaps even as a path to God.  Instead of competing with one another for my time and attention, the work of keeping order in the house has become a part of keeping order in my soul.

My house is still a mess most of the time, but then again so is my soul. I doubt I’ll get either one of them in order anytime soon. But maybe, just maybe, working toward cleanliness can be working toward godliness.

4 Responses to "The Spirituality of Housework"

Love this. I trust you have read An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor? If not, make haste to get it.

Yep. Read it, reviewed it, and had it on my mind when I wrote this post.

This was really lovely. I’ll try to keep your words in mind as I tackle my chores, which with Atticus around, seem to be never-ending. I recently heard it said that cleaning your house when you have small kids is like brushing your teeth between bites of oreo…but finding the joy in it can make all the difference.

[…] their Jewish origin and not a presumptuous attempt to imitate Judaism. I wrote recently about the spirituality of housework, which works for me in the same way as the practices Winner describes and reminds me of the Shabbat […]

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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