Washing Up a Way to Heaven

For once we begin reading RB 48, On Daily Manual Labour, on Monday, the day when the working week begins for most people. The first line of this chapter, Otiositas inimica est animae, ‘Idleness is the enemy of the soul’, is much beloved of monastic cooks as they plonk yet another huge pan in front of the novice assigned to washing-up duties. Irony apart, it is a sentence worth pondering, as is the rest of the chapter.

Our society exalts the value of leisure. Until comparatively recently, the idea of earning enough to be able to retire early was widely seen as a positive goal. Advertisements exhorted us to ‘relax’ with this product or that (does that explain the ads for discount sofas one finds in every newspaper these days? Ed). The good life was seen, not in Platonic terms, but in terms of having as much as possible for as little effort as possible. Credit card companies had a great time and very few bothered about the mountain of debt we were piling up.

We know better now. We know that Mr Micawber was right, although we still wish he weren’t. I will probably be under siege for saying so, but protests against public sector cuts are a little unrealistic. Cutting the deficit isn’t just a mantra of the Coalition Government, it is essential and there is bound to be pain for all of us. I’m not suggesting that Benedict’s meditation on the value of work is a corrective to all the sloppy thinking we have indulged in, but I do think it says something we don’t hear often enough. What we do has spiritual value. It has value whether the world thinks it important or not. Knowing that won’t lessen the grease on the pan, but it does make cleaning it, potentially at least, a noble and gracious act. What price washing-up as a way to heaven?


12 thoughts on “Washing Up a Way to Heaven”

  1. I so agree, as I would think most women would. Housework doesn’t end when we retire and an approach to life which sees work as a proper part of it, in balance with leisure, not in opposition to it, is very much needed, I think.

  2. Yes, the ‘good life’ is of this world.
    I cannot talk of the recent demonstrations in the UK. From afar the cuts do sound bleak and generally the poor pay more for the errors of the rich than the rich do (at least it’s the case in the US).
    I do agree with work having a spiritual value. In fact, the Desert Fathers & Mothers said that the mixture of prayer and work led to salvation (I believe your Founder did as well).
    When I work with my hands around the house or the garden, I like to remember that work is sacred, that God is at the tip of my broom or pen (Teilhard de Chardin wrote something about it).
    Most of all when fear harasses me, my hands at work save me. And for this, I feel infinitely grateful to them to help me pray my fears away as I scrub a floor or clean a cupboard 🙂

  3. Doing your duties ‘mindfully’, I seem to remember from a recent blog, has helped me this Lent. Washing up then as a way to heaven seems in reach of us all. I like it.

  4. For one who prefers being Mary over Martha too much, today’s post on the spiritual value of manual labour is gratefully received. Her very salvation may be effected in learning the path of “washing-up as a way to heaven.” Not to mention one’s husband’s delight in his wife’s new found spiritual practice. (wink)

  5. Not to disagree but to balance the positive representations of work above and in Benedict’s Rule, I would like to quote Joseph Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS on work.

    “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the water-way ran on, deserted, into the gloom of over-shadowed distances. On silvery sand-banks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once — somewhere — far away — in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare for yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect. I got used to it afterwards; I did not see it any more; I had no time. I had to keep guessing at the channel; I had to discern, mostly by inspiration, the signs of hidden banks; I watched for sunken stones; I was learning to clap my teeth smartly before my heart flew out, when I shaved by a fluke some infernal sly old snag that would have ripped the life out of the tin-pot steamboat and drowned all the pilgrims; I had to keep a lookout for the signs of dead wood we could cut up in the night for next day’s steaming. When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality — the reality, I tell you — fades. The inner truth is hidden — luckily, luckily. But I felt it all the same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for — what is it? half-a-crown a tumble — ”
    I know I use work in the above way sometimes — both to evade the sacred and the darkness inside me.

  6. Here in the US I find the temptation is to evade leisure and glorify work. Taking sabbath time is difficult for most people I know, and they often can turn even vacation time into some kind of work–tackling home repairs, having a pile of books to “get through,” etc. Many choose overtime hours at work partly because leisure, like silence, leads to inner encounters we are not ready to embrace. If washing up is a way to heaven (and I believe that it is), so too is looking out the window.

  7. I found this entry extremely interesting. I have recently horrified myself by acknowledging the enormous value I put on being able to spend time doing ‘nothing’.

    I knew I treasured this time like a miser but it wasn’t until I recently took (back) up some craft activities and linked my experience of doing so to some relevant sections in favourite books (depicting times past) where industry was the order of the day and even your leisure time was spent doing something that I realised how often and for how long I actually PURPOSELY waste time.

    It was really somewhat sickening. It’s time I’ll never get back or be able to recycle to some more useful purpose.

    I have to admit that for me it is largely linked to being in a job I do not enjoy – I therefore begrudge the time I have to spend there which makes me even more determined to be mistress of my time outside work and not do anything at all if I don’t want to.

    I have made myself realise just how many different things I can actually achieve by being industrious outside work.

    (And the work situation is resolving itself: I am unemployed as of this coming Friday due to redundancy. Onwards!!!)

    On a related note, I am quite fascinated by the concept of ‘leisure’ time within a convent or monastery, particularly a cloistered / enclosed one. I think of how many of the means I use to entertain myself or relax during such times are not available to the members of such communities and wonder how they ‘relax’.

    I remember watching the DVD ‘No Greater Love’ about the Carmelite nuns in Notting Hill and being fascinated by their recreation time, spent chatting and knitting/sewing at the same time; as well as one of the nuns talking about how she enjoys reading books about explorers from their library but quite often she’ll be tired from her day’s work so might not feel up to doing some reading – when she said this I felt all sad for a moment, thinking she has so little ‘time to herself’ and then is sometimes too tired to really enjoy it but then I realised she doesn’t necessarily view this the same way I would.

    Sister, I would be very interested to hear a view on recreation / leisure / personal time from inside the cloister!

  8. Thank you for sharing these insights. It is as easy to misuse work as it is leisure. Overwork is a sin, although we don’t often think about it in those terms, and it is certainly true that in monastic life we ‘waste’ time in prayer and in enjoying God’s creation. In the end, it comes down to a question of balance, of right order, of being alert to God in the present moment, seeking him wherever we happen to be.

  9. As a male whose wife is ill in hospital, I have found tackling the darning very relaxing. St Benedict teaches us that God is in the pots and pans. I would add any of our duties that form part of the ‘labora’, which for me includes the hospital visiting.

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