Out of My Mind: Housecleaning as a Spiritual Discipline

It has been said that all men are pigs. While I can’t speak for all my gender, I know that this has been true of me. Neatness has never been my strongest point. Like other families in the 50’s and 60’s, I grew up in a home where mom stayed at home, cooked the dinner and cleaned the house. Granted, she generally didn’t get out of bed until noon, but I still remember her washing and waxing our kitchen floor on her hands and knees. Whenever she did this, you could be sure that someone would spill a glass of milk on it before the day was through. She sprinkled Ajax in the sink and Clorox on the counter top. But somehow our capacity to make a mess outpaced her ability to clean it up.

Keeping things neat was not one of my father’s strengths either. When he and my mother got engaged, my grandmother took her into my father’s messy bedroom to show her what she was getting herself into. Years later she confessed to me that she should have taken the warning more seriously. Our basement was so cluttered with junk, it became something of a legend in the neighborhood. Children lined up to peer into the windows.

Despite my family background, I’ve come to see house cleaning as a spiritual exercise. It is a good antidote to the megalomania that comes so naturally to me. Like Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch, I am prone to seek great things for myself. There is nothing like the discipline of scrubbing a dirty toilet to bring a person back to reality. As I move from room to room, my thoughts turn from myself to my wife and children. Perhaps that’s why the Rule of St. Benedict required all monks to perform kitchen duty. Every Sunday after morning prayers the servers were to gather and pray for one another. When one server finished his week of duty, he was to say, “Blessed are You, O Lord God, who did help me and console me.” After this, the monk who was just beginning his week of kitchen duty was to say, “O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me.”

Nicholas Herman, a 17th century Carmelite lay brother who took the name of Brother Lawrence and whose sayings are preserved in the classic entitled The Practice of the Presence of God, described his experience of serving in the kitchen in these words: “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess GOD in as great tranquillity as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.”

Like him, I have found the common work of house cleaning to be its own kind of sacrament. Not in the sense that it conveys spiritual merit or saving grace. But because it gives me a chance to take up the basin and the towel and serve those I love. And like Brother Lawrence, I often find that Christ meets me there, reminding me of the many times he has done the same for me.

Here is a link to a full text version of the Rule of Saint Benedict on Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=gjI3AAAAMAAJ&pg=PA3&dq=the+rule+of+saint+benedict&lr=&as_drrb_is=q&as_minm_is=0&as_miny_is=&as_maxm_is=0&as_maxy_is=&as_brr=1&cd=8#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Here is a link to a full text version of Practice of the Presence of God on Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=z3Xkcqo2pQUC&printsec=frontcover&dq=practice+of+the+presence+of+god&lr=&as_brr=1&cd=1#v=onepage&q&f=false.

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John Koessler

John Koessler serves as professor and chair of the pastoral studies department at Moody Bible Institute. His most recent book is The Radical Pursuit of Rest published by InterVarsity Press.

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