The Spiritual Discipline of Washing Dishes

I was making breakfast when I noticed that the kitchen sink was clogged up.  How in the world did that happen overnight?!  I could see my vision oan orderly day going “down the drain.” I turned the garbage disposal on and off. It was still clogged. I went about my business for a few minutes and tried it again.  I stuck my hand down the disposal, looking for errant chunks of something. Nothing worked. I told my husband about the sink. He told me to do what I had already done (as usual).  So I did. Nothing happened. After breakfast I piled the dishes by the sink (still clogged) on top of some others from evening before.

Then I e-mailed the apartment manager and asked her to send Lonnie, our very wonderful maintenance guy.  I waited rather patiently, I thought.  Lonnie drove past our building two or three times in his all-purpose golf cart, but he didn’t stop at our door.  Finally, it was lunch time; I dirtied a few more dishes.  At about 3:00 in the afternoon, I walked past the sink and thought, “There must be a way to solve this.”  I decided to go “old school.”  I got a large bowl out and poured dish soap in and washed several dishes.  I carted them to the bathroom and awkwardly rinsed them in the sink. I brought the bowl back to the kitchen, dried those dishes, put them away, and put more in to soak.  I did this three times.

Somewhere along the way, I thought of a spiritual practice, suggested by James Finley, a core faculty member at the Center for Contemplation and Action. It had been hi-lighted in a recent Richard Rohr Daily Meditation. Finley proposed that “meditation and the performance of daily tasks might gradually flow together in an habitual state of present moment attentiveness.”  His suggestion:  wash dirty dishes mindfully.

“Begin by first sitting in meditation for about twenty to thirty minutes. Then slowly stand, and walk in a slow mindful manner to the kitchen sink full of dirty dishes. Stand at the sink, mindfully gazing for a moment at the dishes. Slowly and mindfully put soap in the sink. Fill the sink with hot water, attentive to the simple givenness of the sound of running water. Wash, rinse, and place each item in the drainer with mindfulness.

When the dishes are finished, pull the plug, listen to and watch the water going down the drain. Rinse out the sink with mindfulness. Dry each item and put it in its proper place with natural and deliberate mindfulness. Wipe off the counter tops with mindfulness.”

Of course, I didn’t start the job with mindfulness, although I was much calmer than I sometimes am when my plans are interrupted. But as soon as I thought of dirty dishes as a spiritual exercise, I did as Finley suggested.

I didn’t do the twenty minutes of meditation after the dishes were done, as Finley prescribed, because as soon as I had wiped off the counter tops, the doorbell rang. It was Lonnie, with a short “sink plunger,” which when applied forcefully, did the trick immediately. A bit embarrassed about asking him to climb the stairs to our second-floor apartment with all his tools to do a twenty-second job, I told him I would buy a sink plunger. He said, “Oh, no, don’t do that. I like these easy little jobs!”   

Here is some of what I learned that day:

♥  It is very difficult to live every moment as a sacred moment.  This is not a new insight for me, but it is one that requires  continual practice – especially when living with the reality of incurable cancer. 

♥ Lonnie is a mindful person – at least on the job. His attitude always seems to be that your particular problem is the most important one of the day. And since he is a “jack-of-all-trades,” he loves to do whatever turns up – and teach you something along the way. Sounds a bit like Jesus, I thought; I would like to be more like Lonnie.

♥I don’t want to anthropomorphize God, but I couldn’t help but think that God was chuckling as he watched help come just after I figured out a way to take care of the dishes myself. Maybe sometimes before we plead for help, we should see what we can do about taking care of things on our own, because God is in it all in some way or other. Of course, I still needed to have the sink unclogged, so maybe the lesson is that if we take the first step, God provides the help we need.  It certainly is true (as Finley who is channeling Brother Lawrence suggests) that “surrendering to the present moment” makes any task or attitude better.

♥ Having the right tool for the job is important, in spiritual life (meditating about dirty dishes instead of getting all riled up) as in real life (having a plunger on hand).

At the end of Finley’s little article he asks the following:

What would it be like to open and close doors, take some boxes out of the garage, file papers, answer the phone, not as rude interruptions into a carefully sequestered-off contemplative life, but, to the contrary, as living embodiments of the hands-on divinity of daily living?

What  would it be like?  If you try one of these, let me know and we’ll compare notes. 

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