Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Finding God in the Dishes

As I do more spiritual direction with people I usually talk to them about how they find God in their prayer life, in Scripture, in worship, in nature and other ways. I don’t think I have ever asked how they find God in the dishes, but I think I might start.

A contemporary Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn once asked someone who was visiting his monastery and had volunteered to help wash the dishes: “do you want to wash dishes to wash dishes or do you want to wash dishes to have clean dishes?” He meant do you see washing dishes as a means to an end or are you willing to simply be present in whatever you are doing whether washing dishes or going to prayer.

Benedict doesn’t ask that question but I think his attitude is similar. For Benedict every aspect of life is about God, every aspect of life reflects how we are journeying toward God. Everyday tools are to be treated as “vessels of the altar.” There is an elaborate ceremony to acknowledge the monks who will be the kitchen helpers of the week and it echoes the liturgy for welcoming new members. In Benedict’s monastery the most mundane tasks are as important on the spiritual journey as the daily hours of prayer.

Benedict spends a lot of time explaining how the daily tasks and chores of everyday life should work. There are chapters on how much food and wine to have at meals. The clothing and bedding for monks has a place in his Rule. There are lots of “non-spiritual” details that people tend to skip when they read the Rule. But the reality is that these chapters are just as important as the ones that explicitly talk about God.

At first glance many of the provisions of Benedict’s Rule don’t seem to have any immediate bearing on our faith life. What difference does it make what kind of food we have or why does Benedict feel he has to make provision for how many clothes the monk should have or what kind of bedding they are to be given? As modern people we usually skip these parts of the Rule and see them as anachronistic. But perhaps some of the most “non-spiritual,” concrete provisions of the Rule contain some of the most profound wisdom.

Benedict knows that in the spiritual life it is often the most ordinary things that trip us up. We say we want to live a life focused on God but then we get so consumed by the everyday details of life that God is quickly relegated to the occasional special time or place. Perhaps this is why Benedict knows that details matter. He tries to set up an ordered way of life so that all the basics are taken care of and handled in such a way that people can indeed see God in everything.

Everyone, monks and married people, people in the 6th century or the 21st, need to have enough food, enough clothing, a realistic schedule, meaningful work, specified times for prayer, common expectations and consequences for breaking rules, in order to be able to see God in everything. Benedict wants to set up a way of life in which there will be no excuses for not being aware of God. If the monks basic needs are taken care of, if the monk knows that he or she is living a life of security, then there will be the time, the space and the energy to focus on the real work of life, coming to know God ever more deeply and coming to be remade in God’s likeness.

So what does this have to say to us today, to those who live outside monasteries or even those of us who live preoccupied lives inside monasteries? Perhaps it is simply a call to mindfulness, to be aware that we do indeed have space and time for God. Do we have to be preoccupied about the necessities of life? For most of us living in middle-class comfort in an industrialized country the answer is yes. Most of us have enough food, clothing, access to medical care. Most of us already have the life Benedict wanted for his monks, one in which we do not have to be preoccupied with getting the necessities of life.

Most of us are fortunate that we do not have to wash dishes while preoccupied with hunger. Most of us live lives that have achieved Benedict’s ideal of a life with the time and space for God. Now the question is our attitude. How do you wash the dishes? Is it to have clean dishes or to be aware of the presence and gifts of God in the moment? So, how do you wash dishes? How is washing dishes a reflection of your life with God?

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