Thursday, September 9, 2010

Chores and Love

What do chores have to do with love? Unless we are talking about the occasional person who has a passion for cleaning or doing dishes the two don’t seem to naturally go together. But as is often the case Benedict in his Rule for monks understood that the most ordinary activities of everyday life have a profound significance.

In writing a chapter about kitchen servers he says that no one is to be excused from kitchen service except for a very good reason because “…such service increases reward and fosters love.” (RB 35:2) In a long chapter he explains at length how monks are to serve at meals. There is a ceremony at the beginning of the week to install the kitchen servers of the week and the ceremony echoes the way new members enter the monastery. In other words every week as they begin to take their turn serving meals the monks are reminded of why they entered the monastery, their commitment to seek God and serve one another in community life.

I have been thinking about this because last week a new chore list came out. Like every group of people living together we have to decide who does what chores to keep the place going. There are always dishes to do, rooms to clean, floors to sweep and a thousand other little tasks. Everyone except the most infirm has a job or usually several jobs to do. The chores are changed periodically as peoples schedules change, they move or simply can’t do the job any more.

Of course today or in Benedict’s time probably no one ever came to enter monastic life because they were drawn by the spiritual significance of being a kitchen server or a dish washer. Most of us came with lofty expectations of how we would find God through prayer and ministry. But if we stay here long enough we eventually realize the wisdom of Benedict. It isn’t hard to find God in the chapel and the daily prayer, but the real trick is to find God in the pots and pans, the vacuuming, the common work that makes up daily life.

We don’t have a ceremony anymore at the beginning of the week to designate who will be doing what service. Perhaps that’s too bad, it is easy to lose sight of the purpose of common work. Benedict was certainly worried that the soup would be served hot and on time but he was more worried that the monks realize that by mundane acts of service they were demonstrating their love for one another. The point wasn’t to hurry up and get through the chores, it was do the chores in a way that each monk was serving his brothers as Christ would.

In our chores we are given daily chances to get past ourselves and our sense of self-importance. It is hard to get carried away with yourself while sweeping a floor, re-stocking napkins or being up to your elbows in greasy pots. And that is the way it should be. Each of those things and many more are critical to creating a place where we can be about the spiritual life, where we can be about the work of transformation. Each of the little daily chores gives us a chance to demonstrate love and service in ways that are humble, unspectacular, but necessary. The chores are a way to help us realize that no matter what we may have thought, monastic life is not about great feats of asceticism or spiritual grandeur it is about love that is demonstrated every day in my small, unnoticed ways.

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