Prayer & Cleaning


I wrote yesterday about how I’m committed to cleaning my house this summer.  On making this goal I picked up a little book long ago recommended to me by my dear friend Abby, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work, by Kathleen Norris.  It’s short, easy to read, and full of little gems.  Norris makes the point that just as healthy marriages involve daily repetitive gestures like a “peck on the cheek” between spouses and a healthy home requires regular cleaning, a healthy relationship with God requires daily repetitive actions.

I wonder if we might substitute that “peck on the cheek” for some of the prayers that a religious community recites daily: the Doxology, the Lord’s Prayer, the Benedictus at lauds and the Magnificat at vespers.  No human being can pay full attention to the words that he or she is praying every single day, and apparently this is how God would have it.

I remember talking with a Protestant friend of mine about the rosary when I was close to joining the Catholic church.  She said she would never want to pray the Lord’s Prayer repetitively because that would rob it of its meaning.  Better to pray it once in a while with great feeling than over and over with your mind wandering.  Comparing the Our Father to that daily “I love you” said quickly to one’s spouse in the morning on the way out the door or before drifting off to sleep at night, I tend more to Norris’s view.  Better to say that “I love you” or that “Our Father” habitually than not at all.  Like time with your kids, quantity breeds quality.  Occasionally grace will break through and that “peck on the cheek” or daily prayer will feel more meaningful, but it’s normal for it not to be that way every day.

I find that a version of the view expressed by my friend hinders me in both prayer and housecleaning–I don’t believe I have the time or energy for prayer to be very heartfelt or the cleaning to be very thorough, so I just don’t bother.  For years, I’ve wanted to pray the rosary and morning and evening prayer daily, and clean my house weekly, but I don’t because I know I won’t do it perfectly.  Norris’s book challenged me to plug ahead with both anyway, and let grace do its work.

It is a paradox of human life that in worship, as in human love, it is in the routine and the everyday that we find the possibilities for the greatest transformation.  Both worship and housework often seem perfunctory.  And both, by the grace of God, may be anything but.  At its Latin root, perfunctory means “to get through with,” and we can easily see how liturgy, laundry and what has traditionally been conceived of as “women’s work” can be done in that indifferent spirit.  But the joke is on us: what we think we are only “getting through” has the power to change us, just as we have the power to transform what seems meaningless–the endless repetitions of a litany or the motions of vacuuming a floor.

Combining prayer and housework is also a good idea.

What we dread as mindless activity can free us, mind and heart, for the workings of the Holy Spirit, and repetitive motions are conducive to devotions such as the Jesus Prayer or the rosary.  Anything fair game for prayer, anything or anyone who pops into the mind can be included.

And here’s one more quote from Norris that I can relate to.  Norris is quoting a book about one of my favorite writers ever, Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement:

“Lacking the monastic regimen, Day had to steal the early morning hours for her spiritual exercises.  She did this almost daily, year in and year out.”…Day herself said about her practice: “My strength…returns to me with my cup of coffee and the reading of the psalms.”