I soap and pray: How doing the dishes can inspire prayer
Wash your own dishes and see the spiritual insights that bubble up.
Opportunities for spiritual growth—even contemplation—can occur almost anywhere, at any time. St. Ignatius of Loyola speaks about finding God in all things. The 17th-century spiritual writer Brother Lawrence found the “presence of God” even as he ordered provisions for his monastery. I was surprised to find such an opportunity in the simple task of washing dishes. For me, doing the nightly dishes, like praying the liturgy of the hours or spiritual reading, has become—in Ignatius’ words—a spiritual exercise, a spiritual practice.
During the 22 years we’ve lived in our current home, we have thought of buying a dishwasher but never have. Ever since our three daughters left home and married, I have been the chief dishwasher for the nightly dinner dishes. Of course, there are exceptions. At holidays, the girls and their husbands will offer to help. When I am out or have to leave for a meeting after dinner, my wife will gladly wash and dry the evening dishes. She also generally manages the breakfast and the lunch dishes, even when we are both at home.
But washing dinner dishes has been my task, it seems, for more years than I can count. And with every night, with every dish, I’m inclined to say that it has become more of an opportunity for spiritual growth.
I didn’t think that way at first. Things like impatience, haste, and other negative dispositions kept me from recognizing the opportunity. And once, a long while ago, I learned a lesson: impatience, selfishness, a dish towel tossed—then broken glass.
I’ve found the key is rhythm and a sense of purpose, if not fun. First I clear the table, stacking plates with silverware on top. The pots come last, along with other dirty or unwieldy things. With leftovers away and dishes piled, I fill the sink with hot and soapy water, letting steam and bubbles rise.
I have my favorite cleaning “tools”: a handled sponge, a brush, a teflon scraper, and a lowly cotton cloth. The rhythm of my washing leads me to a place of peace; a sense of labor fitted to an order that I’d call the “ordinary sublime.” As each dish, utensil, pot, or Tupperware is cleaned and placed to dry, I lapse into a state of peace and clean reflectiveness.
Like Martha’s in the gospel, mine is “lesser” work, but still I have the sense that I am praying, praising, as I work. As Martha must have heard, above the clatter of her bowls and plates, the words of Jesus speaking to his friends and Mary at the table—now cleared of food and dishes—so I listen for a word of insight in my work. And it is seldom that it does not come.
As plates come clean and silverware reflects the light, I glimpse a sense of order, almost blessedness in gleaming dishware. To hold a hand-tossed pot with care, to wipe each bowl or plate, is like a rosary bead or mantra in Tibetan prayer-bead prayers. On Sunday evening I may still be humming a liturgical song from the morning’s Mass. On other evenings I venture to say that sometimes “psalms and spiritual songs” (in Paul’s words) come to mind and tongue.
My hands, immersed in soapy water—clean despite the swirling particles and remnants of the meals our family has shared—feel wholesome, honest, supple to the task. I sometimes feel a loss when all the dishes, stacked and dripping, shine within the drainer.
Brother Lawrence wrote of how he practiced the “presence of God.” He spoke of being “united with God during ordinary activities” (The Practice of the Presence of God, Third Conversation). Dorothy Day referred to the “flavor of ordinariness” she found in him and in his writings. And as poet Denise Levertov addresses him in her poem, “Conversion of Brother Lawrence,” saying: “your way was not to exalt nor avoid / the Adamic legacy, you simply made it irrelevant.”
About the “presence of God,” Levertov says, “Where it shone, / there life was, and abundantly; it touched / your dullest task, and the task was easy.”
Brother Lawrence’s attitude was joyful and absorbed. Certainly, in my experience, something like that has touched that “dullest task” of washing dishes and, as a result, “the task was easy.”
Even if it is only breakfast or midday dishes that you do by hand, consider it an occasion, an opportunity. You need not pray a psalm—in any ordinary sense—in order to make Martha’s duty an occasion for a moment’s thoughtful dwelling. Recall the passage from the Gospel of Luke, “The kingdom is within you” (Luke 17:21).
That’s how it feels, sometimes, when I am doing dishes.
This article appeared in the January 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 1, pages 47-48).