Need to clear your mind? Meet God at the kitchen sink
Instead of dreading dirty dishes, use them as a tool for meditation.
Scotch-taped to the windowsill above my kitchen sink is a newspaper clipping from the Criterion, my local Catholic paper. I’ve read it a thousand times, yet still somehow see it with fresh eyes. Several years ago Patti Lamb, my favorite columnist, wrote, “God meets us where we are, with only what we’ve got, and in his infinite grace he makes that enough.”
I don’t remember what the rest of her story was about that week. But since then I’ve stood in front of this sink for hours and washed countless dishes, contemplating these words so many times that they are written on my heart.
I don’t always come to the sink with prayer in mind. Many times I meet a stack of dirty dishes with worry, dread, or exhaustion. Usually I choose the mindless activity of washing dishes because everything else I need to do seems overwhelming and difficult.
Perhaps I’m procrastinating, but I know that clean dishes and an empty sink will bring me a satisfaction that the other, more overwhelming tasks won’t indulge. I also know that the memorized motion of my hands will give my mind time to wander, offering a makeshift meditation of sorts. When I focus on the words taped above my sink, I am drawn into a conversation with God and glimpse the faith that God has in me.
Faith is tricky for me. I often find myself both jealous and skeptical of those with blind faith. I have too many questions and find too many discrepancies. Sometimes I wonder where I would fall with God, but there is no hierarchy. The quote I keep above my sink reminds me: “God meets us where we are.”
Yes, here I am washing the dishes. They are pretty much never-ending in this house. This even details that God meets us “with only what we’ve got.” I’ve got an out-of-order dishwasher, so I’ll be here for a while. Then the passage reassures me: “In his infinite grace he makes that enough.” I am enough. My endless pile of dishes and broken dishwasher are enough. My successes are enough. My failures are enough. Faith, I have come to realize, is a two-way street. Just as we put faith in God, God also puts faith in us.
This quote is an important prayer device that I make time for while I wash the dishes. I analyze and agonize over many things with this quote in mind. It helps me realize that prayer is not always about asking God to change things or to make them easier. Instead, prayer is about asking God to ground us in our faith where we are, to help us recognize the tools we have, and to understand that no matter the outcome, God will make our life worthwhile just by being able to share it.
I have always been drawn to contemplative prayer as opposed to rote practices. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton guides me in this type of prayer endeavor. Merton’s views on the importance of contemplative prayer and meditation as a way to find God in everyday activities speak to me as a busy mother with few fringe hours to devote to prayer practice.
Standing at the sink with children at my feet doesn’t always offer the deepest meditative state, but it does lend itself to a few minutes to clear my mind with repetitive motions and the memorized words taped above my sink. Merton explains, “The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds.” Afterward, just as a fresh breeze blows through the window and over my tidy stack of clean dishes, a breath of fresh air seems to blow over my soul.
Merton lived in the Midwest but held worldly views. Perhaps that is what leads me and many others to find inspiration in his teachings and seek a more contemplative prayer life through silence, meditation, and intention. Merton’s words encourage us to find silence so that we are able to listen to God. Silence is hard to come by in my wild household, but I have found the importance of slipping into calm and practicing a “prayer of the heart” in front of the kitchen sink.
In his 1971 book Contemplative Prayer (Image), Merton explains, “By ‘prayer of the heart’ we seek God himself present in the depths of our being and meet him there by invoking the name of Jesus in faith, wonder and love.” Prayer is not just an ask and you shall receive endeavor. God wants us to ask and take the time to listen. Only then can we take action and receive answers as God intends. Often in this extra contemplation we realize what we need might not be what we want, but with God’s grace it will be enough.
Merton provides us with other prayer examples that speak to our humanness and are still relevant today. For example, one of his most famous prayers, known as the Merton Prayer, begins, “I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me.” These are common obstacles that I often struggle with and imagine many others do as well. By finding a few minutes of prayerful silence each day to immerse myself in these struggles with the words above my kitchen sink, I allow myself the opportunity to meet God as God meets me and listen to the answers God brings to the silence.
Ultimately I will never know where this life will lead me. I do know I will be back in front of the sink again tomorrow, scrubbing away. I don’t expect the dishwasher to be fixed or the stack of dirty dishes to shrink anytime soon. Washing dishes reminds me that life is still moving forward and that our family is still eating. We may create many dirty dishes as our children grow, but that is a sign they are well nourished, which is a blessing. I expect I will have plenty more time to pray and contemplate in front of the kitchen sink. I am glad to know that God will meet me there each time.
This article also appears in the April 2020 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 85, No. 4, pages 45-46). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.