Mopping the floors, baking the bread. Changing the diapers, making the bed. Cleaning toilets, these things we dread.
We are told in Colossians that Christ is before all things and that in Him all things hold together, but it is difficult to believe that God could be a part of something as ordinary as cleaning toilets, as tedious as reading yet one more rendition of Good Night, Moon. It is difficult to understand how we could possibly involve Jesus in these dreary tasks. How in the world, how in the middle of this mundane world, could a holy Christ possibly relate to the filth of toilets?
As we go about our lives carrying out these everyday tasks that seem so draining of our energy, there seems to be something missing. From the moment we are old enough to be assigned household chores, we are taught how to make a sink shine and how to take out the garbage, but we are not taught how to involve Jesus in the assignments we are given. Rather than being taught how Jesus relates to toilets, in my childhood home chores were an automatic response to the summertime complaint of being bored. My brothers and I learned to never utter the B-word in front of our mother for fear of being given some job that would suck the joy out of our summer. Even as children we quickly discovered that there is no joy in the places of our day that do not include Christ, only wearying tasks and resentment over unacknowledged work.
As adults, when we doubt whether God pays attention to the menial details of our lives we only have to read the book of Leviticus. In Leviticus, God gives minute instructions to the Israelites concerning how to go about daily life, from how to care for articles of clothing to how to work in a vineyard. He tells them how to clean cooking pots that have come into contact with an insect and what to do when their tent gets moldy. He tells those who work the land not to harvest the fields too thoroughly but to leave a little for the poor. It turns out that He does indeed care about every moment; He cares about even our everyday routine. He cares so much about us that He wants to be present to us in everything we do.
He wants to be present to us; He is, in fact, present with us always, but we are often unaware of His presence. Even when we are unaware, He is there but not invited, close by (indeed, within us!) but unacknowledged. We think that Jesus has better things to do than to be involved with our own ordinary moments, more important things to accomplish such as restraining an outbreak of evil that would bring about disaster or giving aid to a struggling missionary.
Yet sometimes it is in the most mindless of chores that we can be most fully mindful of God, most present with Him. Many have found wisdom in the actions and words of the seventeenth century monk Brother Lawrence (ca. 1614-1691). Brother Lawrence wasn’t the most important monk; on the contrary, he was the dishwasher. This dishwasher for an entire monastery certainly knew how commonplace and uninteresting such tasks could be. Yet his thoughts and writings about living in the presence of God at all times, even while washing dishes, influenced many around him and have continued to influence Christ-followers to this day.
For Brother Lawrence, standing at the kitchen sink was as sacred as kneeling at the altar. Both were opportunities to commune with Christ in an uninterrupted fellowship, both brought him a flow of peace as ceaseless as a river. He observed that “the time of business does not differ with me from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.” (Practicing the Presence of God)
In these routines, in the middle of vacuuming the carpet and mowing the grass, it is difficult to treasure the small moments of solitude and silence that accompany the predictability of the task. When I am standing at the counter chopping vegetables in order to pacify the hungry hordes that will descend upon me after naptime, it is easier to distract myself with the television or a propped-open book than to use the repetitive action as a chance to free my mind and open my heart to God. Yet the very predictability that normally would irritate could instead be used to allow me to look for small signs of His love and care, signs of His daily presence.
This sacred routine keeps us rooted in the present; we tend to flee to the future or the past during such tasks. It forces us to rely on God to provide for this day only. Thomas Moore spoke of the sacredness of this routine when he said that “the ordinary acts we practice every day at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest.”
Frederick Beuchner also spoke of ordinary life as a fathomless mystery. He admonishes us to listen to the ordinary, everyday life and truly see it for what it is: “In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
When we find our way to the holy and hidden heart of our daily routine, we find that Jesus truly is before all things, that Christianity is not compartmentalized and relegated to a few hours on Sunday. Our Christian faith is a way of life. It is a way of doing life, a way of living life in relationship to the One who is the way, the truth, and the life.
God asks not for a few hours on Sunday. He asks not even for a few moments each day. He is Lord and He demands nothing less than all of us. It seems arduous, yet He promises that His burden is light and so we find, after all, that our greatest joy and our deepest peace is found on those days during which we are most successful in inviting Him into every moment of our day.
This routine, these mundane tasks that must be accomplished every day, have sometimes been compared to the liturgy of the hours where monks in the Benedictine order pause for prayer at set times throughout the entire day. Both are never fully finished but are only set aside until the next day. Both draw much meaning and value from the repetition. The Liturgy of the Hours is, in fact, often used as a tool to view the entire day as holy, to help one give all daily activities over to God. It is used as a reminder, a reminder that the ordinary is sacred.
Most of all, though, the idea that Jesus is as present as I kneel in front of a dirty toilet as He is when I kneel before Him in prayer is an idea that shocks me into remembering the impossibility of the incarnation. In her book, Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle said that “there is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.” When my heart rebels against the idea that Christ cares about the way that I trim a rose bush, I am reminded that the very thought of God enfleshed is a rebellion against our world’s wisdom, against every form of idealism which suggests that ideas, beliefs, and concepts are more excellent than the material and the mundane. Why is the reality of Jesus being born through a flood of bloody afterbirth into the filth of a stable filled with cows any less shocking than the way He relates to cleaning excrement off our toilets?
One root of heresies throughout human history has been the desire to prevent God from being man, the desire to protect God from man, and man from God. We want Jesus to be just spirit or just man. It is safer that way. And it is what we do to Jesus when we try to accomplish our daily tasks without Him.
Christ is before all things, even toilets, and in Him all things hold together. All things were created by Him and for Him. If all is created, then all is love and all that we call ordinary is truly named sacred. This, then, is our life. Our life made sacred.
Elizabeth is a writer and musician, writing weekly at Made Sacred. She lives in the Midwest with her husband and four daughters, and most often can be found neglecting housework in favor of reading as many books as she can get her hands on.