Towards a Theology of (House)Work

So I’m a little behind in my reading, but this week I finally got to the February 8 issue of Commonweal.  There is an illuminating article in there by Jonathan Malesic which contrasts the American work ethic with the dignity of the human person, and specifically, the way work is treated in Benedictine Monasteries.  (You can read it here.)

The article is beautiful and challenging.  Malesic seriously calls into question whether it is possible to respect the health and dignity of a person in our achievement-driven society.  “No reputation for customer satisfaction is worth as much as the person who fills orders and endures complaints.  Your pride in a job well done, or your anxiety, or your ego: none of those is worth as much as your dignity as a person.”

I think Malesic has hit on an important topic, but his musings led me in another direction. 

There has been a convergence (the first word that came to mind was conflagration, and I think it is also appropriate) of ideas in my life lately, centered on what John Paul II called the “feminine genius.”  It’s not that I’m seeking this out, exactly.  I’ve been bombarded from podcasts sent by Well-Read Mom and friends, Caryll Houselander’s Reed of God, and a Day of Reflection at our parish, all circling this same topic.

Full disclosure: I haven’t done the background reading on this yet (the recommended reading usually includes Mulieris Dignitatem and JP II’s Letter to Women, among others).  So my understanding of the term is basically this: women have unique gifts to share with the world, specifically gifts which make it a kinder, gentler place.  Women, in general, are gifted at truly seeing the other and caring for him or her, wherever the person may be in life.

This is a drasticly short summary, but I think it will do to explain the jump I made when I read Malesic’s piece on work and the Benedictines.

The monks Malesic visited in the New Mexico desert fight the desire to make work the center of their lives by means of prayer and their rule of life.  

I’d like to argue that we mothers have a similar tool built into our vocation to help us fight this tendency to overwork.

Rumba?  Alexa? Wal-mart curbside pickup?

Nope.  Our kids.

Now you’re probably thinking, “Actually, my kids create nine-tenths of the work I do…so how exactly are they helping me to keep work from taking over my life?”

Think of a nursing baby.  He’ll spend some time laying on the floor, playing happily with his toes (hopefully!), during which time his mother frantically folds laundry, washes dishes, sweeps the floor…you get the idea.  But when that baby gets hungry, what happens? The work stops. Mom sits down, puts her feet up, and nourishes a little life. If there isn’t a cell phone or TV on, maybe she even nourishes her own spiritual life for a few minutes with some reading or just soaking in the silence.

True, this assumes there aren’t also a two-year-old and four-year-old pulling on her arm the whole time asking for snacks.  Or chasing each other around the house waving sticks. (Why are the sticks in the house!?) It’s almost never as easy at I make it sound, I know.

However, what if we took all these interruptions in this light?  Not “drat, now I’ll never get the bathtub scrubbed,” but, “Ah, yes!  Little child of God, how can I love and serve you right now?” Houselander would take it a step further, and say, “Yes, Jesus!  How can I serve YOU in this little person?”

Of course cleaning the bathtub is also serving…but that’s an essay for another day.

The monks Malesic visited have scheduled hours for work, and whether they finish the project or not, when the bell rings for prayer, they stop and go pray.  It takes practice, but they learn to accept that they must let their work go until the next work period. As Malesic puts it, “They get over work so they can get on with something much more important to them.”  That “something”? Prayer, and their relationship with God.

I don’t know any mother who can keep a monastery schedule day in and day out.  Still, we have the opportunity to put work in its place. Is a clean floor good?  Yes. Is it more important than reading to my children? Probably not. Is it more important than praying with my children?  No.

The Benedictines’ vocation is to pray.  That comes first, and everything else is secondary.  A mother’s vocation is to care for her children. That comes first, even if it means we have to drop other work (or play) to do it.  (Which I write as I tell my kids to leave me alone so I can finish writing this…yikes.)

It is in the discipline of walking away from our work, our productivity, our sense that we are accomplishing something earthly, to spend ourselves in caring for another human being, that we put work in its place.  Work is good. Human beings need work, and we are called to join God in the work of bringing order to creation. Yet we are also called to “get over” our work when our children need our help or attention.

Yes, it takes effort – mental, physical, and spiritual – to care for these little people.  It is work.  But it is work that, if we keep our hearts open, turns us towards God in a way that scrubbing and dusting and grocery shopping might not.  Dropping our menial labor to look into the face of a child is stopping to contemplate the divine, if only we can look with God’s eyes instead of our own.

(On a side note – this topic requires a part II, with some of the caveats which threatened to make this post a short book, and which I’ll get to soon.  I hope. It’s dangerous to make such promises in my state of life!)

One Reply to “Towards a Theology of (House)Work”

  1. Women, in general, are especially good at truly seeing the other and caring for him or her, wherever the person may be in life.
    I know from personal experience that you are good at this! Thank you, Christina!

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