Cleaning as a Spiritual Activity
Nowadays many people have turned away from church religion. But family and society benefit if we would be able to discover something sacred =in our everyday deeds and activities. Household work and even cleaning present us with opportunities to practice devotion and reverence. For instance, we can try to picture where our food comes from, or all the things that need to happen for a carrot to grow or a spoonful of honey to be produced. Saying grace or blessing a meal expresses something of our reverence for the world around us. In Turkey, people address the person who prepared the meal with a beautiful phrase: May your hands remain healthy! This creates an atmosphere of gratitude.
A sacred attitude towards daily chores is nothing new – we simply have to rediscover them. A wonderful example can be found in a prayer by St Therese of Avila (1515-1582) which an elderly mother Superior of a convent school in Austria, gave me after a lecture:
Lord of pots and pans
I do not have the time to be a saint and hold vigil through the night to please you.
Make me a saint who prepares meals and does the washing up.
Prayer time will be over until I have done the dishes after supper.
Lord of pots and pans, please, rather than winning souls for you,
Let me offer the tiredness that come over me at the sight of coffee grounds and burned vegetable pans.
Remind me of all the things I am apt to forget.
Not just to save my feet, but that my perfectly set table may be offered as a prayer.
Such an attitude is gaining more recognition today, judging by all the books and articles we can find about spirituality in daily life.
Mindfulness and acts of devotion are also essential parts of the Buddhist path. In many other cultures you find a similar striving to raise the mundane everyday to greater heights. In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran wrote about the importance of love when you work.[i]
You work that you may keep pace with the Earth and the soul of the Earth.
For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life’s procession, that marchers in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.
When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music. Which of you would be read, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison?
Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.
But I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of the Earth’s further dream, assigned to you when that dream was born,
and in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labour is to be intimate with lives in most secret.
But if you in your pain called birth and affliction and the support of the flesh a curse written upon your brow, then I answer that naught but the sweat of your brow shall wash away that which is written.
You have been told also that life is darkness, and in your weariness you Echo what was said by the weary.
And I say that life is indeed darkness save when there is urge,
And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge
And all knowledge is vain, save when there is work,
And all work is empty save when there is love;
And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.
And what is it to work with love?
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,
And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you and watching.
Work is love made visible.
What transforms work into an act of devotion? How can work be turned into a sacrament and what does that mean? Ritual links the spiritual to the physical substance. Everything we do can become an act of devotion, a service to humanity, a service to the higher worlds. The reverent attitude to work fills us with strength and can have a healing effect like a blessing, wherever we are and whatever we do, whether working with people or working in nature.
With such an attitude we receive strength and we can give the strength to others. I once visited a course about the preparation of biodynamic compost. The farmer taught us how all the kingdoms of nature -mineral, plant and animal –contributed to the compost heap. And then the human being fertilises with spirit, with the thoughts that accompany the stirring and the spreading of the preparations over the gardens and fields. I observed a farmer once very early in the morning, spreading the preparation with rhythmic and harmonious movements over his crops. It was as if witnessing a profoundly sacred act.
Our devotion to small things can always be considered a part of our spiritual development. We can learn to totally surrender ourselves to what we are doing, to the object of our attention. And because most things usually serve human needs, we basically serve humans through caring for things. If we want to take particular care of a room or an object, it is essential that we perceive it precisely. For instance, take a close look at the legs of a grand piano or a beautifully carved piece of furniture. Have you ever realized how many different surfaces, edges and trimmings need to be dusted? Through the interest in the things we handle, it is amazing how much we can discover. When working with human beings, we can try to understand the person and to meet them with compassion rather than judgement. This is especially important, when I try to help someone who has lost the ability to create order. Paying attention to everything that surrounds this person could help us to understand how such a condition could develop. Being able to help in such a situation can fill us with gratitude, and that in turn radiates joy and health.
I experienced a fine example for a truly spiritual deed in a home for severely handicapped young people. During a meeting I noticed a lady who impressed me with her rectitude and calm presence. I assumed that she was a therapist but was told that she was the cleaning lady who had worked in this home for more than twenty years. Five boys between twelve and seventeen years lived in this house and on this particular afternoon there was an important meeting which all the staff members left to attend, and a young trainee came to fetch the boys to take them to the workshop. However, just as she arrived, one of the boys had an epileptic fit. The other boys – each one in his own way – started to make a fuss. It was total chaos, leaving the unexperienced trainee at a loss. At that moment the cleaning lady appeared on the doorstep, dust cloth in hand. As a domestic help, she was not allowed to assist the boys. She bent down and slowly started dusting the skirting boards, moving along the periphery of the room. The further she went the calmer the boys became until total peace had returned to the room. She just knew exactly what to do without saying a word.
This example gave me a n inkling of how alchemist must have worked in earlier times, how a total transformation of substances was possible, because the alchemist was able to unite the spiritual with the material. Spirit becomes reality through conscience human deeds.
[i] Kahlil Gibran, Balantine Books. NY, 1980