I was interviewed last week about the spirituality of housecleaning. While the conversation focused on Passover/Pesah cleaning, and the heightened sense of purpose and satisfaction in (re)creating or (re)capturing order for the holiday, the lessons apply year-round, even if at a less fevered pitch.
I was reminded of this earlier today while on my hands and knees cleaning the kitchen floor after a wonderful holiday weekend of family, visitors and food preparations. The floor was definitely in need of attention, as, so it seemed, was my spirit. The serendipitous combination of the two yielded a welcome insight on cleaning.
Spiritual awareness is a full-body experience. Those who meditate and practice yoga know this. But in that case, the effort is to transcend body, to ignore the body’s call for movement, stimulation, responsiveness, claims to attention. That too is a response of sorts to the hegemony of the body.
Those who seek the mountains, the rivers, the sea, the open road also know that the placement of the body, its surroundings and experiences, conjure up certain spiritual responses. We need to preserve nature not just for its physically sustaining properties but for its spiritually sustaining properties. For the ways our bodies connect to the physical world can evoke and inspire powerful spiritual experiences.
Thomas Berry writes: “We have a wonderful idea of God because we have always lived on a planet that is chock-full, every nook and cranny, with marvels and mysteries, dark beauty, happy encounters and splendid landscapes. How could we picture God in our heads as an ever fresh and creative daybreak, as a compassionate father or nurturing mother, as a wonder-counselor if we had never experienced these qualities in the people, land and life around us?
What kind of God would we pray to if we lived on the bleak surface of the moon? We are literally killing off our religious imagination when we destroy the natural world.”
Cut to my dirty kitchen floor (not as far a leap from the mountaintop as you might think): cleaning the floor with a mop - to grandly over-state and over-dramatize the issue - has a colonizing, subjugationist, somewhat violent air to it. (Okay, just indulge me on this melodrama just for fun and to help me better make the point.) It is difficult to bond with the floor, appreciate it for being anything more than constantly underfoot, when it places itself everywhere beneath me, conveniently trod on. And more, it disturbingly demands attention to be cleaned by me because it can’t take care of itself. So if I wash it from afar, from way up here, keeping a safe distance with a mop, my sense of self and of floor is master and subject.
But that is not how I wash the floor. Rather, I grab a wet rag and get down on my hands and knees, and wipe. This is radically different, more intimate and spiritual experience. First of all, the floor reveals itself in much greater detail from 18 inches than from 5 feet. Its contours, its places that need special attention, are more evident. Its material hints of its connection to the natural world, and thus conjures up an awareness of my reliance on it and its welfare.
But perhaps more, it is the posture of my body, the penitential attitude of being on hands and knees, that conjures up a spiritual and appreciative attitude toward the stuff of our lives in general, and the stuff of my home in particular. Why would we even imagine that tending well to the things that shelter our families, or to the matter that cocoons the work of homes, is not of the same spiritual caliber as planting a tree or being awe-struck at a sunset?
And we cannot overlook the pure satisfaction we can get in seeing the immediate results of our handiwork - our kitchen moving from “not clean” to “clean” because of our few minutes of work. In this world of distant results and deferred gratification, we should take our rewards where and when we can.
Two ritual acts that Jewish women in Italy undertook as their expressions of spiritual engagement (as significant to them as praying in a minyan was to men) were waxing and buffing the pews in the synagogue and making wicks for the candles that lit the building during services. Tending well to the condition of these things, like the condition of things in our homes, sensitizes us to the short tie that connects us to the natural world from which all our stuff comes. How much more could be our delight when we tend well to the natural world outside our windows?