The following is an extract from the book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life. At the conclusion of a chapter on home, I offer this reflection on doing the laundry as a spiritually formative practice. OK, so it might be a stretch for most of us, but it’s worth a thought!
The laundry is never done. A laundry basket never empties completely. No matter how many loads we do, done is not a laundry word. There are some things in life that are done. Mostly they are big, momentous things: my work here is done; my schooling is done; our relationship is done. While there are things less momentous—a book can be done; so can a jigsaw—when it comes to life at home, done is only ever a provisional word. Done things at home are never really done: taking out the trash, mopping the floor, doing the dishes, mowing the lawn, cleaning the toilet, watering the plants, feeding the fish, or shopping for groceries. Things like these are only ever done for now, until they need doing again.
There is something about a good spiritual practice that defies done with the same persistence. I pray today and I will pray tomorrow. Today I confess my sin; tomorrow I will need to confess again. Like the disciplines of frugality and chastity, there is no end to the obligations of laundry. The average household generates eight to ten loads every week. Laundry is not something we get to do once and then move on, as though graduating to a laundry-less existence. Clothes get dirty, socks get smelly, sheets need changing. Laundry is one of the certainties of life. As with all spiritual practices worth their salt, laundry is our work today as it will be tomorrow.
That said, embracing laundry as a practice of spirituality takes some work. Getting beyond the novelty of the idea can be the biggest hurdle. The laundry is simply not where the mind naturally goes in pursuit of God. After all, holy places gleam, like the front rooms of our homes made ready for guests. The laundry is kept behind closed doors. It’s the place we hope they don’t see. The most profitable spiritual practices, however, are those that throw open the closed doors of our lives and allow light to shine where it’s most needed.
The laundry door is one that deserves to be opened, and the practice of washing taken more seriously. There are significant things going on in the laundry; it’s a place charged with spiritual possibility. The opportunity to name those things, to bring them to the surface, and to embrace them with intention is ours for the taking. Here are some places to begin.
Laundry as a Formative Act
It is the routine of laundry that is likely its greatest gift. According to Kathleen Norris, worship and laundry are the work given for us to do by God. Both are repetitive, she says, mundane, even menial. Lest you think worship is nothing of the sort, take note the next time you are in church. Think first of the great and eternal God to whom this worship is offered, and then of the stilting, off-key and sometimes humorous forms in which it comes. You would think after centuries of rehearsal we would finally have it right. Not so, for it is a work never done. Yet through our regular investment in it, we are nurtured in God’s image. Week by week, year after year, we are formed by it. So, too, with laundry.
As a truly menial task—a word derived from the Latin “manor” meaning “to dwell in a household”—laundry is a task of connections and household ties. It’s an act of stability, a mark of loyalty, the most basic provision of kindness and service. I wash your feet; I wash your underwear. I serve you and honor you. I will do it today and again tomorrow, load after load. In the process I am formed. My servant spirit, however reluctantly and at times resentfully, is gradually deepened by the doing. I have often noticed that in meetings where refreshments are served, it is the same people over and over who instinctively move to the kitchen sink once the meeting is done. Equally, it is the same people who don’t. Domestic acts of service shape our instincts. We are formed in the doing.
It is because we are human, Norris says, that we must find our way to God through the mundane and the daily acts of our lives. “In our life of faith as well as in our most intimate relationships with other people,” she writes, “our task is to transform the high romance of conversion, the fervor of religious call, into daily commitment.” In this, laundry and worship are one of a kind.
Laundry as a Sacramental Act
A sacrament is most broadly defined as an outward sign of an inward grace, like the elements of bread and wine on the church’s communion table. Through the ordinariness of wheat and grape, we encounter love in its most extraordinary form. While the officially sanctioned sacraments of the church are a gift to the people of God, the possibility of the sacramental does not end at the church doors. The world is shot through with grace. In acts large and small, we have opportunity to sign that grace for others. Laundry can be one of those: a demonstration of unearned favor. We don’t deserve to have our laundry done. There is no universal right to clean laundry enshrined in a code of what it means to be human. It is either done for us as an act of grace, or it’s an act of grace we gift to others. Either way, Ernest Boyer calls it “a sacrament of care.”
When I stand behind the communion table in our sanctuary, I handle things that are, in and of themselves, unremarkable: a loaf of bread; a goblet of grape juice. When we gather as the people of God around that table, we name these elements together as the signs of God’s redeeming presence with us. It is in the naming that the unremarkable becomes the ineffable and grace is enfleshed. As you stand over the washing—whether it’s in a state-of-the-art machine with multiple cycle options or a plastic tub filled with hot water and soap—you stand before ordinary, soiled elements. Each one has its own story to tell, though perhaps most should be left untold. Each sock, each blouse or shirt is known and submerged. Sometimes there may be words you say:
I offer to you the work of my hands,
and the soiled garments of our lives.
May those who receive them washed clean
know the cleansing of your grace.
Your congregation is made up of those who will take and wear them. Occasionally they do so with gratitude, an awareness of the gift that is theirs. Mostly they don’t. It’s a routine they take for granted as much as you do. It is mystery and it is laundry; not all that different to the communion table really.
Laundry as a Prayerful Act
“Sometimes when people ask me about my prayer life,” says the writer Barbara Brown Taylor, “I describe hanging laundry on the line.” For Taylor, each item of clothing she hangs in the sun is like a prayer flag pegged in the open breeze.
“Since I am a compulsive person, I go to some trouble to impose order on the lines of laundry: handkerchiefs first, then jockey shorts, then T-shirts, then jeans. If I sang these clothes, the musical notes they made would lead me in a staccato, downward scale. The socks go all in a row at the end like exclamation points. All day long, as I watch the breeze toss these clothes in the wind, I imagine my prayers spinning away over the tops of the trees. This is good work, this prayer. This is good prayer, this work.”
Taylor’s practice has in mind the pictures we see from Nepal: small pieces of colored cloth strung in their hundreds along mountain ridges high in the Himalayas. Though the practice has its origins elsewhere, Tibetan Buddhists have made it their own in a particular way. The tradition is that these flags come in sets of five colors arranged from left to right: the blue of sky and space; the white of air and wind; the red of fire; the green of water; and the yellow of earth. Together they call for peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom through all creation. For those who hang them, there is not a strong sense that these prayers are carried to God but are blown by the wind, filling the air with all they hope for.
As Christians, our faith centers more deeply in a particular encounter with God through Jesus Christ, but the longings embodied by these flags resonate. It is an ancient practice of prayer that we name our longings before God, that in time those longings are shaped by God, and in turn, those longings shape our lives and relationships. If a practice like hanging laundry can give form and structure to such prayers, and our prayers be gathered up in our daily work, both are enriched.
Depending on where you are, you can purchase the book in a number for places.