Admittedly, I at first picked up a copy of Kathleen Norris’ The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and ‘Women’s Work’(1998) because of my interest in how “women’s work” is undervalued. Even if we are not running around in ‘50’s dresses, heels, and aprons anymore, much of the stigma of housework still hasn’t left us. We cannot avoid what Norris calls the “quotidian,” or “daily,” but we do view it as less worthy, as something that keeps us from more important matters at work or in academe. Sometimes, I do wonder if my literary brain has left me, especially when I’m facing basketfuls of dirty laundry and a sink that specializes in filling with dishes in five seconds flat. However, in Quotidian, Norris argues that the “quotidian” holds remarkable value because of the way repetitive tasks and worship go hand in hand. While I’ll take her word for it, her poems “Housekeeping” and “Kitchen Trinity,” (both of which appear in Little Girls in Church) show me just how much potential everyday tasks have to give us glimpses of the Savior.
A brief background on Norris for those who have not met her, yet: she is well known for The Cloister Walk (1997), a beautiful celebration of her personal experience with the Benedictine tradition. A familiar part of that tradition is daily prayer and meditation, often accompanied by the mundane. It is that aspect of Benedictine life that comes to life in Quotidian. As much potential as daily tasks have for meditation, and for contemplation of the holy, they have equal potential to drive us to despair. An equally important definition to “quotidian” for understanding what Norris has to say, here, is one she repeatedly brings up in this book, that of “acedia.” The definition of “acedia,” which according to the American Heritage Dictionary is “spiritual torpor or apathy” is a haunting one.
In fact, the term “acedia” appears as frequently throughout the book as the title word “quotidian,” and fittingly so—it is easy for us to take things for granted, and almost come to despise them and where we find ourselves, if they are repeated day after day. Yet, the paradox on which the whole book hinges, and what Norris terms “a quotidian mystery,” is that “dailiness can lead to such despair and yet also be at the core of our salvation” (Norris 10). It is like two sides of the same coin: We can be annoyed by the fact that the groceries keep disappearing, that our clothes and bodies become dirty and need to be washed. At the same time, though, our daily needs remind us of our humanness. We are thankful that Jesus entered into a body like ours. We are continually human, and continually in need of His Grace.
Norris explains that “acedia” was once thought to be limited to monastics, but rightly observes that it can strike anyone at any time. It means exhaustion, body and soul. It means life has lost its sparkle. It means, as fourth-century monk Evagrius described, “the days [seem] fifty hours long” (qtd. In Norris, 7). The only thing I’ve found that can get me out of such a state is worship. I start to think about His Presence, and how He is with me, even as I am matching socks. But Norris loses me when she makes the case that the task of doing laundry is like worship, because “both are the work that God has given us to do” (29). I still think she is missing something here. Norris credits the process of writing of the poem “Housekeeping,” which she quotes in full in Quotidian, for making the connection between housework and worship: “What I do must be done/each day, in every season,/like liturgy” (5.2-4). But to me, Norris is making worship, or liturgy, out to be another droll task, rather than a response to God’s presence in our daily spaces.
In “Housekeeping,” housework and liturgy do seem intertwined, but the connection seems to be more random than intentional. She realizes the connection between laundry and liturgy in the middle of the poem, which both must be done “each day, in every season” (5.3-4). The barren house cat makes her recall the “barren woman/exhorted by the Good Book/to break into song” (6.2-4). Finally, after gathering what she needs from the washing machine, she “head(s) upstairs, singing an old hymn.”
But how? How could I climb the stairs singing hymns? In reading this poem, I am made aware that in some mysterious way, worship and housework lend themselves to one another. But I am still not convinced the connection is as easy as it looks. I like the gist of the poem, and it’s true that “like liturgy, the work of cleaning draws much of its meaning and value from repetition, from the fact that it is never completed, but only set aside until the next day” (35). I also like how Norris points out that “both liturgy and what is euphemistically termed ‘domestic’ work also have an intense relation with the present moment” (35). But “mindfulness” can only get us so far. How, by relishing in the present moment, no matter how mundane, can I catch a glimpse of the Divine? And what role do I play in that exchange?
With this question rattling around in the back of my mind, I found out that “Housekeeping,” which Norris prints in full in Quotidian, comes from the volume Little Girls in Church. I decided I had to track down a copy. My daughter was asleep, so I began to use those treasured minutes to page through some of her poems. I made a discovery that was amazing to me—one that brought tears to my eyes and trembling to my hands. The poem that I owe this discovery to is “Kitchen Trinity.” This poem spoke profoundly to both my ideals and ideas of housework (as in, I know it has spiritual potential, and I really want that, but I tend to choose acedia instead). The lines of this poem took those conflicting perspectives in my spirit and in my head, and suddenly silenced them. And all that was left was this soul-level assurance–that what transforms the work from mundane to meaningful is His Presence. But He won’t come if I don’t make space for Him. I need to welcome Him into my dish washing and diaper changing, knowing that those are likely the very spaces wherein He is most welcome.
In the third stanza of “Kitchen Trinity,” Norris zooms in on the image around which the whole poem turns—the famous Rublev’s icon. The 15th century painting depicts the three angels who visited Abraham under the trees at Marme, but is also considered to be a picture of the Trinity. Much like “signs” in the Gospel of John, icons serve as symbols of something greater. Their meaning comes from the spiritual significance the subject matter represents. Norris plays with the idea that the figures could be three angels, and/or three women in a kitchen.
What could be a tag-team at the very ordinary task of preparing and cooking a meal becomes extraordinary, as “One gets up/to stir the stars,/one makes the fire,/another blows on it to keep it going…” (Norris, “Kitchen Trinity,” 4-9). There is something vaguely significant going on here, beyond what meets the eye. It’s almost as if these three women, in their bustling about the kitchen, embody Norris’ commitment in The Quotidian Mysteries to “the sacramental possibility in all things” (12). The poem builds to its turning point in the fourth stanza, where in two, stunning stand-alone lines these “three women” shift to become “three angels/with the same face” (4; 1-2). In between these lines, though, we see that as they surround the table, “hunched over a cup,” their “hands [are] open in invitation.” Here is where I begin to make sense of the mystery. What changes them, and breathes fresh life into their daily work, could be their act of invitation. This leads me to ask–how often are my hands “open in invitation” as I work, saying, “Lord, you are welcome here?”
Then, yet another type of “trinity” seems to surface, that of grandmother/mother/daughter. The daughter assumes first person point of view in the poem: “My mother is the tree trunk I climb,/my grandmother’s hands/kneading bread/make the table shake (17-20).” Just as there is another place at the table in Rublev’s icon, inviting me to sit from the place where I stand, I can continue the work of the women who have gone before me. They ministered to my basic needs, but both my grandmother and mother have also played crucial roles in bringing me to the faith. The famous “tilting” table in Rublev’s icon is being made to shake by a grandmother working to feed her family. It is not surprising to me that this space where He dwells, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, comes alive in the poem and is inhabited by a woman baking bread. This work is something that has been going on for generations, but by those know the One who takes the lowly, what could be drudgery, and transforms it before our very eyes.
What if we are the women in the kitchen who invite him into the everyday rhythms of work and play? In The Quotidian Mysteries, Norris is sensitive to the fact that, “especially for women, such elevation of daily work has all too often proved condescending, too easy a means for keeping us in our place” (71). How often have I heard “do it all for the glory of God” and felt a disconnect? But she is right in saying that we cheat ourselves when we don’t recognize their potential for building our faith. The tasks seem endless–but so are the possibilities they offer for communing with the Lord, sometimes by surprise.
The idea of invitation lingers at the end of the poem, as the figures of the three women fade away, and the more familiar, traditional three angels in the scene at Marme take their place. The poem ends with an invocation:
Tell me the story
Of three hungry angels
Who appeared one day at Abraham’s tent,
To make Sarah work
And laugh (6; 1-5).
The woman baking bread is now Sarah, behind the scenes in the tent, responding to Abraham’s desperate plea to quick-get-something-ready-for-these-drop-ins. This is a story we know well from Genesis 18, but need to hear again. Three random visitors arrive. Sarah bakes the bread, the servants prepare the calf, and the host and visitors sits down to eat. It wasn’t until the bread was made and the calf prepared that Abraham discovered the Lord was in their midst.
The first part of the poem, then, acts as a sort of inversion or mirror of the second part. The line “and still they have time for play” (2; 6) remind us of Sarah who, in response to these visitors, both works and laughs. They then explain to Abraham how God is going to fulfill the promise to give him a son.
Sarah did not know Who it was that she was preparing food for that afternoon. Who knows, maybe as I am stirring the white sauce for my mom’s recipe of chicken and wild rice soup on the stove (my husband’s friend once called it “tennis-elbow soup” because of how long the white sauce needs to be stirred) I am preparing a meal that I might meet with Him? I’ve heard that the Jews who to this day celebrate the Passover leave an empty chair at the table for the Lord. What if I perpetually had an empty chair in my kitchen for Jesus to sit? What if, when we had our neighbor over for dinner or sit down as a family, we were inviting Jesus to sup with us? When the disciples first followed Jesus, they asked “where are you staying?” They went and spent time with him, and ate in houses together. There is a reason that the Lord entered into human spaces—no place was too ordinary for Him.
However, because He is God, He can’t help but transform those lowly spaces. In fact, it is often the daily (quotidian) activities remind us of our constant need (thirst—you have to keep drinking water, clothes—they perpetually need to be washed, hung to dry, ironed) as well as allow for the outpouring of His sufficient Grace. I think about the woman at the well. What a routine, mundane task. She needed to draw water every day to cook, to clean, to drink. Added to this task that could easily become drudgery, she had to carry the weight of her shame—and to plan her trip to the well so as not to meet with anyone. She must have felt isolated. But Jesus met her there, and imparted dignity to her task. Before He tells her that He is the Living Water, he asks her for a drink of water. In meeting that need, she unknowingly offers God a drink of water, and interacts face-to-face with the Living Water.
The place I find myself today may be exactly where God has placed me. Every day, I am preparing my house for Jesus to come. And the best part of all is that, even before I begin the familiar process of picking things up and putting them away for the hundredth time, He is already there.
But, this place I find myself in is sometimes harder to swallow depending on the number of dishes in the sink. I want to be Snow White, singing a joyful tune as I mop the kitchen floor, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Maybe in a small way, worship is work. Like cleaning, it is something I have to actively remind myself and “make” myself do. On the other hand, maybe Norris is saying that there is something about the work itself that naturally draws me to worship.
For example, the never-ending job of preparing food for hungry stomachs—checking off a list, waiting in line at the check-out, unloading the groceries, slicing the onion, cooking the meat, washing the dishes—reminds me of my dependence on His daily provision. When I am overwhelmed and tired, facing dinner preparations when I’d rather fall into bed for the night, I can recognize that He is the One that carries me through the day. Rather than being annoyed by the fact that the “daily” brings out my vulnerability and need, I can see how it opens the way for the outpouring of God’s grace.
I can also see aspects of His character in the process of housecleaning. He is the one who brings order from chaos. He is the God of every detail. Extending hospitality is in some way a small picture of how He prepares a feast for us. When I begin to think on these things, I start to see how I might climb the basement stairs singing.