August 9, 2012

Martha and Mary: The Dignity and Drudgery of Housework

This is a guest post written by one of the lovely mothers who writes for the Soul Gardening Journal, a ministry for mothers. If you like what you read, please sign up to receive a journal and make a donation if you can, it's a wonderful cause!

When we think about the big picture, it’s easy to see how motherhood is a wonderful and worthy vocation: tending beautiful fresh souls, forming responsible citizens, partaking in God’s creativity through the conception of children. But it’s so easy to get mired in the details. How is it that dishes breed and multiply when your back is turned? And then there’s my white plastic kitchen floor that has to be wiped and re-wiped all day. (Why would anyone put white plastic flooring in a kitchen? Don’t they know what people do in kitchens?) These chores make me resentful, because they don’t have a permanent result. They don’t serve any purpose except perhaps to spare the world from dreadful new diseases that might be breeding in my kitchen.

These are the chores that we mothers repeat over and over, never completing, never perfecting, that like the poor are always with us: the endless rounds of dishes, the endless sweeping and wiping of floors. If I am not careful, they can embitter my heart, till I am grumbling like Martha in the Gospel, “It’s just not fair! Why should I spend my precious hours and waste my expensive education standing in front of a sink, folding laundry, peeling vegetables.

It is a petty problem, I admit, especially in light of the more heroic and difficult things mothers do—beside childbirth, for instance. But so many hours of our day go into these brainless tasks. We need to know that our hours are not being wasted, that we are making a difference in the world. The solution, of course, is very simple. It lies in converting our heart so that we can be both Martha and Mary, sitting at the Master’s feet AND getting supper on. Serving, but serving with love. Tying the toddler’s shoelaces with sweet patience, rather than “AAAAAACK (shriek) PUSH your foot in! PUSH it!”

When I was 16, I stayed at Madonna House, a community of lay people who live and work together and serve the poor. Madonna House has built a whole spirituality around work, teaching that the “duty of the moment” is God’s very will for you, and that work is a holy thing, even if it’s not personally fulfilling. I remember a lovely woman named Kathleen pinning back her long dark hair and rolling up her sleeves, to work. “You know,” she said, smiling, “I love cleaning. When we clean we are helping to restore the world. We are transforming it in Christ.” She began to wipe down the industrial kitchen so gracefully, so peacefully.

“Any work you do for a selfless purpose, without thought of profit, is actually a form of prayer… Do we not hallow places by our very commitment to them?” These words are from a secular vegetarian cookbook (Laurel’s Kitchen) When I read them they sent a shiver down my back as they resonated with the Catholic fibres of my soul. To “hallow a place,” to make it holy. Surely we can make our homes holy by the attitude we bring to them, turning the sink and floors into an altar, the food and laundry into sacraments? This is the permanent gift we desire so much to give. Long after our children have forgotten whether or not the laundry got put away, or whether supper was peanut-butter sandwiches, they will remember their mother. Was she always fretting and anxious, grumpy and irritable? Or was she peaceful and kind because she knew that love was more important than laundry?

 —Mary, the Canadian.

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  1. One of the things I've loved discovering about the Catholic faith is the idea of "offering it up" - taking all those mindless tasks and using them for prayer is just amazing. On the days when it's hard to go to work and leave my son I offer up that days sacrifice for someone else - usually a child I've become aware of in hospital where I work; I offer the sacrifice of a few hours away from my child in the hopes that another mother will have a few more hours, but ideally years with hers. It really helps.

    P.S. I'll choose love over laundry any day ;)

  2. What a beautiful article and just what I needed today as I procrastinate on the housework ... thank you!


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