When Saint Benedict wrote the Rule for his monastery fifteen centuries ago, he instructed the monk in charge of the kitchen to regard all utensils as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar. I have been trying to cultivate that attitude as I clean the house these days, but I’m not having much luck.
Every Tuesday, since housekeeping services were cancelled in our retirement community because of the virus, my husband and I clean the house. He vacuums; I dust. In our 50+ years of marriage, we have only done this a handful of times. Even in our graduate school years, when we ate “dark steaks” (meat sold cheaply because it was well past its prime), and mixed whole milk with the powdered kind to make it go farther, we always scraped enough money to pay for a housekeeper.
It’s not that we didn’t know how to clean. My husband learned to vacuum before he learned to drive. During high school and college I spent every Saturday morning cleaning my parents’ house. I dusted the trophies that my mother had brought from Ecuador: the eight-foot-long blow gun with its quiver of curare-tipped arrows, and the ceremonial apron and bib made of softened tree bark and decorated with crumbling, once-colorful feathers. I had to time the vacuuming to whenever my father wasn’t practicing the violin, giving a private lesson, or composing at the piano. The worst was wiping the olive oil splatters off the stove and the kitchen’s linoleum floor, since I knew that by dinner time that evening, after yet another of my mother’s delicious sofregits, things would be as greasy as before.
Now, here I am again, dusting, polishing, scrubbing. It’s not the same, of course. My teenage resentment is gone—it’s my own stuff I’m cleaning, and I can do the work when and how I like. At first, I even found a certain satisfaction in it. Finally, things were being done right. Take the bookcases. The typical cleaning lady dusts the spines of the books, pushes them towards the back, and dusts the exposed front part of the shelf. Instead, I removed each book, wiped its every surface, dusted the space behind it, and, when I was finished, aligned all the books precisely at the edge of the shelf.
This may be the sort of thing that Saint Benedict had in mind, but by the time it was over all I wanted was to build a fire in the front yard, and throw my books into it.
Things have gone downhill from there, as the novelty has worn off. Much as I try to treat every lampshade and every bowl as if it were a sacred object, my mind flits somewhere else, usually to the land of “how much longer is this going to take?” The same monkeys that during meditation hijack my focus away from the breath now whisper evilly in my ear, “It’s just a lampshade, just a bowl. Bo-ring!”
I wonder if Saint Benedict’s cellarer ever did manage to scour those piles of wooden bowls, those greasy cauldrons as worshipfully as if they were the vessels of the altar. If he did, he was a happier, more peaceful cellarer for it.
Yesterday I tried oiling the furniture as a meditation exercise. I rubbed every inch of the sideboard made by the ship’s carpenter on that long-ago Mississippi boat. I lubricated the elderly chests of drawers in the bedroom. Mostly I thought about my husband’s grandfather, who used to show up at our “married students apartment” in his enormous station wagon, with a gift of furniture from his attic. And I also thought about what Colette’s mother, Sido, used to say: “Whenever I spend a lot of time wiping my porcelain teacups, I can feel myself growing old.”
Next Tuesday, when it’s time to clean the kitchen, I’ll try to be more fully present in my work, to treat the sink and the microwave as if they were sacred vessels. I don’t expect to succeed right away, but then, I may well have months if not years to practice.