Washing the dishes isn’t included in the books on spiritual disciplines—not in Richard Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline or Adele Calhoun’s more recent Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, which describes a whopping 62 disciplines.
But maybe it should be.
In recent months I’ve come across three references to people who have made doing the dishes into a discipline of sorts. Three! That can’t be a fluke. Is there something about dishwashing—other than its obvious need to be done—that recommends it to Christians today?
Let’s take a look at what people are saying about doing the dishes:
Christine Berghoef gets poetic about dishwashing in a post last year at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation:
In the predictable rhythm of liquid warmth swirling through my washcloth as I swab away remnants of the day’s nourishment, the liltingly light splash of the faucet rinsing the suds, and the movement from rinse to dry rack, I am soothed. Unwound. Almost tranquilized. It forces me to pause, to ruminate over the events of the day, to be still.
In Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (IVP Books, 2013), Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, describes the small discipline of doing the dishes as an exercise in humility. Tackling the crockery before he leaves for a speaking engagement, he says, helps him to limit “my own exercise of godlike freedom and significance” (pp. 241-242).
On his website, Jim Forest tells a story about his friend, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Nhat Hanh once told him, “You should wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” Forest was puzzled. Then his friend advised him to “wash every dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”
I love all three of these! Each brings to the fore a different spiritual benefit of doing the dishes—being still, being humble, and being present with Jesus.
Which benefit speaks to you the most? Where do you need to see Jesus reaching into the mess of your daily life?
I’m especially drawn to the story about Nhat Hanh. When I read it, I was immediately transported to the Middle Ages, my favorite time period. Nhat Hanh’s advice may be about presence and mindfulness, but it also sounds just like something a medieval devotional master would say.
One devotional text I’ve always liked, the Life of Christ by Ludolph of Saxony (14th c.), tells lay Christians to imagine holding and caring for the baby Jesus:
Kiss the beautiful little feet of the infant Jesus who lies in the manger and beg his mother to let you hold him a while.
[T]he holy Virgin, following the law that had been established, left the city of Bethlehem with Joseph and the infant Jesus to go to Jerusalem, five miles distant, to present Our Lord in the temple. You go, too, in their company, and help them carry the child.
I never fail to be moved by the tenderness of this invitation. Ludolph asks his readers not just to meditate on Jesus, not just to think about him or rehearse the events in his life. He invites every person to enter into Jesus’ life. This reverses the way we usually approach Jesus. Instead of asking our Lord to help us, we help care for him. We kiss and hold and carry his infant self. For a moment, we are his mother.
I’m fascinated by the way a contemporary Buddhist monk channels this text. I doubt that Nhat Hanh meant to get medieval on us, but he did–and together with Ludolph of Saxony, his advice helps to transform a small part of our daily life. “Wash every dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”
Doing the dishes can make me so angry. I’m tired at the end of the day. I see the piles of dirty plates, not all of which will fit into the dishwasher, and I don’t want to wash them. But how could I be angry washing the baby Jesus? How could I refuse an invitation to take him into my arms?
I need this kind of spirituality, one in which tenderness and imagination melt away my frustration. One in which Jesus becomes startlingly present in my life. What, after all, could be more startling than suddenly seeing Jesus in your kitchen sink? It’s the jolt needed to restart and soothe my troubled heart.
If henceforth my family sees me weeping at the sink after dinner, it will be because I hold not only dishes, but also the infant savior.
Dishwashing as a spiritual discipline? Surely so. One that I practice each day. One that brings me to Jesus. One that washes me of anger even as I wash the dishes clean.