Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Column: Frenetic Diligence

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 30 June 2011.

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Lk 12: 22b-23

The smell of steaming starch and suds transports me to my grandmother's laundry room. I was fascinated by the mangle, which could wring water from bed sheets I was sure were not even damp. I loved watching my grandmother's expert hands folding and feeding the laundry through the rollers, marveling at her skill — a skill the operation of the electric dryer in our basement didn't require.

As I ran the iron across yet another linen shirt last weekend, while the boys’ laundry chugged away nearby, I wondered (not for the first time) why I buy summer clothes that need extra maintenance. While my grandmother had no choice but to starch my grandfather’s collars and painstakingly press the wrinkles out of my aunt’s sundresses, I am a child of the permanent press era. Wash, dry, hang and wear. It’s nothing if not efficient.

These days I’m not so sure efficiency should be the overriding goal. The minute or two it takes me to stuff a load of clothes into the washer and toss it wholesale into the dryer, sandwiched in between starting dinner and grading a stack of paper, leaves me feeling simultaneously inattentive to what I have — food for the table, clothes to wear, a job — and anxious over keeping all the tasks in line and efficiently moving along.

Yet here is Jesus in this passage in Luke telling his disciples, “do not be anxious about your life.” The body is more than just what our soul wears, we are created to do more than put the next meal on the table. Reflecting on this Gospel in the 5th century, St. Cyril of Alexandria warned his congregation to foreswear a “frenetic diligence” that drove them to gather more than what they needed. I suspect my efficient ways are an attempt to gather more time than I need. I sense, too, that my frenzied diligence isn’t always producing more time for God or family or rest, but just more time to be frenzied.

It remains hard for me to remember that for all I pour into getting dinner on the table, or the laundry done, or the next lecture written, the success of these ventures does not ultimately depend on my efforts alone — frenzied or otherwise. If the smallest things are outside your control, asks Jesus, why worry about the rest?

As the line of pressed shirts hanging on the rack grew, I realized that the scent of starch brought back more than nostalgia for the summer days of my youth. I learned in that sunny space off my grandmother’s kitchen a certain rhythm of work. I learned that an unforced pace attentive to the present moment, not caught up in what was coming next, could get done what needed to be done. Diligence and care did not demand frenzy or undue anxiety.

I have tucked the shirts into the closet, but left the lesson out where I could be reminded. Life is more than the sum of my to-do list.

Be with us, Lord, as we take up our daily tasks: and help us to remember that it is in your world that we live and work. — From the Intercessions for Morning Prayer, Monday Week III


  1. Beautiful. Thank you.

  2. Cathleen9:15 PM

    My mother-in-law, who died in March of this year, was, hands down, the kindest person I've ever known. I'm quite sure that Edith Bunker and she were separated at birth (they even looked alike). Watching her fold laundry was a joy--I marvelled as I watched her infuse love and grace into clean socks. She had a mangler when her kids were young, but I never had the pleasure of seeing her at its helm.

    I love neatly folded laundry because it reminds me of her--a stack of clean, neatly folded towels can bring me back to her grace, charm, humility, and wit. It's the little things...:-)

  3. Warm clothes off the line are another graced memory for me, Cathleen, thanks for reminding me!

    And it is truly the little things that stick more than anything else...

  4. Great writing, great website, Michelle! I had the privilege of publishing Diarmuid's QT long ago and others since. Glad I discovered your site. Buona fortuna!

  5. Thanks, Mike, for luck and for compliments! And it's nice to find another connection around science and religion (and I'm going to admit that I named the blog before I knew about Diarmuid O'Murchu's am glad no one has tried to sue me for copyright infringement!)

  6. “ .. I learned that an unforced pace attentive to the present moment ..”

    “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, The holy dwelling places of the Most High. God is in the midst of her, she will not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns” (Ps 46:4-5).


    (Quaker silent lurker)

  7. I love this post. My grandmother had a mangle too. I remember running it as a child. Odd though I hate most household chores, I do not hate laundry. I rather enjoy it esp. sheets on the clothesline!