Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Column (Redux): Doing Dishes

(Michelle is on retreat here, but thanks to the scheduled post feature, she virtually inhabits this space as well. The ability to bilocate used to be considered a saintly characteristic....)

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times March 27, 2008 - the very first one I wrote for the Standard. It resurfaced as I packed for a retreat where one thing on my mind is what it means to dispose of things. What I discard does not simply vanish, what responsibility do I take for what I acquire?

When they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you just caught.” So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.” [Jn 21:9-12]

It’s nearly 6 p.m. and the lab is dark. My students have gathered up their things and retreated to the dining halls for a well-deserved meal. I’m in the small departmental kitchen, up to my elbows in hot, soapy water, washing the mugs we used at the mid-afternoon break.

“You could use styrofoam cups,” offers a colleague, clearly perplexed at the sight of the department chair doing the dishes. My offhanded, “We’re trying to be green” satisfies her, though truthfully, the environment is the least of my reasons for taking on this mundane chore.

How else would I have known how many of my students this year drink milk, not coffee? Do they like chocolate chip or lemon cookies? Each week I brew less coffee and make an effort to pick up a quart of milk.

Slowly, over the course of the semester, I grow to anticipate what they need — I hold the signs in my hands, they’re not tossed aside in the trash. It’s in my power not to do the dishes, but I suspect I’m missing something critical if I don’t.

As I read this passage from John, I am caught not so much by the miracle of the groaning net, as I am by Jesus’ anticipation of the needs of the men He had called to serve His body, His Church.

The fire is lit, there is bread waiting — made ready with His own hands, not called down like manna from heaven. “Come, have breakfast.” Appended to a Gospel rich in theological reflection on the mysteries of the Eucharist and the mystery of the Incarnation, I wonder what inspired the author to record this decidedly unmiraculous encounter, this unadorned invitation.

In her essay “The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and ‘Women’s Work,’” Kathleen Norris remembers being struck how, in the Mass, “homage was being paid to the lowly truth that we human beings must wash the dishes after we eat and drink. The chalice, which had held the very blood of Christ, was no exception.”

She reflects that our culture’s ideal self aspires to be above the doing of “humble, everyday tasks.” If we must wash the dishes, we want to make the work as undemanding as possible — get paper plates and toss them. Let someone else take care of the trash.

I suspect that the early Christians hearing John’s Gospel struggled as much as we do with the uninspiring chores of daily life — with loaves of bread that do not multiply and nets that do not fill with fish at a word. And so John’s heady and mystical Gospel ends by reminding us of the sacredness of the quotidian, of the daily.

We follow Christ not only through His passion, death and resurrection, but in the everyday ways we tend to each other’s needs. “Come, have breakfast.”

As we join the Apostles in encountering the risen Lord in our daily lives, may we be inspired by Christ’s example to become quotidian mystics. Finding God in the dishes, the laundry and the making of breakfast.

God our Father,
work is your gift to us,
a call to reach new heights
by using our talents for the good of all.
Guide us as we work and teach us to live
in the spirit that has made us your sons and daughters,
in the love that has made us brothers and sisters.
Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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