After breakfast

After breakfast

TAYLOR: The spirituality of soapy water

Life and Faith columnist rediscovers the beauty in mundane chores

My minister described her spiritual practices.

She starts her morning with yoga: “One of the most sustaining and grounding things I take in my day.

“Then I do the dishes. Something about putting one’s hands in hot soapy water is a reset for me — a mindless task that produces something valuable.

“I dry the dishes and put them away, so I can begin again.”

Her confession elicited mild snickers from the congregation. All of them had had, at one time or other, the experience of washing dishes in a sink. Most of them have an automatic dishwasher now so they could avoid the chore.

But why not let dishwashing be a significant time?

After all, the Bible often uses the metaphor of washing.

Psalm 51, for example, says, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.”

The prophet Isaiah said something similar: “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings…” Another prophet, Ezekiel: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean…”

They weren’t talking about washing dishes, of course. They were talking about washing their souls, their lives, their attitudes, free from sin.

One of the first paraphrases I wrote of the psalms put Psalm 51 this way: “Scrub me clean, Lord. Rub me down gently; Flush away my failures; Help me clean up my act.”

Those ancient writers couldn’t have imagined having abundant hot water for washing. Exodus instructs the Hebrew slaves how to wash their hands in the desert. First, pour a small amount of water over your hands so it runs down toward your wrists. Then rinse off the first wash water, with the water running off your fingertips.

Clearly, there was no surplus of water to waste.

If we weren’t so used to the routine of washing dishes, we would probably find it a highly sensual experience. Almost a miracle.

Perhaps that’s why it loosened tongues in our family. Our dinners were often quiet. Not much conversation. Cutlery clinked on the plates. We could hear our jaws chewing.

But at the sink, after dinner, conversation flowed as freely as dishwater.

There’s something about doing things together that builds a sense of community.

I thought of that, a few weeks back when I attended a non-digital, in-person, worship service. People actually sang together, out loud! After 18 months of Zoom, it was an exhilarating experience. Almost ecstatic. Just to sing together.

The words and music were good, but immaterial. It was the doing together that mattered.

I used to question the value of rote responses from a prayer book or missal in some church’s liturgies. I see them differently now. It’s not the meaning of those words that matter. It’s the doing of them. Together.

When I mention this to others, they remember how the dinner conversation at family reunions was often formal, sterile. But when the family gathered in the kitchen — to clean up after dinner, to do the washing, drying, and putting away – stories and laughter flowed freely.

If the Hebrew poets could see washing one’s skin as a metaphor for washing away sins, why shouldn’t washing dishes be just as valid a metaphor for spiritual development?

Jim Taylor lives in Lake Country: