Monday, November 21, 2011

Keeping House Book Study: Second Part of Chapter One

(vintage kitchen by janet hill)

This is about Chapter One, part 2 of Keeping House:  A Litany of Everyday Life.  The reading starts with "Divine Domesticity" and goes on to the end of the chapter.

What would happen if we were to look at housework and the doers of housework (whether “housewives” or not) not through the postindustrial and postfeminist lenses provided to us by our culture but through the lens of Christian scripture?

This section invites us to consider God as a housekeeper and someone whose activity is often mediated through household things.   This is a theme also brought out in a book I studied last year, Splendor in the Ordinary, but in a slightly different way.

First, Psalm 104 describes God as someone who builds a house and furnishes it

he stretches out the heavens like a tent
and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
Then there is the familiar Genesis story.   God creates the cosmos and prepares a garden for the man and woman, providing everything they need.     Later on, throughout the Pentateuch, he feeds his people, provides for them, gives them shelter.   In fact, it might be interesting to go through Scripture from the perspective of domesticity, noting all the times that love and concern is associated with food, shelter and provision.  As Mrs Peterson notes:

God’s own presence with his people is mediated through dwelling places and domestic activities.
The story of Abraham offering hospitality to angels unaware is well known.   In this case there is a reversal in that Abraham and Sarah are privileged to "provide" for God and His messengers!

Later on this interesting prototype of man being privileged to offer provision to God is fulfilled in the incarnation of Our Lord, the Son of God.    As Chesterton writes, " the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle"    He, the eternal Word, allowed Himself to be dependent upon an earthly man and woman. 

 “The Word became flesh, and pitched his tent among us,” (John 1:14).
 Jesus describes himself as one who has “no place to lay his head,” but he nonetheless shows himself remarkably conversant with the details of housekeeping. He speaks in parables about houses and householders, about sweeping and lamplighting, about vessels that appear clean on the outside but are soiled within. He enters the homes of others to eat with them and concerns himself with others’ meals, as, for example, a little girl whom he heals: “Give her something to eat,” he tells her parents (Mark 5:43).
However, Jesus makes clear that though domestic duties are worthy of respect, they are not the highest duties.   The story of Mary and Martha makes this clear.    Jesus does not tell Mary her duty is in the kitchen; on the other hand, nor does He rebuke Martha for concerning herself with domestic duties -- merely her attitude in scolding Mary for not doing them (and it's a very gentle, loving rebuke, too).  The message seems to be that domesticity is worthy, not just in itself, but as one way of expressing devotion to God. 

Later Jesus explicitly brings out what one might call the sacramental character of humble domestic activities.    In Matthew 25: 31-46 we see that loving our neighbor involves precisely those humble, often despised activities of feeding, sheltering and visiting "the least of these".

There is often a prophetic note associated with domesticity:
“In my Father’s house are many rooms,” he assures his disciples (John 14:2). “If someone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).
God often shows His promises of forgiveness and constancy in terms of provision, food and shelter, 
and His displeasure by exile and homelessness.
“a peaceful habitation, secure dwellings, quiet resting places”(Isaiah 32:18).
 You prepare a table before me
   in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
   my cup overflows. 
Psalm 23

“Then the king said to the servants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness

The conclusion Mrs Peterson draws from all these scriptural figures (and they could be multiplied many times over) is that domesticity has a spiritual dimension.    We are both physical and spiritual beings, and the two are intermingled, so that what we do in the physical dimension gathers spiritual significance.    She suggests that this is one reason that even secular home organizing manuals often talk about decluttering and cleaning as if it would somehow restore your spirit or at least help with psychological and even physical health.   When I was searching for housecleaning checklists yesterday, I found some sites that instructed you on how to meditate while housecleaning.   The tie between the two things seems paradoxical, but I think Mrs Peterson has explained it well by pointing out how both housekeeping and spirituality are at the heart of deep human needs. 

Once when my husband and I were house-searching, we viewed the for-sale home of a realtor.   It was massively, hugely cluttered.   There were boxes everywhere -- and gaudy, consumeristic objects tossed helter-skelter.  It was the very profile of psychological mess.   Looking at her house, you couldn't help feeling you were at ground zero of a crisis in this woman's life.   I think realizing this is almost unavoidable.  There is, indeed, unhealthy perfection too - everyone's seen houses where the immaculate nature of the surroundings seem rigid, sterile, and fixed to an unhealthy degree.    That looks somehow wrong too.  The balances differ according to one's season of life but certainly one's house inevitably says a lot about one's inner self.     Perhaps that's partly a good thing since I can get clues from my outer environment that I don't necessarily notice just by evaluating my inner self.   Right now, the house reflects the fact that I have been sick for over a month and out of town for at least two of the five weeks.    My whole life feels slightly dusty and disordered.

I am not going to have time to do justice to the word "litany" which Mrs Peterson brings up here.  It is a key word, of course, since it's in the subtitle of the book.   I hope to bring it up again in later posts.  But perhaps one of you who are reading along will focus on that aspect of the chapter?  Anyway, here's a quote:

A litany, as Christians have traditionally understood it, is a form of prayer that includes the announcement of various needs or requests, each followed by a response like “Amen” or “Lord, have mercy.”.... Litanies tend to be both repetitive and comprehensive, and in both of these characteristics there is a certain analogy to housework. A litany is typically about a lot of different things; it includes requests for God’s assistance or care on many different fronts at once. In so doing, a litany draws together the disparate threads of our needs and our concerns and tempers their potentially overwhelming nature.....

Housework, too, is about a lot of different things. There are errands to be run, meals to be planned, clothes to be laundered, messes to be dealt with. .... But there is a fundamental unity and focus to housework, too
That idea of disparity brought together into unity really spoke to me.   I am one of those people who operate in the "big picture".  When I first started homeschooling, every time I ran into a glitch, I would get out my notebook and basically try to revamp my whole system.    I still am tempted to do that and have to really focus to avoid the temptation.   I've learned to operate in cycles and "seasons" to bring out different emphases at different times.

With housekeeping, the myriad of disparate activities and how they have to fall into a proper hierarchy, constantly throws me off balance.   Either I can't see the forest for the trees, or I focus on the forest and the trees escape my notice.    Sure, I've learned coping mechanisms, lots of hacks and strategies, but it hasn't become totally natural to me.   Especially as my family WILL keep growing and changing, so nothing stays the same for long!

Just saying that it helps me to read "big picture" books like this because it helps me find meaning in the little bits and pieces.   As with homeschooling, I think for me housekeeping operates best in a seasonal, cyclical form where I focus on different things at different times.    It may look different for other people. 

I used to wonder if I was just being inconsistent by following the cyclical approach.   I've taken heart in the fact that the Church year operates this way, too.   Different things are emphasized at different times, but over all, there is a continuity and building effect.   There are always opportunities for renewal and emphasis in diverse areas but in the context of repetition.   God gives us chances to do it over and over again until we get it "right" (though thinking about it, I think those repetitions over many years signify something more like completion or richer shading than actually getting an A+).    Praise Him!  I need those chances!

Please follow your own themes or consider these questions (sorry, they came out sounding like literature exam questions -- you can tweak them if you like!)

  1. Are there any other Bible verses that have significance for you that relate to this domesticity theme?
  2. What do you think of this quote? " Litanies tend to be both repetitive and comprehensive, and in both of these characteristics there is a certain analogy to housework."
  3. What are some ways you see spiritual significance in the ordinary things of everyday life?
  4. How is repetition in household matters a "benediction" (see Kierkegard) as opposed to "torture" (Simone Beauvoir) ?
Thank you for all comments and links to blog posts, I am really grateful for other perspectives!  I know it's a busy time of year for everyone but I'm glad to have something like this to keep working at through all the busy-ness and distraction!

No comments:

Post a Comment

I would love to hear your thoughts on this!