Viewpoint: Housework Can Be the Source of Profound Spirituality

by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

One of the projects I have been undertaking in my spare time over the past month or so is going through my library and separating the books I want to keep from those I want to, well, get rid of.

One of the nice things about this project is rediscovering books that I read years ago but had forgotten. One such book is by Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi entitled, The Sacred and the Feminine: Toward a Theology of Housework. I recommend this book (published in 1982, but still in print) to anyone looking for an insightful understanding of housework and the task of homemaking.

Housework-men-womenRabuzzi’s thesis is that women who do housework are, whether they know it or not, doing something religious. Housework, she says, represents a participation in one of the most fundamental of human roles–that of bringing order out of chaos and turning the world into a more friendly and benevolent place.

In the tasks of cooking, cleaning, washing, and ironing, the mother is ritualizing in a simple way the innate desire of the human person to bring order, harmony, and coherence to a universe in which chaos and disorder reign. She beautifies the home, and makes it good and holy. She is a maker of sacred space.

As Rabuzzi sees it, the mother fights disorder and disharmony, and seeks to keep everything in its proper place. In cleaning up after the minor disasters that children wreak she is ritually symbolizing the restoration of order–one of the goals all religion.

Like the Church, Rabuzzi points out, the home is a place of refuge and protection from the chaotic world. The home is a symbol of salvation. People instinctively associate home with safety from all kinds of outside threats. Home is a place that keeps its inhabitants safe from the elements, from threatening people, and from fearful encounters.

The home, in Rabuzzi’s vision, serves as a foundational symbol of human belonging. Being “at home” is synonymous with contentment and happiness. We commonly speak of being “at home” with ourselves, and with family and friends. By the same token, homelessness signifies not only a physical condition, but also a painful spiritual experience.

Rabuzzi says that in her task of caretaking, the mother is functioning in a role akin to that practiced by priests in various religions. She is the source and maker of peace, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. She banishes fear, and casts out the “evil spirits” that inhabit the minds of children in the form of unwarranted fears.

In the task of bathing and washing, there is a certain analogy with the Church’s practice of baptism. The mother’s role of cooking and feeding functions as an image of what the Church does in the celebration of the Eucharist.

Rabuzzi is no sentimentalist. She does not cast the home or the tasks of housework in an unrealistic or idyllic light. Nor is she anti-feminist. Housework and homemaking are also the responsibility of fathers and husbands–and much of what she says can be applied to the role of men in the home. However, she holds that there is a distinctly feminine character to the task of making and running the household.

This book can give encouragement to mothers who have chosen to remain at home and devote their full-time energy to homemaking. It is a wonderful exercise in the spirituality of the ordinary. It is particularly valuable in light of the cultural tendency to downgrade and undervalue the traditional role of homemakers.

 

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.

Share:

16 comments

  1. I am a retired Lutheran Pastor (ELCA). Back in the early 1960’s when on internship in Menomonie, Wisc. I heard a neighboring pastor speak of a woman in his congrgation who had a sign over her kitchen sink (this was before dishwashers were common). The sign read, DIVINE SERVICES HELD HERE THREE TIMES DAILY. That thought struck me so that Ihave never forgotten it. It reminds me of some of Luther’s thoughts about the ministry that is carrried on in the home by all the members of the family. Msgr. Mannion’s comments reminded me of the above.

  2. I’ve not read the book, so I’m hesitant to comment on it. While I wholeheartedly applaud development of the spirituality of the ordinary, and sincerely believe that I can find God in the doing of the dishes, I am uncomfortable with saying that such a spirituality is at its essence feminine. Women simply have more experience of housework (1 in 5 men does housework on any given day, while 1 in 2 women do).

    That said, I recommend Kathleen Norris’ “The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women’s Work” which explores the ground between the ordinary and the mystical and reading some of Madeline Delbrel’s musings about the ways to spiritually ‘read’ daily work. I’m particularly fond of her comments about interruptions and knocks on the door: “It’s God coming to love us.”

  3. It’s true more women do housework than me, and I read recently that even men who stay home while their wives work outside the home still do less housework than their wives. But to celebrate the spirituality of “women’s work” seems to promote complementarianism rather than equality.

  4. Archbishop Justin Welby (head of the C of E) revealed in a recent interview that as a young priest with wife and growing family he used the time spent ironing to pray, and found it useful. The ironing is a pretty routine action that didn’t challenge his attention to his prayer.

  5. People can pray while doing any task that doesn’t require much mental involvement – there’s that old Jesuit joke about praying while smoking – but to single out housework and women seems unhelpful.

  6. I am reminded of a recent email and comment thread conversation that I had with someone recently. I had posted that I was working on a presentation for a group of adults; the topic was making time for prayer.

    Someone commented that prayer should not be separate, but rather an integrated act – which I wholeheartedly agree with. That said, I am reminded of so many things in my life, from prayer, to yoga, even to writing, along with others, that I had to “learn” to do and to integrate. Like a child taking its first steps, we must focus, stumble, learn in a particular fashion that helps us to a more seamless life of prayer.

    With that, I am fine with the idea of housework as prayer. As someone who truly believes in encouraging others to find God in all things, why not housework as prayer? However, with all due respect, I am pained by more than a few things in Msgr. Mannion’s post. For example, I am not sure that the symbol of home as sanctuary is true for all, regrettably so. And that the caretaking of the homemaker is akin to the priesthood? I find a great deal of discomfort in this notion, as I understand it. The reasons why would fill the comment box, but I’ll elaborate if someone asks.

    Like Michelle Francl-Donnay said above, I too have read the Norris piece and recommend it. But that has less to do with relegating women to their housework and more to do with the integration that I mentioned in the first place.

    Add to all this – I am very poor housekeeper. *sigh*

  7. Having been married 58 years to a woman who shares all aspects of my life with me, including ministry, out of simple justice throught the years I’ve made a deliberate point to reciprocate which has brought me to household tasks. If I had not done that it would have been impossible to understand the demanding, laborious and sometimes boring tasks that keeping a clean, well fed home and family is. As a result it has led to the sharing of our spiritual life and daily prayers, thanks be to God!

  8. I am all for finding God in “home-making” — as well as everywhere else. Yet I too have issues with connecting this activity too closely with what it means to be a woman. It reminds me of an early 20th-century interpretation of the rite of the churching of women as a woman’s ordination to “priestess of the home.” I wish someone would write a book about the spiritual significance of home-making *for men* (except that I am afraid it would not sell).

    ok, I am signing off to do laundry and pray

  9. Where did the picture come from? Is this a joke? It cast a pall over the article for me. The cliched photograph suggested to me that there was a subtext to this article concerning the role of women in the home that intends to glorify the stereotype of the 1950s as “ideal”, or else to mock it. We know the homes of that period were not perfect or ideal, and that such a time has passed, for economic and social and cultural reasons. We cannot and should not indulge nostalgia for an imagined past in home life. At the same time I am not happy with mockery of the post-war baby-boom role models of happy housewife and male breadwinner, roles that were embraced by many in earnest and fit their economic circumstances.

    1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #9:
      I agree with Rita that the photo affected how I read the article. I’d be curious to know if Msgr. Mannion or the Pray Tell editor attached the photo here. It is not part of the article published in the Intermountain Catholic, the diocesan newspaper of the Diocese of Salt Lake City, nor is it with the electronic version on the IC webpage.

      1. It was attached by one of the Pray Tell staff. Clearly in hindsight it was not the best choice to go with this post. In the future we will try to be more careful about the images we use.

        Thanks!
        Nathan

  10. Inside the home, there is also the regular work of repainting, renovating, repairing what’s broken – plumbing, electricity, masonry, etc. Firemaking, when there is a fireplace. Most of what’s written in the post could also apply to those activities. Are they “distinctly feminine” as well? If not, what’s the difference?

  11. The photo is from a 1950s stock image collection – search on bing for ‘picture couple washing dishes circa 1950’ – it is the first one to come up. (Search for couple washing dishes 2015, and you will see a couple who needs to finish the dishes and get a room. Apparently doing dishes has become a lot more fun in 65 years.)
    Susan Starr Sered has observed a ‘pervasive problem’ in the tendency to treat formal, communal practice in masculine religious space as ‘more noble, beautiful, important, eternal, primary or true’ than private female religious practice. I think it is vitally important for each person to recognize of highest value is their own individual religious practice for that defines their relationship with God – and a great blessing to be able for it to be integrated one’s daily life tasks.
    Claire, feminine household tasks are usually identified with labor that is non-progressive, repetitive, cyclic or static.

  12. Here I am, a man, in his early 60’s. I remember every Saturday, as a child, spending the mornings scrubbing the kitchen and bathroom floors. My father drummed into each of us that the men of the house did these chores (including vacuuming) because my Mother did enough during the week and to get down on her hands and knees was beneath her. I grew up with a very healthy respect for women. I taught myself how to cook early on and would take on that task as well just to give my Mom a break. OK… enough said. I have laundry and vacuuming that needs to be done.

  13. Just to say that I have really enjoyed reading the diverse responses to the initial post — let’s have more of these kinds of posts. And thanks for the initial post to Rev. Mannion. I will now go and re-read one of my favorite’s, Florence Berger’s “The Liturgical Year in the Kitchen,” published in the 1940s from what I remember, and with lots of recipes :).

  14. I saw an article today that reminded me of this post. It’s about how the Pontifical Council for Culture is coming together to discuss women’s alienation from the church. They made a video about it with an Italian actress that was so objectionable it was taken down from YouTube. Their document criticizes how society treats women (plastic surgery: bad), but then doubles down on the church’s belief in the complementary differences between the sexes and opines that women don’t really care about women’s ordination or equality of opportunity in the church.

    This trying to jolly women up while keeping everything the same is a continuing failure.

    http://ncronline.org/news/vatican/pontifical-council-consider-challenges-women-face-society-church#.VM-dYNyGli0.twitter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *