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.
Rabuzzi’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.