The Sacrament of Housework #1: Psalms and Proverbs


9 July 2013 by thaliakr

The Sacrament of Housework, Findng God in Housework, The sacred practice of family life, Christian parenting, finding meaning in housework

The wonderful Joy Cowley has a lot to say on how to find the sacred in the mundane tasks of housework.

Here is her contemporary psalm on the subject, from her collection Psalms Down Under:

God of washing, God of unmade beds,
God of dented saucepans and worn-out brooms,
your presence in the most ordinary things
often takes me by surprise.

I listen to the morning news
and think of your presence
at a United Nations peace conference,
at the launching of a space probe,
or in the development of a vaccine,
or the discovery of a new planet.
Then I look down and see you
winking in bubbles of detergent.

God of washing,
God of stains and missing buttons,
wherever else you may be,
you are right here with me
defrosting and cleaning the freezer,
picking up bits of plastic toys
from the living room floor,
and each time you nudge my heart
with the warmth of your presence
recognition leaps like a song.

I know it! Oh, I know it!

God of washing,
God of vacuum cleaner bags,
God of sparrows, lilies and mustard seeds,
My house is your tabernacle.

The classic biblical text on the subject is an acrostic poem that closes the book of Proverbs, and has haunted more than a few wives over the centuries:

10 A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband has full confidence in her
and lacks nothing of value.
12 She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.
13 She selects wool and flax
and works with eager hands.
14 She is like the merchant ships,
bringing her food from afar.
15 She gets up while it is still night;
she provides food for her family
and portions for her female servants.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She sets about her work vigorously;
her arms are strong for her tasks.
18 She sees that her trading is profitable,
and her lamp does not go out at night.
19 In her hand she holds the distaff
and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
20 She opens her arms to the poor
and extends her hands to the needy.
21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household;
for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
22 She makes coverings for her bed;
she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is respected at the city gate,
where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them,
and supplies the merchants with sashes.
25 She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.
26 She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
27 She watches over the affairs of her household
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
29 ‘Many women do noble things,
but you surpass them all.’
30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Honour her for all that her hands have done,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

Proverbs 31:10-31, New International Version

If you can avoid seeing this poem as a demanding checklist (did I get up early enough this morning? Am I supplying enough merchants with sashes?), there’s a beautiful thing to notice about this passage. Here, domestic work as prosaic and everyday as sewing and cooking not only gets airtime in the Bible, but gets a cheerleading paean at the end of a book on how to live life well.

Joy Cowley is telling us that God can be found wherever we are, listening to world news or scrubbing plates. The poet in Proverbs gives honour and blessing to those involved in domestic practicalities.

This is just the beginning of how we can see our work at home, in all its tedium and grossness (sometimes, at least), as sacred activity, opening connection with God. More coming, and goodness, some of us need it, right?

Whether you spend lots of time at home with kids, or you’re out and about doing other things but still need to do the dishes at the end of the day, housework is a big enough part of most of our lives that it’s worth shining some light on.

What about you? Do you buy it? And do your children rise up and call you blessed when you give them their folded undies?

The Sacrament of Housework, Findng God in Housework, The sacred practice of family life, Christian parenting, finding meaning in housework


9 thoughts on “The Sacrament of Housework #1: Psalms and Proverbs

  1. kindikat says:

    I’m uncomfortable with the use of the word “fear” in the biblical text, but I really like how the first one mentions her listening to the radio.. I find putting on some good music is a really good antidote to the cleaning drudgery blues

  2. Caroline says:

    That looks like a brilliant book – why won’t Amazon sell me a copy in the UK? :-( Anyone know where I can get one?
    Thanks for the reminder that the sacred is everywhere & in everything we do.

  3. Andrew says:

    fishpond also have it (with free postage, but sometimes slow postage)

  4. Thanks for this, T. I surprised myself, some years back, when I was asked what my favourite worship activity is – it’s housework! That’s partly because my agreed-upon housework duties are actually pretty light, so when I do get to do some its a free and gratuitous choice. And our kids are far easier to care for when I want to focus on something else (I usually just need to invite them to join me in cleaning and they’ll quickly find some way of entertaining themselves). And like most I get grumpy when recently washed floors have mud tracked over them immediately, and people don’t bother rinsing their plates, and … so on. But! When I have nothing to do but housework, I love it. I love the satisfaction of cleaning and being able to see the results. I love the simple fact of serving in such an uncomplicated way. I love the mindlessness of it, giving my brain time to roam free, or to listen to music or something on the radio. Worship and housework go together beautifully, if you ask me. I think most of us feel closest to God in our own space.
    Re Prov 31:10ff, when I first read it, as a uni student in the eighties, I thought it blew the glass ceiling out of the house – this was someone who was clearly a major force in society. It was only when I read it to my Girls Brigade troupe that one of them commented “It sounds like a huge amount of hard work, to me!” and I realised how daunting it might be.
    But this Sunday I’m preaching (as part of a series on Proverbs) about Righteousness in the key areas of debt, diligence, and deceit. The whole book has a strong emphasis upon diligence in work, for everyone! What’s remarkable is that despite the occasional misogynistic text, the book concludes by focusing on women at work in such a positive way.

    • Thanks, Roger, for these thoughts. Great to have you in conversation!

      I think housework has particular satisfaction for pastors and others in jobs were the ‘successes’ are difficult to quantify. Having said that, the three minutes anything stays clean with small children somewhat dampens the effect!

  5. […] This is part of an occasional series exploring the spiritual depths of what can seem like mundane jobs. You can read the first part and see my awesome home-made illustration here […]

  6. […] on recategorising housework as a sacramental activity, somewhere God can be keenly experienced. The first post pairs a Joy Cowley Psalm with a piece from the book of Proverbs; the second is about the power of doing someone else’s housework; and the third challenges […]

  7. […] The first post pairs a Joy Cowley Psalm with a piece from the book of Proverbs; the second is about the power of doing someone else’s housework; the third challenges the view that Jesus was dismissive of housework when he visited Mary and Martha; and the fourth is full of practical tips for organising a house. See the whole series list here. […]

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