05/07/2020 Why are you washing the dishes? – by Pastor Katie

In college, my program took a weekend retreat to Blue Cloud Abbey in South Dakota. The Benedictines are known for their hospitality, their aim is to treat each guest as Jesus himself. We prayed the liturgy of the hours with the community, spent time in silence and learned together.
The previous summer I had spent working at a church camp and knew that preparing and serving meals for many guests creates many dishes. So, after each meal, I made my way back into the dish room to help with clean up. While the monks tried to persuade me that I was their guest and they were honored to serve, I am a team player and try to serve and help wherever I can.
Admittedly, I think part of me just wanted to spend more time with the brothers, learn from them, and glean their wisdom from lives of service, prayer, and community. One night, as I put clean dishes, pots and pans away, one of the brothers asked why I was so set on helping. I fumbled a reply about teamwork, the job needed to get done and I was willing to help, or something like that.
Then, the Benedictine monk asked me, “Are you washing dishes to wash the dishes? … or…are you washing dishes to wash the dishes?”
I didn’t know then what he meant, and I’ve come back to that question for years. (This retreat was in the fall of 2009 – it has been a long time.)
This week I had a breakthrough and it all clicked!
One of my spiritual directors, the one that is about three feet tall, a solid 30 pounds, and answers to the name Ben – yes, my three year old son – helped me understand this question after so many years.
Ben’s teachers sent home an outside scavenger hunt for us to explore our backyard and see what we could find. We had the list on the clip board and a pencil in hand, we were ready!
Ben looked at the pictures and walked around the yard. Grandpa tried to teach Ben about efficiency, ‘you stop in one area and try to check off all of the things you see there,’ he said. Ben wasn’t interested.
I tried to hint and some items on the list, “Look! There’s a yellow flower, is that on your list?” (It was definitely on the list.) Ben wasn’t interested.
After ten or so minutes of this, Ben looked at his list again and decided he wanted to look for an ant. We moved our search to the driveway. Quickly we found an ant and checked off the box. Then we asked Ben what he wanted to look for next, he said “ant.” When we pushed for a new item to look for and check off, he took the clipboard and pointed to the ant, “ant” he said firmly.
We protested that we’d already found one and checked off the box, but Ben wasn’t interested.
We found ant, after ant, after ant. He had no concern about checking the check boxes and getting something done. Ben was interested in finding the ants, looking at them with his binoculars, and seeing where they would go. Not the checklist, but the simple joy of paying attention to a tiny piece of God’s big creation.
It clicked.
I was back in the dish room with the question: Was I washing the dishes because it was another item on the checklist and I wanted to get it done? Or was I washing the dishes as a contemplative act of being present, knowing the dishes had served and nourished hundreds in their lifetime.
Was I washing the dishes while thinking about the next thing I had to do? Or, was I washing the dishes with my whole self because dishwashing was the task right in front of me?
My son found purpose, meaning, and joy from finding ant after ant, not from completing the checklist. He was finding the ant to find the ant.
Are you washing the dishes to wash the dishes? Are you just completely the to-do list item by item? Or are you washing the dishes to wash the dishes by being attentive to the task and person right in front of you, honoring the person and task as sacred parts of God’s creation?
Forthrightly, I don’t live every day or every moment like this. I imagine the Benedictine monk who originally posed the question to me had spent much his lifetime cultivating attentiveness to the present moment and task.
This weekend I’m going to try to find attentiveness and moments of presence. I’m going to go
look for ants.
– Pastor Katie

One Response to “05/07/2020 Why are you washing the dishes? – by Pastor Katie”

  1. Brian and Tina says:

    Very convicting, Pastor Katie. You’d think we’d have the “present” thing down during this quarantine but we are still works in progress. Have a beautiful and blessed evening.

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