I read, once, an article by a woman who had decided to join a Christian community. She wrote that when she had become part of it, she began to feel utterly discouraged by the astonishing gifts of the other members. One person was able to provide sensitive pastoral care to those who were dying. Another was organizing migrant laborers into collectives to advocate for adequate food and shelter. She?…She was cooking the supper. Day after day, week after week: cooking the supper. She could not have felt more useless, more ordinary.
The turning-point came for her one day when she realized that her cooking was actually a form of participating in their ministries. She could not comfort the dying; she could not engage in community organizing; but she could strengthen the people whose lives were dedicated to that work she so admired. At once, her labor shifted shape in her sight: it was no longer menial, but significant, a part of bringing into reality the reign of God.
Way back in the seventeenth century, a man named Brother Lawrence had a similar experience. He was a monastery cook, which was about the lowest job in the monastery. While the other monks studied Scripture, counseled penitents, sang the services, Lawrence peeled potatoes, chopped turnips, and tended the fire. But people began to notice that this lowliest of monks glowed with a love of Christ that they would have given anything to have in their own lives. The abbot commanded Lawrence to write of how he managed to stay always in the presence of Christ. He wrote, in part, “that he had always been governed by love, without selfish views; and that having resolved to make the love of God the end of all his actions, he had found good reason to be satisfied with his method. That he was pleased when he could take up a straw from the ground for the love of God, seeking Him only, and nothing else, not even His gifts.”
Our lives are lived amid a constant round of drudgery: cleaning clothes, making beds, checking the e-mail, paying the bills, doing the thousand tedious administrative tasks that need to be done if our private world or the communities in which we participate are not to fall apart. It is all too easy to lose focus, to see these tasks, or the people who do them, as merely menial, unimportant.
But that could not be farther from the truth: those tasks are the way we care for the people we love, the way we tend the communities we love, the way we honor the other people whose work makes our lives possible.
Even in church, the most tedious task of preparing a rota, setting up tables, ironing altar hangings, allows us to participate in the work of God, just as crafting a good letter or ordering supplies or coordinating logistics are ways of participating in the larger work of an organization we admire.
Honor that work. Honor those who perform it carefully and with skill. That work is love made visible, every day. Our lives would be deeply impoverished without it — for how, then, would we show our care?