Last week I was plowing through a book on Benedictine spirituality of work when I came across this line from the Rule of Saint Benedict:
“All tools and goods are to be regarded as though they were the consecrated vessels of the altar.” (RB 31:10)
Being a graduate of a Benedictine school of theology, it wasn’t the first time I’d heard this line from the Rule. But when I looked up from my own work and glanced at the calendar’s to-do list for the day, I saw this: wash diapers.
And immediately I thought, “Really, Benedict? You wanna tell me that those stinky diapers I need to make all fresh and clean in this afternoon’s sun are as good as ‘the consecrated vessels of the altar’?”
I rolled my eyes. Talk about monastic life being light years away from the family home.
But then I stopped and gave the thought a moment’s pause.
What if Benedict was on to something, something that applied to my 21st-century home just as it applied to his 6th-century monastery? The monks back then might have rolled their eyes, too, at the thought that their gardening tools and kitchen knives were to be held in sacred respect like chalices and patens. But Benedict’s wisdom of simplicity, sustainability, and stewardship continues to shape the spirituality of hundreds of communities around the world today. He must have known a thing or two.
I thought about those diapers in the diaper pail. Sure, they were cute and colorful; they saved our family money and they saved the earth a little plastic. But were they sacred? They were simply functional. They did what we needed and nothing more. How could they be holy vessels (aside from the occasional cry of “Good Lord!” that F or I occasionally utter when changing S)?
But as I reflected, I realized that clean, dry diapers let S run around freely, learn and explore his world. That is no small thing. They keep him healthy. They keep him happy. (Which keeps us happy, too.)
I thought about the other “tools and goods” that seem to clutter up our household, creating more work than they save. And I realized with the same shift of attitude, I could see them differently as well.
The dishes and silverware in the kitchen let us eat the food that gives us strength to go about our work and play each day.
The toys and books strewn about the house are the tools of childhood, the way S learns how things work and how we communicate with each other.
This laptop upon which I type for hours every day allows me to do my work, to stay connected to family and friends, to explore my vocation of writing.
All of those things are holy and sacred. Maybe Benedict wasn’t so crazy after all.
As I thought about the title for this post, I wondered if anyone would consider it sacrilegious, even offensive. The respect and honor that we as Christians are called to give to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacred mysteries of the altar, pales in comparison with any changed perspective I could bring to our family’s laundry.
But the truth and the beauty of Emmanuel – God-among-us – is not reserved for that moment at Mass when the priest raises a gold chalice or a clay cup in consecration. God-among-us means that God is present everywhere and always. In the washing of stones from yet another scraped knee. In the changing of yet another dirty diaper. In the cleaning up from yet another family meal.
While the material goods are never to be worshipped as divine themselves, they do help communicate the divine to us. As humans, we need sacramentals: we need water and wine, oil and bread, to remind us that God so loves the earthy, sweaty reality of humanity that Christ became a tiny, screaming (dare I add, wetting?) human himself.
The Incarnation changes everything. Emmanuel changes everything.
So why not, too, let it transform my attitude towards stuff – the baby gear and the household clutter and the many things we need to go about the daily work of living?
Benedict was on to something. His ancient wisdom flies in the face of our disposable consumer society. Need something? Buy another. Done with it? Throw it out. Getting worn? Buy one new.
But if we could take a baby step towards seeing the tools and goods around us as sacred vessels, maybe we could cut down on the truckloads of garbage heading to the dumps everyday. Maybe we could stop seeing housework as an endless string of drudgery. Maybe we could open our eyes to the way God speaks to us through an email on the computer, a text on the phone, a song on the i.pod.
So when I groan about the stack of dirty dishes in the sink or the never-ending mess of toys on the floor to pick up at the end of each day, perhaps I need to take a step back and see their sacredness. Not only that we are fortunate enough to have the means to have food for our table and toys for our child, but that the actual physical “tools and goods” themselves are everyday-holy.
They let us do the work of living that we are called to, the work of living that brings us closer to each other and to God. That is pretty powerful stuff. That deserves the thanksgiving of Eucharist.
I would still like to see Saint Benedict wash diapers, though.