Betty Friedan wrote in The Feminine Mystique that
vacuuming the living room floor—with or without makeup—is not work that takes enough thought or energy to challenge any woman’s full capacity. … Down through the ages man has known that he was set apart from other animals by his mind’s power to have an idea, a vision, and shape the future to it … when he discovers and creates and shapes a future different from his past, he is a man, a human being.
Though most contemporary feminists have retreated from such harsh language, some continue to attack the life of a housewife. Thus Linda Hirshman argued that “the family—with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks—is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government.” (Linda Hirshman, “Homeward Bound,” The American Prospect, November 2005)
Is it true that housework is a waste of human potential? While it brings no wordly glory, it nonetheless plays a role in Christian spirituality–as a form of meditation, as service, and as solidarity with God.
The ancient philosophers such as Aristotle scorned bodily work as unbefitting a free man. But Christianity, particularly in the monastic vocation, transformed the status of work. The Benedictine motto, ora et labora–work and prayer–refers not to the prominent, exciting work of the public sphere, but rather to the quiet work of farming, manual labor, manufacturing–and even housework, for, as St. Benedict dictates, “The brothers should serve one another. Consequently, no one will be excused from kitchen service unless he is sick or is engaged in some . . . business of the monastery” (Chapter 35). Benedictine life doesn’t just require work in order to attend to the practical realities of running a monastery, but because of its salutary effect on the soul. As one monastery website says, “while working, monks continue to pray, meditating upon the lectio and the Divine Office.” Anyone who’s ever prayed a rosary knows that occupying the hands, especially with a simple or soothing motion, quiets mental chatter and allows us to focus better on God’s presence.
In addition to conforming well to the rhythms of prayer, housework also allows us to serve God. We can see this in the life of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, a Jesuit brother, who was rejected for the priesthood due to his lack of education and instead became a humble door-keeper at a school. Every time he went to answer the door, he said, “I’m coming, Lord!” For Brother Alphonsus, housework was a way to encounter the living Christ. As Christ says in Matthew 25:40, what we do for others, we do for Him. A life of service to others, whether it’s answering the door or changing diapers, is an ongoing communion with Christ–sometimes with Christ in a “distressing disguise,” as Mother Teresa put it. (And a baby who’s been screaming for three hours, or a husband frustrated with the screaming baby, can be the most distressing of disguises!) Serving the physical needs of others is particularly important, as it reminds us that Christ redeemed the whole person, body and soul, and that our bodies are therefore holy.
Human work–all work–also allows us to participate in three different moments of the divine narrative. Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Laborem exercens, wrote that since man is made in the image of God and has been given the mandate to subdue the earth, “in carrying out this mandate, man, every human being, reflects the very action of the Creator of the universe” (4). In addition to sharing in God’s creative moment, work also allows us to share Christ’s cross:
Sweat and toil, which work necessarily involves the present condition of the human race, present the Christian and everyone who is called to follow Christ with the possibility of sharing lovingly in the work that Christ came to do. This work of salvation came about through suffering and death on a Cross. By enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, man in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity. He shows himself a true disciple of Christ by carrying the cross in his turn every day in the activity that he is called upon to perform. (27)
Ultimately, through accepting this toil “in the same spirit of redemption in which Christ accepted his Cross for us,” we also participate in His resurrection (27). We transform toil by embracing it, as Christ did His cross, for the sake of a new heavens and a new earth, and a new brotherhood of man.
Housework, with its “repetitious” and “physical” tasks, lends itself particularly well to this participation in the divine nature. Housework is toil, but housework is also creation–the creation of an orderly home, a loaf of bread, a garden of flowers, a homeschooling activity, a new life. And all of this is undertaken for the common good, just as Christ took up His cross to redeeem His church, the body of believers.
Thus Jesus, who lived the humble life of a carpenter and redeemed our bodies through his suffering on the cross and his bodily resurrection, shows that it is precisely through “repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks” that we can know Him–that we can pray, serve, and become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3).
In my own life, I find more spiritual fulfillment when doing housework or caring for my child than when writing academic papers. I sweep the floor while saying the Jesus Prayer. I play with my baby while meditating on Christ’s incarnation in such a tiny, helpless form. But the minute I sit at my computer to write for school, the complexity of the assignment distracts me from the” one thing necessary” (Luke 10:42). Perhaps in time I could learn to maintain the presence of God while tackling weighty academic tomes, but for now, a life of simple service seems to bring me the most peace.