Cleaning the Bathroom: Bonaventure, Humility, and the Rule of Benedict

28 September 2006

One of my favorite saint stories involves Bonaventure, the Capuchin saint. Legend has it that when the Pope named Bonaventure a Cardinal, he sent a delegation to his monastery to present him with a big red hat, the galero, symbolic of his appointment. Although Bonaventure was the superior of his house, he still had to do mundane chores; on the evening the papal delegation arrived, Bonaventure was taking his turn washing the dishes after dinner.

The Porter, summoning Bonaventure from the kitchen to greet the Romans bearing gifts, was told by Bonaventure to tell them to wait, because he had to wash the dishes first. The delegation apparently felt that they were either more important than the dishes or that house had a lot of dishes that night, because eventually they left without presenting Bonaventure with his new hat. They left it in a tree, and this symbol —a red hat in a tree— is associated with Bonaventure to this day.

Bonaventure’s story illustrates humility in the face of honor and recognition. In some ways, humility in the face of public adulation is easier than the humility of simply doing what needs to be done. Today I cleaned the bathroom. I’m not writing to pat myself on the back. It was not a big chore, but it needed to be done. In the face of many other, more enjoyable activities, I spent about 30 minutes doing an icky job that doesn’t always get done in our more-than-busy household.

In the traditional cycle of daily readings, the Rule of Benedict is dealing with this kind of humility—the humility that looks at something that needs to be done, especially some non-glamorous thing, and does it. The Desert Fathers say that humility is the root of all virtues; a humble person will have a much easier time cultivating virtues and rooting out vices and bad habits than someone who has focused on developing other virtues.

Many of my female friends who are either married, partnered, or otherwise living with men observe that the men they live with do not clean as often or as well as they should. I don’t say this to bash men, but I think that this is a common and accurate assessment. Most men I know are happy, or at least content, to live with a certain amount of dirt and filth. I know I am.

I wonder if the root of this is a lack of humility. Instead of being a nearly universal male character flaw, it might be a symptom of the way men are brought up. As a kid, I was asked to straighten up my room, but not really to contribute to the cleaning of the house. The cleanliness of the house, which I think most men would say is important, was simply not my problem as a child and adolescent, and consequently it’s hard for the cleanliness of the house to seem like my problem now. I try to be aware of the house’s condition and contribute to its cleaning and maintenance, but I think my effort is probably deficient. I was never trained to see the house’s cleanliness as “my problem” or how to go about cleaning a room or a home efficiently; as a consequence it’s been something I’ve had to learn and work on as an adult.

It’s interesting to see this domestic cliché —men not holding up their end of the housework, especially cleaning— as rooted in a lack of humility. One aspect of humility is seeing the world and its flaws as “my problem.” An apothegm of the Desert Fathers come to mind; the humility that says, “they are all going to the kingdom” also sees that what the world lacks —love, generosity, compassion, forgiveness, a good scrubbing— and tries to remedy it. Subordinating one’s own will to the common good, to the Will of God.

This is not to say that the goal of Benedictinism and monastic practice in general is the obliteration of the individual. Our relationships are personal, and although we may humble ourselves and subordinate our own will, to somehow substitute other people’s desires or needs for our own can become a kind of idolatry, too, an unhealthy self sacrifice. Theosis does not imply the destruction of our individuality, but the conformation of our will to the greater good, both human and Divine. We can be humble and helpful while remaining ourselves and respecting our own wills.

I write this not to preach, but because these are the things I am just now learning myself.


9 Responses to “Cleaning the Bathroom: Bonaventure, Humility, and the Rule of Benedict”

  1. Welcome to the RevGals Jorge and thank you for adding me to your Blogroll! Great post, humility is such a rich value. My husband rarely takes initiative cleaning and it has been a place of growth for both of us in our marriage. I love that at the Priory where I am an oblate, the Prioress takes part in all of the regular chores just like all of the other sisters.
    Blessings, Christine

  2. One day when I spoke with the Prior of the Monastery of the Holy Cross (on the South Side of Chicago), he apologized that we might be interrupted during our chat, because he was acting as porter for the day. It’s important in living the Rule of Benedict to recognize that all jobs are worthy of all of us, or at least they should be. If they are not, then there’s a problem.

  3. StCasserole Says:

    Thank you for this post and welcome to the RevGals.

    My grandfather taught himself to like the humble chores and taught me to learn to enjoy chores because we all have to do them (in my world we do). I recall my grandfather as I put my hands in warm water to wash dishes and say to myself, “this warm water feels good on my hands.”

  4. I think that’s a great way to get children to embrace chores. It’s problematic to Tell a child, “You better, or else,” or somehow teach them that their lives should amount to self-sacrificial slavery to housemates.

    Laundry, dishes, sweeping, tidying up: these chores will sometimes, maybe most of the time, get on our nerves. If we embrace and enjoy them, they will become more pleasant.

  5. revabi Says:

    I like this post, its honesty. I like the angle of humility here. sometimes as Pastors we think we are so humble, including self here. But we refuse to volunteer in cleaning, picking up, being a porter, and of the humble tasks, unless we are seen or someone knows about it and we can get a pat on the back. But your post gives me hope for even me.

  6. Thanks for the complimenst. The late Father Izquierdo, former principal of my school, was known for his radical humility. Although he was a noted educator, having received honorary doctorates, you could often find him sweeping the floor in a lonely corner of the school. When asked why he, the head of the school, was sweeping the floors, he’d reply, without a note of condescension or resentment, “It needed to be done.”

  7. Lorna Says:

    interesting post.

    I have two teenage kids – one boy one girl – they both do chores, and both do their own laundry, but I still seem to be the one to do the bathrooms and generally the kitchen – sigh – though I’m not the only one to use them 🙂

    I think our attitude when serving counts. I don’t ever want to drink another cup of coffee /tea served in church by someone who resented doing it.

  8. Bathrooms and kitchens: that’s where things seem to break down for the chore train.

    Attitude is very, very important in service.

    Thanks for the comment.

  9. sally Says:

    great post- if you feel the need to clean bathrooms often- it is just a short hop across the atlantic… you’d be most welcome here!!!
    welcome to revgals btw

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