Book Review Wednesday: “The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and ‘Women’s Work'” by Kathleen Norris

31 January 2007

This is a little book, but only in terms of page count and not content.  Kathleen Norris’ The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and ‘Women’s Work’
is an extended, lay monastic, primarily Benedictine meditation on prayer, living in the world, and intentionality.

One of the great plusses of this volume is its concision, inexpensiveness, and ease of acquisition.  Rarely do we find a book with wisdom so concentrated, in such a humble presentation, which is also not a rare, hard-to-find tome authored by an early Nineteenth Century saint of the Old Believers in Russia.  You can get The Quotidian Mysteries for a mere $5.95 from Paulist Press.

The occasion for writing The Quotidian Mysteries was Saint Mary’s College’s invitation  to Norris to deliver the 1998 Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality.  This book is the fruit of that invitation.  Although I doubt this was the text of the lecture the book comes in at 90 pages),  The Quotidian Mysteries no doubt contains the fullness of Norris’s thoughts on the subject at the time.

Kathleen Norris, a Presbyterian Benedictine oblate and poet, has written on monasticism before, most notably in the excellent The Cloister Walk.  Here, she takes a much more specific topic: how are the menial tasks of life —the tasks we don’t educate our children to do, those little jobs that we think of as work for other, less fortunate people’s children, the daily chores often considered “women’s work— islands of holiness, just like the Daily Office might be.

She begins by noting at one of her first Catholic Masses that the priest “did the dishes” after Communion but before finishing Mass.  This little activity, known within the liturgy as “purification” where all crumbs and remaining drops of the Body and Blood are consumed by the priest and the sacred vessels wiped and cleaned, shows that some things must be done before we can go on.  Purification is important enough, Norris argues, that a Priest without servers must ask the congregants to wait before concluding the Mass, blessing, and dimissing them.

Norris makes clear that she doesn’t think that these tasks should define or confine us, but that they should not simply be disregarded as “menial” but looked at as a small but no less important part of our stewardship of the world, our recognition of God and the holy residing in almost every thing, our participation in what Jews call the tikkun olam, the fixing of the world.

Although I don’t think she mentions this specifically, I see Benedict valuing the menial specifically in Chapter XXXI of the Rule.  Here he outlines the requirements for the monastery cellarer, who must “regard all the vessels of the moanstery and all its substance, as if they were sacred vessels of the altar.”  As the Abbot, Prior, and Deans of the monastery are to oversee the spiritual and temporal lives of the monks, the cellarer must take care of the sick, the infirm, and all of the more menial aspects of monastery life.
The downsides of menial work —that it can never truly be finished, that it is a hard, hard discipline to be always appreciative of those who do this work—  are also confronted and discussed.  Norris stresses, however, that if we change our values to esteem this kind of work as important and necessary and give it the kind of “spiritual import” they deserve, then the dignity of those who do them, be they wives, mothers, cooks, or janitors, is necessarily recognized.

As a postscript, my friends Jason, Chris, and I are planning on going on a retreat during Lent.  I think I am going to suggest that we take The Quotidian Mysteries as a sort of preparatory text for the retreat, something to shape our reflections around and set the tone of our time at the monastery.

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4 Responses to “Book Review Wednesday: “The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and ‘Women’s Work'” by Kathleen Norris”

  1. Rich Murray Says:

    Thanks for your book recommendation. Your post reminds me of my time spent in a hermitage at Saint Benedict’s Abbey in Snowmass, Colorado exactly one year ago. The monks do not take meals with the retreatants. In fact, retreatants are responsible for their own food. After some time to slow down, I had the joy of discovering that making toast in the morning had become a holy act. I look forward to reading this book.

  2. Tripp Says:

    Jorge, I don’t know if you have read the Sabbath 11 musings on my blog or the other two. But the “never being finished” thing is covered on all three. “Finished” is a myth. Benedict might agree. Interesting post, brotheman. I loved this book when I read it years ago. It is time to pick it back up.

  3. Kit Says:

    I’m incorporating this into my sermon that I’m writing for tomorrow! It is a wonderful book, and something that needs to be on my bookshelf for the next time I desire a “laundry strike.”

  4. Rueben Mayle Says:

    Exceptional site, where did you come up with the info in this posting? I’m pleased I found it though, ill be checking back soon to see what other articles you have.

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