I sighed at what a mess my life was in, and these thoughts intruded.”Life is messy. Birth, death, everything in between, it’s all messy. If it isn’t messy, it ain’t life.”
“Can I use these finger paints?” My young daughter had asked. We were in someone else’s house, and she had just discovered a wonderful treasure trove of art supplies. What a great idea! But no, it wasn’t a great idea, since we were not visiting. I was working—working to clean my client’s home, not make it messier. My young children had come along on this summer’s day because I had no one else to watch them, and I was a newly single mother, struggling to keep my family together. My life was already a pretty big mess. Thoughts of even more mess was about to put me right over the edge.
“No!” I replied. ‘We’re trying to get this house clean, not make it dirtier!” Her shoulders sagged, disappointed. My sweet daughter, so full of life, hope, and adventure turned away, returned the paints to where she’d found them, and plopped herself in front of the TV where she and her brother could stay out of my way till I finished cleaning my customer’s house.
Out of necessity, I, who had never learned how to clean my own house, was still learning how to clean other’s homes. My friend had recently taken me in hand and explained, “This is a dust rag.” As a suddenly single parent I had fixed upon house cleaning as a viable way for me to help support my little family while I figured out what to do next. Learning how to dust was perhaps the least important of the lessons I was to learn in the coming years.
Over time I learned to set (and respect) limits with clients. In my home and while visiting others, almost magically dirt began appearing everywhere I looked, as though my vision was clearing. Polishing bathrooms and wiping down kitchens became a piece of cake. The quiet of other’s homes became a welcome respite from the noise, confusion and fear that permeated my own life.
Strangely enough, my own home became cleaner during this time. When you’ve cleaned ten bathrooms in a week, what’s one more? Wanting my own children to be better prepared than I had been to take on adult responsibilities, I began a housecleaning routine in our own home, handing out age-appropriate chores, and working alongside these growing children, who were struggling with our life situation as well. Small children got small jobs, and the lower half of our sliding glass doors never looked cleaner.
One Sunday I sank gratefully into the pew at church, drinking in the solitude one can sometimes discover in a crowded sanctuary. Near the end of the service, I watched as Father Jack finished sharing the Eucharist. The Eucharistic ministers, altar servers and Father Jack all worked together in their ritualized dance of serving the sacred meal, then his assistants carried over what he required for the equally ritualized cleanup. Serving vessels, linens and clear water were all at hand. Father Jack ate the remaining wafers, drank the last of the wine, then worked to restore order to the altar.
Oh, my! As he followed the ritual, I recognized that Father Jack was cleaning up after a sacred meal. In a new way, I grasped the importance of the tasks we face each day; to work honestly for a day’s pay, to feed and care for our families, and to clean up and prepare for the next meal, living by faith that there will be a “next meal.”
I felt a bit envious. Father Jack had an audience for his labors, while many of us toil in solitude, our efforts often little-noticed and frequently taken for granted. However, while we all sat, ostensibly providing Father Jack an “audience” as he worked, our attentions were most probably elsewhere.
And suddenly his work at the altar became even more poignant. He was doing the work of serving, feeding, and cleaning, almost unnoticed, perhaps not even recognized. How like the rest of us as we go about the daily chores that are required to keep our families well.
What a difficult thing it is to keep the sacredness of our tasks in mind when one’s work is constantly undone and overlooked. But perhaps this difficulty is part of what makes it sacred. I’ve found that the most sacred things in life are not only difficult but often pretty messy.
Birth is messy. Death is messy. The lives we live in between these two holy events are surely messy as well. If it isn’t messy, it isn’t life. But oh, this life—such promises of wonder and surprises beyond imagining.
Marjorie Turner Hollman