Here is her contemporary psalm on the subject, from her collection Psalms Down Under:
God of washing, God of unmade beds,
God of dented saucepans and worn-out brooms,
your presence in the most ordinary things
often takes me by surprise.
I listen to the morning news
and think of your presence
at a United Nations peace conference,
at the launching of a space probe,
or in the development of a vaccine,
or the discovery of a new planet.
Then I look down and see you
winking in bubbles of detergent.
God of washing,
God of stains and missing buttons,
wherever else you may be,
you are right here with me
defrosting and cleaning the freezer,
picking up bits of plastic toys
from the living room floor,
and each time you nudge my heart
with the warmth of your presence
recognition leaps like a song.
I know it! Oh, I know it!
God of washing,
God of vacuum cleaner bags,
God of sparrows, lilies and mustard seeds,
My house is your tabernacle.
The classic biblical text on the subject is an acrostic poem that closes the book of Proverbs, and has haunted more than a few wives over the centuries:
10 A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband has full confidence in her
and lacks nothing of value.
12 She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.
13 She selects wool and flax
and works with eager hands.
14 She is like the merchant ships,
bringing her food from afar.
15 She gets up while it is still night;
she provides food for her family
and portions for her female servants.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She sets about her work vigorously;
her arms are strong for her tasks.
18 She sees that her trading is profitable,
and her lamp does not go out at night.
19 In her hand she holds the distaff
and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
20 She opens her arms to the poor
and extends her hands to the needy.
21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household;
for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
22 She makes coverings for her bed;
she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is respected at the city gate,
where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them,
and supplies the merchants with sashes.
25 She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.
26 She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
27 She watches over the affairs of her household
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
29 ‘Many women do noble things,
but you surpass them all.’
30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Honour her for all that her hands have done,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
Proverbs 31:10-31, New International Version
If you can avoid seeing this poem as a demanding checklist (did I get up early enough this morning? Am I supplying enough merchants with sashes?), there’s a beautiful thing to notice about this passage. Here, domestic work as prosaic and everyday as sewing and cooking not only gets airtime in the Bible, but gets a cheerleading paean at the end of a book on how to live life well.
Joy Cowley is telling us that God can be found wherever we are, listening to world news or scrubbing plates. The poet in Proverbs gives honour and blessing to those involved in domestic practicalities.
This is just the beginning of how we can see our work at home, in all its tedium and grossness (sometimes, at least), as sacred activity, opening connection with God. More coming, and goodness, some of us need it, right?
Whether you spend lots of time at home with kids, or you’re out and about doing other things but still need to do the dishes at the end of the day, housework is a big enough part of most of our lives that it’s worth shining some light on.
For more reflections on housework as a sacrament, you might like to check out these posts: