Today, in a Facebook note, Jim Forest wrote about an encounter he had with the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
Jim was left to wash the dishes and was a bit annoyed that he was missing a great conversation.
As Jim wrote:
Somehow Nhat Hanh picked up on my irritation. Suddenly he was standing next to me. “Jim,” he asked, “what is the best way to wash the dishes?” I knew I was facing one of those very tricky Zen questions. I tried to think what would be a good Zen answer, but all I could come up with was, “You should wash the dishes to get them clean.” “No,” said Nhat Hanh. “You should wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” I’ve been mulling over that answer ever since — more than three decades of mulling. But what he said next was instantly helpful: “You should wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”
When I first read about this in the 1970s, I was deeply moved, partly because I liked to wash dishes. When I was living in New York City, this was one of the ways to get warm in a cold apartment.
But I remember the joy I had at Thanksgiving when my family went to dinner with the family of Uncle Ed and Aunt Bernie. After a big meal, I would take over washing dishes in the kitchen.
Nhat Hanh’s advice to Jim is, in one way, a call to attentiveness, to “mindfulness,” to being present to the moment. It is not far removed from Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God in a Paris Carmelite kitchen in the seventeenth century.
But it is also a reminder of the value of manual labor.
Today is the feast of Saint Benedict, the founder of Western Monasticism.
After a time in Subiaco, outside Rome, first as a hermit then as the leader of several groups of monk-hermits, Benedict moved to Monte Cassino, where he wrote his rule for monks. “Ora et labora” – Pray and Work – is at the center of his rule for monks, which is really quite practical.
In chapter 35, he writes specifically about kitchen duties:
The brethren should serve one another. Consequently, none will be excused from kitchen service unless they are sick or engaged in some important business of the monastery, for such service increases reward and fosters love. . . . Let all the rest serve one another in love.
Serving one another in love – with our hands and our hearts – is central, not only to Benedictine monks and nuns, but to all who seek to follow God.
And so today, when I wash dishes – in cold water with very little water pressure – I will try to be attentive to what I do and remember that I should wash each dish “as if it were the baby Jesus.”