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home : commentary : columns June 25, 2019

Slow down to spark joy

By Brett Robinson | Catholic News Service

Our dishwasher broke five months ago. We decided not to fix it because we were short on money, so we tried washing dishes by hand for a while. This obviously slowed everything down.

The dinner routine for our family of six got extended by nearly half an hour. Our children were incensed that a new chore had been added to an already long list.

And then something strange happened. We started talking to each other more. Stories, cares and concerns that weren't shared at the crowded and noisy dinner table could be shared one on one over the kitchen sink. We rediscovered the space to communicate just by slowing things down.

It took a taken-for-granted technology breaking down to restore a lost connection with one another. It wasn't that we couldn't have the same conversation while loading a dishwasher, it was that the lack of speed and convenience slowed things down enough to have a deeper conversation.

Paired with the satisfaction of accomplishing a manual task, our talks gave the kids more confidence and a serenity that hadn't been present before.

A few years back, Christine Rosen of The New Atlantis journal asked, "Are we worthy of our kitchens?" She noted the irony of faster and better appliances that had led to less domestic tranquility.

Americans spend nearly as much money on eating out as they do on dinners in and it's hard to see any evidence that timesaving appliances have granted families more leisure time together. When was the last time your whole family sat down for a meal together? If it was recently, then you are in the minority.

The point here is not to start a manual dishwashing movement, although that would be kind of interesting. The point is to pause and ask what all of the speed and convenience is for.

What does saving a half hour on dishes allow more time for? One more episode on Netflix? Another after-school activity that keeps everybody running right up until bedtime?

For all of the incredible resources available to the American home, there's one that has been lost that says a lot about our spiritual health: our capacity to pay attention.

Pay attention to each other, to the task in front of us (aren't we all multitaskers now), to anything at all really. Attention is necessary for prayer, and if we don't practice paying attention, then our prayer life, the heart of our domestic life, suffers.

It's fair to assume that you already hear plenty of admonitions to pray in the pages of this publication, so allow me to suggest something slightly different. Pick up a dirty dish and a washcloth. Turn on the water and let it run gently and slightly warm over your hands. Take a deep breath. Then start scrubbing the dish.

Notice the stains on it and consider the stains on your conscience that are weighing you down and holding you back from a more abundant life. Remove the stains. Rinse and repeat.

If this all sounds a little too Marie Kondo, then so be it. The housecleaning Shinto guru Kondo is on to something. She is exhibiting something akin to a sacramental imagination.

As Catholics, our sacramental imagination does not have to be limited to beautiful liturgies or great art. There's something to be discovered in the mundane tasks of everyday life. So ask yourself: Does my dishwasher, microwave or cooktop spark joy? If not, then use the time you saved with those appliances to find something that does.

Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.

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