l'Arche Archives - St. Stephen's University

how to wash dishes

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Ashley Burtch is a recent graduate of SSU and is currently serving at a l’Arche community in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.  The following is a reflection on her experience of living in community there. Also, if you haven’t done so, make sure to check out the video of the core members that Ashley lives with.

Well, that’s it.  Vacation is over.  It was so incredibly good.  Far beyond what I could have hoped for in a vacation.  So I take a deep breath and I close my eyes to sleep tonight unsure of what tomorrow brings, which is, I suppose, true about any day.  I end vacation tired and satisfied.

We’ve had a dishwasher while here in Saint John (and have enjoyed making full use of it, despite some pangs of guilt).  Candice found the following passage in Miracle of  Mindfullness by Thich Nhat Hanh. It seems so appropriate in light of the pending return to a life with more daily responsibilities than I am used to carrying.  It reminds me that I must learn, again and again, to live present in each moment. It would be so easy to look back at vacation and wish for these days again, because they have been so enjoyable.  For that matter, it would be so easy to look back at my time at SSU, or at home with family, or my childhood and long to be there again.  At the same time, it is so easy to worry about coming changes, the future, my “life plan”, where the heck I’m going and on what road.  But all of that distracts me from the opportunity that is here and now.  The opportunity to learn, grow, develop, enjoy, breathe, digest.

This is a long quote, but well worth reading.  Especially if you, like me, have a lot of dishes to wash.

Thirty years ago, when I was still a novice at Tu Hieu Pagoda, washing the dishes was hardly a pleasant task. During the Season of Retreat when all the monks returned to the monastery, two novices had to do all the cooking and wash the dishes for sometimes well over one hundred monks. There was no soap. We had only ashes, rice husks, and coconut husks, and that was all. Cleaning such a high stack of bowls was a chore, especially during the winter when the water was freezing cold. Then you had to heat up a big pot of water before you could do any scrubbing. Nowadays one stands in a kitchen equipped with liquid soap, special scrubpads, and even running hot water which makes it all the more agreeable. It is easier to enjoy washing the dishes now. Anyone can wash them in a hurry, then sit down and enjoy a cup of tea afterwards. I can see a machine for washing clothes, although I wash my own things out by hand, but a dishwashing machine is going just a little too far!

While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.

In the United States, I have a close friend named Jim Forest. When I first met him eight years ago, he was working with the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Last winter, Jim came to visit. I usually wash the dishes after we’ve finished the evening meal, before sitting down and drinking tea with everyone else. One night, Jim asked if he might do the dishes. I said, “Go ahead, but if you wash the dishes you must know the way to wash them.” Jim replied, “Come on, you think I don’t know how to wash the dishes?” I answered, “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.” Jim was delighted and said, “I choose the second way—to wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” From then on, Jim knew how to wash the dishes. I transferred the “responsibility” to him for an entire week.

If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future —and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.

With love and peace,