Holiness and Housework: The Sacred and the Mundane

One of the most influential theories for explaining religion over the last 50 years has been that religion is a system which divided people, places, and things into essentially two categories: the sacred and the profane. This view, popularized by Mircea Eliade, held that the sacred was a locus of holiness, where God could be encountered. Temples, churches, special times of the day for prayer, holy days, priests and priestesses, etc were examples of the sacred. The profane was everything else. Sometimes the profane was forbidden, but usually the profane was just the ordinary. This way of thinking about religion has come under some scrutiny for various reasons, but it is a useful way for thinking about Sister Beck’s controversial Conference talk.

One of the interesting aspects of the religious life of monastics and ascetics is the ability to transform every aspect of one’s life into a sacred moment. From the kinds, quantity, and quality of food to the ritual aspects of going to the bathroom to the times of the day for singing, praying, studying, or meditating to the kinds of clothing that one wears, every aspect of one’s existence is infused with an element of holiness. The more sacredness in one’s life, the more one has to negotiate around a series of protocols and dispositions for dealing with it.

What I think that Sister Beck was doing was infusing the mundane with a sense of sacrality. Her emphasis on the most menial task for many women in a way connects a particular kind of life of a mother to the life of a monastic. This mother sees her responsibilities as constituting worship. Ironing, teaching children, washing windows, cooking, and other “nurturing” acts are not just labor, they are sacred moments. In her empahsis on the mundane, she is following a long-standing trend in Mormonism to break down the distinctions between the temporal and spiritual, the divine and the human, the sacred and profane.

There is a great deal of this view that I am sympathetic to. At the same time, if the comparison between motherhood and the monastic life is made, one should ask about why such a life seems to be disproportionately placed on women. If the mundane is the sacred for LDS women, why is the same not true for LDS men? Why don’t we hear about the sacredness of the morning commute, the spiritual power of mowing the lawn, or the holiness of their mundane employment? It seems to me that the disproportionality of the “sacred” in the lives of women is something worth considering.

Second, I have already discussed in a previous post the potential problems of exclusively focusuing on the family. Do the women in Sister Beck’s talk not have to balance their other lives, including their church lives, with her view of motherhood? It seems that the multiple identities that we all carry, being parents, having church callings, maintaining friendships, and perhaps even working, is something worth discussing. When these other obligations are ignored as a part of a mother’s life, it can reinforce the view that the only responsibilities and obligations one has as a women is to be a mother. Besides the fact that all of our lives are obviously multi-dimensional, what social risks does such a unidimensional view of motherhood hold?