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?

  • Jacob

    I’m focusing on the first set of questions, about “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?”

    Two things jump to my mind. First, a man’s means of providing for his family isn’t nearly as important as the fact that he is trying his best to provide for his family. Second, there have been plenty of times that I’ve heard in my life that it is important for a man to work. It’s not so important what type of work he does, it’s just important that he does it, even if it isn’t something that he likes to do. However, since in the view of the church, the family is most important, and therefore the mother’s primary job is to raise that family, a great emphasis is placed on the spirituality of being a mother. I know I’m raising some hackles with what I’ve just said, but please understand, I’m not saying that being a mother is the only thing of worth for a woman. I’m just trying to explain why there is such an emphasis “of the “sacred” in the lives of women”.

  • http://www.libertypages.com/clark Clark

    I’ve heard plenty of talks elevating the mundane that men do. Maybe we haven’t gone quite as extreme as some Zen Buddhists have. (Let’s be honest, they’ve elevated a lot of mundane stuff to a level almost unfathomable) But I agree with your point. There is something to be said about treating the mundane as valuable.

  • Matt W.

    I think the most quote President Hinckey quote around here is the life is mundane, “most times, meat is tough” enjoy the ride talk.

  • http://www.bycommonconsent.com Ronan

    Great post, TT. Mormons are good at making the profane sacred. On the satellite feed between sessions they showed a gardening programme. Funny, but cool.

  • Kristine

    Good questions. Kathleen Norris wrote a beautiful little meditation along the same lines, called _The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work”_. Alas, a sincere appreciation for the volume has done nothing to decrease the size of the laundry mountain in my basement!

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com TT

    Thanks all for these excellent thoughts so far. I think that I agree that Mormons make the “profane” sacred all the time, like the “cultural hall,” the use of water for the sacrament, and other examples. However, I still think that LDS women bear an extra burden of that sacredness when not just the profane, but the mundane is imbued with holiness. When cooking a meal or vacuuming become sacred, worshipful acts for women (but not for men who do the same acts), I wonder if there is a disproportionate level of responsibility. There doesn’t seem to be a correlation for men’s work, even in the priesthood. A man’s life is still divided between the sacred and profane, but a woman’s life risks become entirely sacred.

    The sacred is powerful, heavy, numinous, and tremendous. Should women have to live their entire lives under its purview, or can doing laundry sometimes be just doing laundry?

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com TT

    I also want to consider that living one’s entire life in sacredness has a powerful draw to it. Perhaps this is something worth considering more, especially in light of the oft-repeated equation of priesthood with motherhood. If motherhood is a form of complete worship where all acts become sacred, shouldn’t it’s weight be welcomed by women?

  • http://ldsanarchy.wordpress.com/ LDS Anarchist

    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.

    I don’t think we should break down those distinctions. A scripture comes to mind:

    For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, … righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility, [nor profanity nor sacredness]. Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God.

  • http://larsenkris.wordpress.com/ kdl2007

    “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.”

    This brings to mind two monastics; Brother Lawrence and Saint Therese of Lisieux, who most clearly go down this path of spirituality.

    From Brother Lawrence’s, The Practice of the Presence of God, “We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of Him, and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before Him, who has given me grace to work”

    And from Saint Therese of Lisieux’s, Story of a Soul“You know well enough that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, nor even at their difficulty, but at the love with which we do them. ” (A pretty good summation of her “little way” theology)

  • http://thotman.spaces.live.com/ Thotman

    I have read with great interest the discussion here and yet I can honestly say that the sermon by Julie Beck did not resonate with me or many of my acquaintences. When one creates a paradigm to support the formula being preached, often the result is a feeling of “huh?” I am told this was very much like the talk given in the womens conference after which President Monson addressed at length the need for a woman to become well educated and accomplished in fields other than homemaking. I am very interested in seeing how women in the church viewed this conference address

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com TT

    LDS An,
    That is an excellent recommendation for a counter-theology against the sacralization of motherhood. As a friend of mine recently put it to me in another context, if you make everything sacred, then nothing is sacred.

    kdl,
    those are great references, thanks!

    Thotman,
    Thanks for your comment. I didn’t know that about Monson’s talk from RS, I will have to check it out!

  • http://www.karipatterson.com Kari Patterson

    Interesting thoughts here. . . I am currently working on a book entitled The Sacredness of the Mundane and was interested in both the post here and the comments left. Thank you.

  • http://www.theculturalhall.com Ann

    As a friend of mine recently put it to me in another context, if you make everything sacred, then nothing is sacred.

    Exactly.

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