Saturday, 12 January 2019


I believe in housework, but I do not enjoy an excess of it.

From my teens onward, monastic thought influenced and shaped my life — also buddhist and taoist thought.

There's a wonderful story (buddhist? taoist?) of two monks walking along a mountain path that goes past a humble stone dwelling alongside a clear stream. 
As they approach the little house, the first monk says to the second, "A sage lives there, a holy man." 
Then they notice a lettuce leaf bobbing on the water of the stream.
The second monk remarks: "He can't be either holy or wise, or he wouldn't be polluting the stream and wasting that lettuce leaf."
The words are scarcely out of his mouth when a skinny old man with a long beard, dressed in an ancient and tatty (but clean) robe, comes tearing out of the door, and runs at top speed to the stream to retrieve his lettuce leaf.

In monastic thought of every religion, cleanliness and frugality are prized.

"Cleanliness is next to godliness," as John Wesley said. 

The monks I lived with in my teens had a little booklet setting out their rule of life: it included the observation, "The priory should reflect the peace and order of heaven."

Cleanliness and order belong to the kingdom of God, because they promote God's shalom. Where there is clutter, dirt, bacteria and mould proliferate, and insects and rodents take refuge. In their wake comes disease — respiratory tract problems (asthma and infections), gut infections, skin infections, all sorts. Our discipleship requires us to extend the reach of Christ — the kingdom of God, the spread of God's shalom; and cleanliness and order are part of this.

It is important that we undertake it ourselves, not personally be the source of dirt and clutter while passing onto others (paid or unpaid) the responsibility for clearing it all up.

As a teenager, I remember reading about the spiritual formation of Carmelite nuns. They are contemplatives, their work is prayer and art and writing. They don't teach or do social work. They are enclosed. So you might expect that their formation focused on spiritual and intellectual exercises. It made a strong impression on me that for their first year (postulancy and novitiate) they are required to do no intellectual labour but housework and gardening and cooking — manual work, which is an essential component of our spiritual formation. Scrubbing floors develops the soul.

This ongoing responsibility is an exacting requirement, but the task is made immensely more daunting if we have many possessions. 

You don't have to be a minimalist to live simply, but it is much easier to live simply if you are a minimalist. The practice of simplicity requires you to be mindful about all the threads and connections of your life. The garments you wear, the groceries you buy, the fuel that lights and heats your home, all the myriad daily choices — the simplicity of faithfulness lays upon you the discipline and responsibility of becoming aware of the sources of these connections with the wider world, ensuring that so far as it is possible your end of the engagement promotes compassion, honesty, social justice and the wellbeing of creation. It is an enormous task. The less we have to think about, the easier it is to carry it out faithfully.

When it comes to housework, up to a point I enjoy it. There is an interest and pleasure in, for example, hand washing pyjamas and hanging them on the line to dry (as I did this morning), or carefully cleaning the accumulated grime from the touch of many fingers from the edge of a door or drawer or from a banister rail. It's pleasing. But if there is clutter everywhere, more than you can possibly deal with, it becomes merely overwhelming and one is discouraged from even making a start.

So keeping ones possessions strictly limited to a small number promotes the likelihood of keeping one's home tidy and clean. When I say it, that sounds like stating the obvious, doesn't it? But it's surprising how many people don't get it. I've had people say to me that they don't want to tackle their accumulation of possessions and dirt because they don't like housework; I say it's essential to keep it all under control for the very same reason. A minimalist lifestyle is brilliant for a lazy person.

Friday is meant to be cleaning day in our house, but the time got filled up with other duties, so we set about it today — Saturday — instead. We three women who live here full-time each give an hour to cleaning on the same day at the same time, and three hours is all that's needed to keep things in good shape. There's also a man who lives here and he also cleans, but on his own schedule because his patterns of responsibility are different.

So today, my job was vacuuming and dusting through the common ways, and cleaning my room. I want to show you what I had to clean.

The lower stairs to the attic (above that is the responsibility of the person who lives up there, and she isn't here at the moment) —

The landing (upstairs hall) —

The main stairs —

The downstairs passage (hall) and the front sitting room —

I swept the kitchen too, but the one of us who had the task of cleaning the kitchen pulled out the cooker and freezer to clean behind them —

The back sitting room —

— including the hearth —

— and all surfaces —

— and then the floor and surfaces —

— in my own room —

What I want you to see is how phenomenally easy it is. There is one hurdle to overcome — only one; getting rid of possessions, bringing the number of items one owns down to a minimal level. After that it's a breeze forever — and the older I get, the less energy I have and the more I appreciate it. In the years left to me on this earth I want to enjoy being by the sea and in the garden, to look at sunsets and smell roses and sit by the fire — not sift through mountains of clutter trying to find my tweezers!


greta said...

i say this quietly so as not to frighten anyone, i actually love cleaning. it's a very calm and meditative activity that keeps my often distracted mind focused nicely. it does help that we have few possessions, simple furniture and plenty of open space. i've embarked on my annual post-holiday clean and, because we've simplified more each year, every year the cleaning is easier and takes less time. this is important, as you so rightly observed, because we are getting older and can't manage some of that heavier cleaning without help (like moving the fridge to clean behind it!) it's snowing outside today, candles are lit within and the house is today and welcoming. that's a lovely feeling!

Pen Wilcock said...

Heheh — well, that's the thing. I love cleaning too, but I quickly go off it if it's complicated or there's too much of it. I find sweeping our passages calm and meditative, just as you say — but I think I might not if there was a tumble of shoes and bags and dropped coats, or a lot of hard-to-get-under-and-behind furniture that left too narrow a gap for the broom or vacuum cleaner heads. It's the same with laundry. Hand-washing the clothes I took off yesterday and a few handkerchiefs is fine, but if I had eighteen nappies, five pairs of denim jeans, the linen from a double bed, and someone's rugby kit, I'd definitely opt for a washing machine!

Pen Wilcock said...

I wish I had a photo of your home, Greta, with the candles and the snow falling outside the window, and the peacefulness within!

GerriHultgren said...

I was born,raised and educated in is in my DNA. I spend about 30 minutes a day going through everything,straightening,removing clutter,wiping things down and making our place "visitor worthy". Once a week my husband and I go through the house together. I have a place for everything and ( most of the time) everything in it's place. Hubby not so much,hehe. I have more things than you do,Pen,but it's neat and clutter free.
I don't mind cleaning at all,it's something you do for yourself and your loved ones. I really like the lay out of your home :)

Julie B. said...

How lovely to see the flow and peace of your home, Ember. It's easy for me to send things out of my home as I think of downsizing, and also easy for me not to buy things I don't need. What will be the most difficult for me is paring down my books. I have six bookcases filled with cherished friends. Monthly I choose one or two or three books to donate or give away, but it's painful. I have figured that I will need to move one half of my books out before I move (which won't be soon, but is on the very distant horizon) and that seems so sad to me. Do you have any thoughts on how to part with beloved books?

Rebecca said...

Thanks for the peek into your house. It appears as I might imagine--clean and clear, attractive and accomodatinac. ❤️

Pen Wilcock said...

Gerri — that's really interesting to have the perspective of German culture! I don't know a huge number of German people, but I have much admired the conscientious and methodical approach I have seen.

Julie B — about books, I have done three things, mainly. Firstly, I buy books on Kindle now. Secondly, If there's a really good one I want to share with friends and family, I get my own on Kindle and also a paper one that I send off on its journey for them to read. I rarely get it back, but if I do I donate it to anyone who wants it. Thirdly, I have a few irreplaceable books — eg, some signed copies of out of print 1930s novels by the grandmother of my friend, from a small print run. How could I get rid of them? In my attic, I have a medium-sized box in which I keep a few such treasures. I review it regularly. Once the box is full, it's decision time! Tony had thousands of books, which he has gradually reduced. When he recently downsized from the attic to his present bedroom, he downsized again. This time, he gave away loads of favourites (eg his Terry Pratchett collection). He expects to want to read this again, but will buy them one at a time on Kindle when he does. He kept some that wouldn't work on Kindle, eg his Asterix collection.

Rebecca — Yes, it's fun looking at other people's homes, isn't it!

Anonymous said...

Who were the monks you lived with please? Were they Anglican? I'm intrigued and nosy!

Pen Wilcock said...

Anglican, yes. The Community of the Glorious Ascension.

greta said...

to julie b.: aargh, the books are the hardest! i've finally managed to get mine down to one small bookcase. they are mostly the irreplaceable items as pen said. all my miss read books, elizabeth goudge, d.e. stevenson - lovely out-of-print books that i read over and over. there are also a handful of spiritual reading but, there too, i have pared down. honestly, if i don't know some of this stuff by now, reading another book isn't going to be much help (or so i tell myself :)

to pen: if i were more tech savvy, i'd take photos and e-mail them to you. i'll have to work on that!

Unknown said...

I don't like clutter, I find it stressful. I like to leave a room as I like to find it, hope that makes sense. I find cleaning rewarding, and relaxing, as I kind if zone out of the world and focus only on the task at hand.
Your home looks lovely.

Suzan said...

Housework is my nemesis. As I recover from hand surgery I am losing the battle even more. I will sound whiny but the loading of the washing machine is impossible and I could not hang the clothing If I could load it. The dishwasher takes me forever. I am grateful for it for I could not hand wash if I tried. Only two more operations to go. Then I will be applying a ruthlessness too decluttering the house. My daughter came an picked up many things for me today. My mother has declared she will no longer do housework. She drops so many things day by day.

Pen Wilcock said...

Greta — what you said there made me realise something important; this is exactly how and why we learn, from early childhood onward, isn't it? When there's something we really want to do, but we haven't mastered yet!

Bean — leaving a room as you like to find it is a most excellent principle!

Suzan — Jeepers, what a struggle! May the next stages of your surgery go well! It sounds as if you need some planned regular help.