"Okay, kid, out of the kitchen," I said to my younger son, propelling him out with a gentle shove. "I need to do the dishes, and I need to do them by myself."
I know. That sounds weird. Here I am, with three menfolk prepared to join me, or even substitute for me, at the kitchen sink, and I'm telling them to go away. No, I do not need my head examined. This is Mum's God-time.
It was such an easy ploy, when my kids were younger and ravening for attention. Other parents will understand that taking refuge in the bathroom doesn't work, nor does locking oneself in one's bedroom. Trying to get some peace and quiet and thinking-time when you have kids underfoot is not easy, unless you have a very large house or a nanny.
Having neither, I realized that the best way to get my kids to go away was to invite them to help me with the dishes. Worked like a charm. They'd disappear for hours, finding all sorts of entertainment for themselves. They also learned quickly that getting into fights when Mum was doing dishes was more than likely apt to produce maternal explosions, far more so than at other times. They learned to go away and be quiet. Which was exactly what I wanted.
Because, you see, I'd made a discovery of some considerable importance: I think and pray better with my hands in dishwater than I do at almost any other time. If I try to sit and read or meditate, the mountain of undone housework keeps giving out little tremors or rockslides; after about 5 minutes, I have to get up and do something. But if I'm doing the dishes, my conscience is at peace; my senses are engaged like children colouring with crayons in church, and my mind/soul--whatever you want to call it--is free and disengaged. And that's when I seem to be able to talk most directly to God.
It mattered tonight because it's been a particularly difficult couple of weeks. I have post-traumatic stress disorder, and for whatever reason, it's been acting up lately, rumbling along with occasional grumbles and belches and much low-level grinding. And therefore it's important that I get reasonable prayer-time in. So I told the menfolk to go watch TV or do something to stay out from under my feet, and I tackled a whole day's worth of dishes, all at once.
It occurred to me, as I dried and put away the glasses, that I have now got a whole lot invested in the New Model God: you know, the loving, sensitive guy who craves intimacy, not the white-headed paterfamilias standing by with the strap, just in case the kids got uppity. While scrubbing the flatware, I found myself feeling as though I were crawling into God's lap and leaning up against His chest like a small and tired child. Maybe this is poor theology on my part, but Jesus did call God "Abba", and there is Psalm 131, a favorite.
What we all need in prayer-time is moments like that: moments in which the lines are clear and we can actually speak and listen to God without interruption, like a couple having some quiet talking-through-the-day time before dinner--a chance to establish that sense of connection, a chance to clear the decks and settle down. My method happens to be dishes because of my own twitchy nature, that needs Martha-work for the hands for the Mary-work to get going. Others meditate, or read, or say daily Offices, or pray with rosaries or beads --whatever works.
The point to this time is its intentionality: it's set-aside time. Not because God isn't also present to us, and we to God, 24/7; of course anyone can pray at any time, in any circumstances. No; we need intentional God-time because true lovers have the urge to sneak off into corners for a little private time, and that, at its best, is what living with God is like.
Not always, of course. True lovers have their spats, their times of coolness and distance too, because that's human nature. God may always want to be close to me, but I can't always feel close to God. Even with a counter full of dirty dishes and a sink full of the freshest, hottest suds, sometimes my Godtime seems full of a dusty, forlorn emptiness, an echoing ache. And I know that this isn't God's choosing, but my own state of affairs. I wish I could connect on command, but I can't. The one consolation is that I know that this too is normal.
But still, tonight, and so many other times, I can reach out with my hands for a dirty saucepan and with my soul for God and connect with both. And in the end, one small patch of the housework is done and my soul feels warmed and comforted.
Whatever works, I guess.