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A ministry of dirty dishes

Remembering that everything we do is for the furthering of God’s kingdom

by Perry Engle

Most every evening around 6:30 I think of Nicolas Herman. This is generally the time of day when I help my wife, Marta, clean up the dinner dishes. She has already done the heavy lifting of buying, pre paring, cooking, and presenting a meal that is both extravagantly tasty and wonderfully healthy. After dinner, all I have to do is rinse the dirty dishes and place them in the dishwasher.

Nicolas Herman was a French veteran of the Thirty Years’ War. After being injured in the war, he ended up in a Carmelite monastery in Paris. He didn’t have the necessary education to become a cleric, and so he resigned himself to being a lay brother. He spent most of his years at the monastery washing dishes and repairing sandals. Once there, Nicolas took the lofty religious name of “Lawrence of the Resurrection.” People who knew him simply called him Brother Lawrence.

Brother Lawrence wrote about the spirituality of everyday tasks. His little book, The Practice of the Presence of God, is a collection of his writings compiled after he died in relative obscurity in 1691. In his reflections, this man who never attained the position of pastor or priest told of experiencing the presence of God in tasks as mundane as washing dishes.

One of his most famous sayings refers to time spent in his kitchen: “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees before the Blessed Sacrament.”

Brother Lawrence has always inspired me, not just because I’ve always disliked washing the dishes (which I do with a passion) but because he reminds me of the profound calling on the lives of ordinary followers of Christ. We understandably celebrate the roles of those who are called to work within the context of the Church—pastors, bishops, and others—but we often fail to appreciate the calling of the 99 percent of people who work outside of the Church with extraordinary commitment to following Jesus. Teachers, business people, janitors, truck drivers, and stay-at-home moms and dads are all called into ministry by God.

The point is that every single one of us has a calling, and everything we do is for the furthering of God’s kingdom.

Brother Lawrence would teach us that it’s not about vocation, but invocation. It’s about inviting God into every duty, job, position, or act of service. It’s about every believer embracing the joy of following Jesus no matter where God has called them, or how great or insignificant the task.

Said Brother Lawrence, “We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.” So every evening around 6:30, when I’m rinsing and scrubbing dishes, I remember Nicolas Herman—a.k.a. Brother Lawrence—and the little things I’m doing “for the love of God.”

Even though I still dislike doing dishes. Always have, and probably always will.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2014 issue of In Part magazine.
Perry Engle

Perry Engle believes that the greatest invention of the Industrial Age is the automatic dishwasher. When not obsessing about major appliances, Perry serves as bishop of the Midwest and Pacific Regional Conferences. He and his wife, Marta, and their family live in Ontario, Calif.

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