Cosmic Cleaning: Starting at Ground Zero

Posted on Nov 23 , 2009 in Articles & Heart and Soul

They left their black leather shoes, gray with ash, outside. There was no telling what they might have picked up at Ground Zero. It was better not to track all that anguish into their homes.

Like so many of the doctors and nurses who rushed to Ground Zero to help, my seminary classmates Fr. Kevin Scherer and Fr. Nicholas Andruchow didn’t find the survivors they were hoping to meet and minister to. Instead, they found twisted steel, melted fiberglass and charred body fragments.

It looked at first as if there was nothing to do. But then, they stumbled into a small Catholic chapel just across the street. The chapel had been transformed into a convenience store and bedroom for the firefighters, police officers and rescue workers. The altar was littered with cigarette butts.

Suddenly, they realized that there was something they could do. “We cleaned out the altar area and cleared off the cigarette butts,” Fr. Kevin said. He continued:

We were able to find all of the liturgical hardware that had been removed. We set everything up, lit candles, and placed some kneelers in front of the altar. Almost immediately, the rescue workers began to gather in front of the altar to pray … it was obvious that many of the workers were craving a place to pray. It was the missing ingredient.

Wasting Time?

For my friends at Ground Zero, cleaning was a cosmic act. In a place of chaos and despair, they were able to create a pocket of serenity and to witness to the reality of a divine pattern despite the brokenness all around them. By putting things back into their places, they witnessed to the tearless luminous world that is just beyond the edge of our own.

Cleaning, and the other tasks associated with keeping house, are often thought of as sheer drudgery, or as something that we should rush through on the way to more important work. But when you slow down and engage these tasks fully, they don’t seem meaningless at all. When I feel most powerless and afraid, I find comfort in the simple work of wiping down the counters and chopping up the onions. When life feels rushed and crazy, I find clarity by wiping down the mirrors.

The work my friends did at Ground Zero was certainly more dramatic than the simple tasks that fill my days, but I believe that the simpler tasks participate in a reality that is no less profound.

When I’m tucking the house in for the night — loading the dishwasher, wiping down the counters, picking up toys and tiny bits of toilet paper from another roll my puppy has decimated — I sometimes think about God’s first movements on the face of the earth, how He hovered over the dark, formless chaos and separated the day from the night, the sea from the land, the darkness from the light, ordering the cool and the warmth to fall into seasons and patterns. He was creating order from chaos. I believe we are all called to imitate Him in this, in innumerable ways, every single day.

By creating order and beauty in our homes we create an oasis of peace in the midst of a chaotic world. This is a gift we give ourselves, but also something we can offer to friends, family and strangers as we draw them into the celebration.

In Margaret Kim Peterson’s Keeping House: the Litany of Everyday Life, she describes a time in her life when she chose to work less so that she could devote herself to keeping house. At that point, she did not yet have children, and she was virtually the only person she knew who made this decision.

People would have been happy to hear that I was an artist or writer, that I was developing a small business, that I was practicing the piano or taking flying lessons. But keeping house? I might as well have said, “I’m wasting my time.”

But she knew that nothing was wasted.

I was busy every day with marketing, cooking, cleaning, laundry, making beds, tidying-up, the occasional half-hearted swipe at real dirt (cleaning has never been my strong suit). And the result was that my husband and I had fresh clothes to put on in the morning and a good meal to sit down to at night and the freedom and flexibility to have friends in for dinner or to carry a casserole to a family with illness or a new baby in the house. That seemed pretty worthwhile to me.

Decorating the Titanic

My friend Jane told me that as wildfires ravaged the hills above Santa Barbara and she prepared to evacuate, she was seized by an unexplainable urge to clean. She desperately wanted to set the house aright before leaving, despite the very real possibility that she might not have a home to return to.

I can relate to Jane’s reaction to the fire, because in my own life, I always want to make my home shine before leaving. Always before vacation, but also before moving. I have remodeled kitchens, painted bathrooms just the right hue, and hunted for fresh hardware for the cabinetry, all with the knowledge that this home that I’d loved and lived in would not be mine for much longer.

“Why must you decorate the Titanic?” my husband asks. But for me, the final days in a home are an important part of the process. As I scour the oven, mop the floors and wipe the windows, I feel as though I am saying thank you to the house and to the One who made it possible for us to live there, and I ask His blessing on those who will dwell there next.

Those who own their homes free and clear or plan to live in a home for the rest of their lives might find it difficult to relate to my more nomadic life—in 13 years of marriage, we have moved nine times. But in some sense, all homes are like the Titanic, because life is always slipping from us. We don’t need imploding buildings to tell us that. Our own bodies witness to that reality.

As Fr. Richard John Neuhaus wrote a few years before he died, “Death is the horizon against which we get up in the morning and go to bed at night, and each morning we wake to find the horizon has drawn closer.”

Against this grim horizon, many have found the way forward through concrete acts of hope. Back in the 15th century, when Martin Luther was asked what he would do if he learned that the world was going to end tomorrow, he said, “I would plant a tree today.”

Today, as I remember that crisp fall day when thousands died senselessly and violently, I’ll also remember my friends’ ashy shoes. I’ll chop the onions and make the beds, sweep the floors and bring in some flowers. I’ll keep my lamp burning for those who died too soon, remembering their children, spouses and families. I’ll do it all in the name of hope, leaning into that light to find my way home.

The article was originally published on Boundless Webzine (link) - and the article image is provided courtesy of Boundless.

One Comment → “ Cosmic Cleaning: Starting at Ground Zero ”

  1. Marlene Kaim


    Jenny, thank you for this! My sentiments to a T.
    Keeping a household in order is a never ending endeavor. In the last two years, circumstances have taken me away from our home to be with family members in need. I am asking the Lord to allow me time in 2010 to be home. Our household has been neglected and i cannot rest until things are back on track.

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