Every week I drag home a big bag from St. Lydia's full of dirty napkins and wet dish towels and soiled tablecloths. It gets stuck in the basket of my bike or toted on the subway, and then I cart it down to my neighbor's, who's lucky enough to have a washer and dryer in her apartment. Sometimes my own laundry gets mixed in, sometimes not. Sometimes I do it Monday like I'm supposed to, sometimes I wait till too late on Saturday. Most times I grumble about it. But it always gets done.
St. Benedict founded a monastery in Monte Cassino in 529 ad. The community there was built on a foundation of ora et labora: prayer and work. In fact, the two are the same. At Lydia's work is another kind of prayer, acknowledging that the stuff that makes up our daily lives is the most sacred stuff of all.
In his rule for the community, Benedict's writing merges the mundane and the sublime:
Let the brethren serve one another,
and let no one be excused from the kitchen service
except by reason of sickness
or occupation in some important work.
For this service brings increase of reward and of charity.
The one who is ending his week of service
shall do the cleaning on Saturday.He shall wash the towels
with which the brethren wipe their hands and feet;
and this server who is ending his week,
aided by the one who is about to begin,
shall wash the feet of all the brethren.
He shall return the utensils of his office to the cellarer
clean and in good condition,
and the cellarer in turn shall consign them to the incoming server,
in order that he may know what he gives out and what he receives back.
It's almost comic, Benedict talking about who's job it is to wash the towels and that the forks really should be clean before they go back in the drawer, but this is the stuff of life, and the stuff of God. That we serve one another "brings an increase of reward and charity." That we serve one another makes us love one another.
At Lydia's we all work together to prepare the meal, to set the table, to clean up. I drag the laundry home every week, not because there's no one else to do it, but because it teaches me to love. Our work is our prayer. After a while, the work does work in us.