This little sign hangs on the door to the laundry room here at the Episcopal House of Prayer. I laughed the first time I saw it and still give it a chuckle. It’s pithy enough to be cute and I’m finding it profound enough to stick.
As I’ve mentioned, I spend a good deal of my time here doing laundry. Whenever a group or an individual checks out of the House, they are asked to strip their linens, remake the bed, and say a prayer for the next person who will stay in that room. That regularly leaves me with a big pile of dirty sheets and towels–a veritable heap sometimes–sitting on the laundry room floor. The laundry here gets done around other tasks–in between making coffee, registering donations, answering phones, welcoming guests, doing the dishes, setting up lunch. But it gets done. And, I think, it has taught me the most about life. Certainly the most about religion.
One half of the laundry room is disorganized, a nest of left behind cords, extra power strips, assorted cleaning chemicals, spare pillows, and the like. The other half is very ordered–stacks of towels (bath, hand, wash) and linens (flat sheets, fitted sheets, xl flat sheets, xl fitted sheets), rags, rugs, and miscellaneous cloths. All of the towels and sheets–off white mostly, with a muted brown or green thrown in–face the same direction, with the fold pointed out. Further, they’re all folded in the exact same way, each and every one of them.
There’s nothing inherently sacred or right or true or beautiful about the way the sheets and towels are folded. Nevertheless, the wrong fold (for example, the short way instead of the long way, the crease pointed in, the fold uneven) would muddle up the whole project. Would they wrongly-folded towel or sheet still get the job done? Emphatically yes. The sheet would still snuggle up against the weary traveler, the towel would still dry the searching guest.
But it just wouldn’t be right or true or good or sacred or beautiful. There’s something exceptionally moving about tradition, which is precisely what the folding process is. I’m sure that I’m folding the towels in much the same way as they’ve always been folded. Somebody did it once–first, even–and it’s always been the same. There’s nothing inherently right about it, other than it’s the way we’ve always done it.
That kind of language is often used to describe how awful religion can be:
“Why do we sing these hymns…or say these words…or hold this committee…or invest these officers…or…or…or…? ”
“Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
That attitude can be unhelpful–harmful, even–if left unchecked. It prohibits growth, change, newness, life.
It can, but it doesn’t always. And it doesn’t have to.
Tradition, when used as an excuse, limits.
Tradition, when used as an explanation, preserves.
There’s something beautiful about folding these sheets and towels in the same way that they’ve always been folded. I sometimes imagine the other people–students, staff, monks, nuns, bishops, priests, contemplatives, activists–who have stood in the very same spot, folding the very same linens, in the very same way.
I’m standing on ground made holy by a succession of people who have looked beyond the chapel or the oratory or the prayer book and into the laundry room, into the kitchen, into the garden shed and sought to find God in the every day hum-drum of life. I’m following in a tradition, perhaps unbroken, which reaches back twenty-six years (and beyond, no doubt) to a group of Benedictines and Anglicans who thought that, despite their ecclesial differences, something good could come from praying and living together. I’m using a method of folding that was handed down from mother to son to daughter to father to brother to sister to bishop to student to teacher, a tradition tweaked and altered and preserved and defended in the tender moments of one person teaching another person how to do something important.
For those who come here on retreat, perhaps the sign is right: first enlightenment and then laundry. For me, however, it seems to be the other way around: first laundry, then enlightenment.