Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Notes Toward a Theology of Dishwashing

What Is Happening Here?


Every culture has a particular way of doing things, a way which is difficult to explain to outsiders. Even more difficult is to explain to ourselves why we do things the way we do.

Among my people, the Mennonites of Southern Ontario, we have a tradition of sending young people between the ages of 6 and 16 to summer camp. This is a chance for children and youth to step outside their comfort zones, acquire new skills, and have lots and lots of fun. The camp staff who shepherd them are almost all former campers who have been through the camp's leadership training program. They range in age from 18 to 22. I served five summers on the staff of one such camp, and there I witnessed many strange and marvelous things. This letter is addressed to those who work at that camp currently, although others may find it of interest.

When we talk about camp we sometimes describe it as a 'thin place', where the veil between the sacred and the mundane is less substantial than in ordinary life. In such places high spirits and deep holiness mingle in a way that is difficult to describe. It is in that spirit of solemn playfulness that I want to tell you, my friends, about the way we do dishes at our camp.


Surrounded by nearly two hundred acres of forest, meadows, and lakeshore, the dining hall is the heart of camp life. It is round, with a conical roof, adjoined on its north side by a rectangular commercial-grade kitchen.

The layout of the kitchen is strategic. Its northern end is devoted to food storage: a chest freezer, large upright freezer, pantry, and walk-in refrigerator are located here. In the eastern and central area, food is prepared: here one can find sinks for rinsing or soaking, wide countertops, an electric mixer, conventional and convection ovens, and a large griddle. On the south side of the room, food is served over long serving counters that open toward the dining hall. In the west, where we lay our scene, dishes used in cooking, serving, and eating are washed.

Along the western wall runs a rimmed steel counter at waist height. At about the midpoint of the counter is the Moyer Diebel dishwasher. This machine resembles a steel cube measuring two and a half feet on all sides, whose north and south faces slide upward to admit a square plastic dish rack into the chamber within. In response to a gentle swing of its side handles, the washer slides shut and the wash and rinse cycles begin. Hot water, detergent, and steam spray upward from a reservoir below the level of the counter. Washing and rinsing together take about sixty seconds to complete, and must reach 66 and 82 degrees Celsius, respectively, for dishes to be considered clean and sanitized. Internal temperature is indicated by a digital display on the front of the machine.

Dishwashing begins while the meal is still being enjoyed in the dining hall. The appointed staff members slip into the kitchen and take up their stations, some at the counter to the left side of Moyer and others to the right, while still others attend to the various tasks that accompany the dishwashing process: labelling and putting away leftover food, wiping and sterilizing countertops, cleaning the griddle, pre-washing and sorting the cutlery, and appointing two campers at each table 'scraper' and 'hopper', whose role is to scrape, stack, and carry dirty dishes to the serving counter. Bowls and plates are stood up edgewise in pronged dish racks with the bowls in front; cups and mugs are placed upside down in flat-bottomed dish racks. Campers are not allowed to enter the kitchen, and their participation in dishwashing ends at the boundary marked by the serving counter.

Once a dish rack is full of dirty dishes it is moved to the the dishwashing counter to the left of Moyer, known as the Dark Side. Here dirty dishes are scrubbed in an elbow-deep sink ('Deep Dark') or sprayed in their racks using hand-held nozzles ('Shallow Dark'), or both if necessary, sliding along the counter from left to right. An assortment of scraping and scrubbing tools are available to practitioners of the Dark Side, but steel wool may not be used. Each rack enters the inner chamber of Moyer in turn.

When the sixty-second cycle is complete, the doors of Moyer are raised with a puff of steam and the rack is drawn out onto the Light Side, the portion of the counter which lies to the right of Moyer. Here dishes are allowed to rest until cool enough to handle, then set aside for air drying or returned to their proper cupboards by attendants of the Light Side. Everything depends on the speed of Moyer. Both sides, but especially the Light, must match pace with the central rhythm of the sixty-second wash and rinse cycle so that dishes do not begin to pile up at either end of the process.

Attendants of the Dark Side must not handle anything having to do with the Light Side, and attendants of the Light Side must not come into contact with anything on the Dark Side. If possible, they should not even transgress the invisible boundary between Light and Dark, sanitized and unsanitized, represented by Moyer.

Dishwashing in this kitchen is no mere drudgery. Staff will frequently rush through their meal to arrive early and claim a favourite station; some prefer the Dark Side, others the Light. Loud, upbeat music fills the kitchen, the speakers turned up high enough to overcome the humming of the machines and the jubilation of the human workers. As many as ten or twelve split up the tasks that could feasibly be accomplished by four or five working steadily. Busy at their stations or weaving purposefully through the commotion to accomplish their tasks, the staff sing, dance, or crack jokes along the way.

Nor is dishwashing an unthinking matter of habit. Debates over its finer points occur continually, often in the heat of action. Staff embellish and elaborate on the tasks stipulated by public health regulations, giving nicknames to well-used objects (the scrubbing utensils, the serving carts), or adding activities to the dishwashing process that serve no hygienic purpose whatsoever.

When I was on staff it was traditional, though not compulsory, to handle a rack of freshly washed plastic juice jugs in a particular way. From the Light Side at the north end of the dishwashing line, jugs would be tossed one by one to someone standing next to the drawer where they were stored, at the south end near the Deep Dark sink. Perhaps there was a certain thrill in seeing the jugs transgress the Light/Dark divide and the law of gravity at the same moment. For whatever reason, 'Jug Toss' was well-loved and sometimes became a relay between three or more people. Occasionally, if the work was going well, all the dishwashing staff would stop what they were doing and form an elaborate line that stretched out the kitchen, through the dining hall, around the outside of the building and back in through a side door before ending at the jug drawer.

The most important element comes at the end. When every item has been checked off the list posted next to the refrigerator, every dish put away and every surface sanitized, if at that point there are still campers and staff seated in the dining hall singing the after-meal song or listening to announcements about the day's activities, a triumphal procession must occur. All the dishwashing staff, every last one, must run through the dining hall en masse, yelling and waving their arms, then around the outside of the building and back in through the side door. They have won the race, 'beat the dishes', and may add a point to their column on the 'Staff vs. Dishes' tally chart. But it is not the winning that counts, it is the game: the fact that dishwashing unites the staff in a common struggle and flood of emotions and then releases them, bathed in the steam of Moyer and in the satisfaction of a job well done.


What is happening here? We might say simply that a group of young people are doing something fun together that happens to be a necessary chore. But we who have laboured to learn the art of serious fun  know better. With the eyes of those whose work is sheer playfulness, we can read more deeply into the matter.

Notice, if you will, the layout of the kitchen, which follows the path of the sun throughout the day. The morning's work of food preparation occurs in the east, shortly after sunrise, and shifts, as the sun approaches its zenith in the south, toward the serving counter, where the day's greatest intensity of activity takes place. Dishwashing is an act of closure, consolidation, even celebration, and thus its place is with the sunset in the west. In the north, where the sun is hidden and whence come both nighttime and winter, the kitchen freezers are symbolic of rest, storing up, and forethought for the beginning of the next day's cycle. Like a cathedral or temple, the kitchen is meaningfully made; its plan coincides with the flow of activity through it as well as with the heavenly bodies above it.

Next, notice the taboos associated with the physical domain of the kitchen. Those initiated into the mysteries of dishwashing (the staff) may enter, while the uninitiated (the campers) may not. Within the sacred area itself, a stern prohibition separates the activities of the Dark Side from those of the Light, just as biblical priests marked firm distinctions between actions and objects considered ritually clean and unclean. In fact, if we substitute clean and unclean wherever we find 'sanitized' and 'unsanitized' in the liturgy of dishwashing, the whole web of protocol and prohibition, learned by rote and handed down from one generation to the next, begins to resemble something from the book of Leviticus.

At one point I can recall a newer staff member, whose prior dishwashing experience had been at a different camp, pointing out how inefficient our system was; this was the first time I had heard it suggested that time and energy could be saved by assigning tasks more carefully to half as many workers. His rational observation met with silence from the rest of the staff because this person had missed the point. Sanitizing kitchenware is an important but secondary function of dishwashing. What matters is that the prescribed actions are completed collectively while expending as much energy as possible. Dishwashing is a ritual which is sacred to our camp.

The parts of the Bible that deal with rituals and sacred spaces are not often read by Christians. They are generally considered to be the boring parts. Very few people want to read detailed descriptions of places and activities which they themselves have not experienced and grown to love. For Jews, on the other hand, reading the Law of Moses is both a duty and a delight, and has been for thousands of years. Similarly, those who have worked at our camp may find it a curiously pleasurable experience to read, perhaps for the first time, a detailed account of the Tradition of our kitchen.

By the time of Jesus, Jewish ritual life had grown so complex that almost every mundane action could be elaborated on as a form of devotion to God. The Jesus movement (but not Jesus himself, it might be noted) boiled down ritual devotion to a handful of actions that could be easily communicated to a broad range of cultural understandings: baptism, sharing bread and wine, the washing of feet. Over the centuries that followed, the Catholic Church fostered the slow flourishing of labyrinthine Christian ritual, at the same time enforcing a strict monopoly over the right to administer those rituals. The Protestant reformers, including our Mennonite ancestors, once again swept aside the accumulation of tradition and simplified the ritual approach to God.

In our time the keepers of ritual (the Jewish Pharisees, the Catholic clergy) are often thought of as stodgy and legalistic, while those who abolish ritual (the early Christians, the Protestant reformers) are seen as bold revitalizers. But at camp, where the vitality of the young pumps through every hour of the day, ritual actions seem to spring up spontaneously. From the silly skits that precede the morning dip in the pond to the crossing of arms, joining of hands, and gentle squeeze of one's neighbour's palm that accompany and conclude the last campfire song of the evening, camp is one giant ritual, comprised of smaller daily rituals whose themes and variations make for endless delight.

This is what kids love best about camp. They love knowing what to expect- the feeling that they are 'in the know', part of a shared pattern of life. They love, too, the unexpected twist, as when an old campfire skit is performed with new costumes or silly accents. The perennial appearance of 'Backwards Day' is the supreme exaltation of camp ritual, when the sacred order of the daily schedule is stood on its head. For some campers this event goes too far; it is disorienting, even upsetting, and by early evening they are too exhausted to enjoy their breakfast.

Parents of staff and campers understand the liminal nature of camp- that it is a place on the boundary between human culture and wild nature, and that the camp experience involves experimenting with that boundary. What they probably do not understand is that, left to their own devices, their children are reviving an ancient way of being in the world, responding to a deeper necessity than our present world can provide for them. What is stifled the rest of the year emerges forcefully during the camp season, and what seems to be emerging is an unbridled passion for tradition.

When they return home after time spent at camp, young people are often sad and withdrawn. They cling to friendships made at camp, vowing to bring more of the magic they crave into their everyday lives. Parents smile, knowing that 'the real world' will soon have its way with them, and the schools, and the jobs, and the churches. What parents probably do not realize is that, having tasted the real thing, their children are not likely to be satisfied with an imitation. We are not the 'spiritual, but not religious' generation that we sometimes claim to be. For camp is a religious experience of a most authentic kind, and we have been converted.


Our solemnity would not be complete without a playful attempt at interpreting dishwashing, one of the core rituals of religious life at camp, in search of its deeper meaning. This most fanciful part of the investigation borders on what we may more properly called 'theology'. One of the rules here, and of camp generally, is that you are allowed to consider fanciful notions as facts, at least for a time.

There are three levels on which we can interpret a ritual. The first is its role in group bonding: the camp staff develop a sense of unity by tackling the dirty dishes as a team, just as members of a church form a collective identity by meeting weekly to participate in worship and communion. Over time, repetition and ritual cultivate a deep sense of being at home in a certain way of life, in a certain place, and with certain people. This is the reason some young people become deeply attached to camp and return for years and years, serving as staff and later returning as adult volunteers.

If participants' understanding of a ritual goes no deeper than this, it serves no purpose other than to mark some as members of the group and others as outsiders. Without understanding there is no sacredness, for community in and of itself is not sacred, and can easily do more harm than good. This way of performing ritual can be typified by the statement, 'we do things this way because that's the way we do things'.

The second level of interpretation is symbolic. With our eyes opened to an added layer of meaning we can read dishwashing as a ritual of cleansing, the outer cleansing pointing toward an inner purification that relieves and renews the practitioner. Moyer is an agent of rebirth, reversing the natural processes of entropy and decline, restoring order to the kitchen cosmos so that the cycle of creation and destruction can begin again.

Mennonites perform the ritual of Communion with a symbolic understanding, taking bread and wine together as symbols of Jesus' body and blood, which in turn symbolize his life-giving sacrifice on the cross. Rituals practiced in this way are exemplified by the statement, 'we do things this way in remembrance of...'

It is hard for the more liberal, progressive Protestant churches, among them the Mennonite congregations I grew up in, to go beyond this level of interpretation. For most of us, the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist as the literal, life-giving flesh of Christ is so far beyond comprehension that it does not even raise an eyebrow. Very few General Conference Mennonites believe that when a priest raises his hands and speaks the ritual words over the Communion bread, it causes God to literally incarnate in the room. The Catholic understanding of the ritual belongs to a third category of religious experience. This is the understanding that rituals are actions which have specific, transformative effects on the participants or their surroundings.

Ironically, in the rational, theologically streamlined world of progressive Mennonites, cause and effect have no place inside the church sanctuary, where all is metaphor, mystery, and good works. To believe that invisible forces act on the visible world in response to human invocation sounds dangerously evangelical, and of course 'we' do not mingle with 'those people'. If we allowed ourselves to believe that rituals have a hidden, functional role, the third level of interpretation, we would be forced to suspect that 'we do things this way because something is happening here'.

Since this is clearly impossible, we are in no danger of accidentally believing in it. Therefore, let us follow the game to its conclusion and imagine what may be happening when the camp staff wash the dishes.

In thin places the world over, communities have gathered for millennia to practice the rituals specific to their people and their tradition. Rituals can be understood as spiritual technologies designed to open human beings to temporary contact with invisible forces or entities. Rituals help to focus the mind and body, sidestep habitual ways of thinking, and deepen awareness. Group rituals have the additional function of organizing the community in such a way that a spirit or force moves more powerfully through the collective. To use a very crude analogy, members of a group who have opened themselves to the influence of a ritual are like components of an electric circuit; when everything is lined up just so and the right switch is flicked, something happens.

The dishwashing ritual stands at the heart of camp life, physically and temporally. Three times a day, every dish used by every camper, staff member, and volunteer must pass through the chamber of Moyer, and thus that remarkably ordinary machine is the linchpin of the community, the axis upon which it turns, the heartbeat of its life rhythm. Three times a day the staff gather around it to perform the banishing ritual specific to the only invisible entities modern science will acknowledge: germs. But this, as I have said, is of secondary importance. What is important is that dishwashing, like the entire ritual of camp, lines up the community just so, each member brimming with the energies and frustrations of youth, and then throws open the hidden switch that turns them into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

If this fanciful notion were so, we would be wise to remember that electricity can do great good as well as great harm. Ritual power can be and has been directed toward wrongful ends. Even if our intentions are good, playing with electricity or other hidden currents can be dangerous. Without an understanding of the forces at play, it is conceivable that, like a fuse or other component in an electric circuit, an individual could be overloaded by a surplus of current and suddenly 'burn out', as we say at camp. Or the ritual could provide an opening for a force or an entity, for which the ritual was not intended, to approach and make itself known.

How would we know? Probably it would be easier to interpret these matters in the language of psychology, biology, sociology, and all the other logics bequeathed to us by the great rationalist traditions. But at camp we do not have to be logical all the time, or even most of the time. We can proceed by other methods: roundabout, playful methods that might not make sense at first. As the title suggests, this letter does not represent the conclusion of a research process, but the beginning of one. The field to be explored is wide, and will require collaborators. I look forward to learning more about washing the dishes. I suspect that already it has changed my life.

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