The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work,” by Kathleen Norris
This short book of less than 100 pages served as the text of the 1998 Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality, and it takes a clear Catholic perspective of the relationship between our daily tasks and godliness. To be sure, the author is not always sympathetic in this book, and she comes off as more than a little bit selfish at times, but what I found most striking about this book was how much the author sounded like me. For example, of her solitary experience in college, she had this to say: “All I knew of monasticism was that it had left behind splendid medieval churches (and many ruins) throughout Europe. My “monasticism” was an internal and existential one, and my dormitory room became a kind of recluse’s cell, a place where I escaped int books and, increasingly, into writing (57).” Likewise, she says of someone’s struggle against depression that “”I wanted to do everything at once and be through with it.” Here, as clear as the tolling of a bell, is the awful death wish of our ancient foe, acedia, a perfect expression of the deep-seated, ironic contempt for the self that has become all too fashionable in our day (40).”
The contents of this book are far more simple than most of the books I end up reading, even for its brief size. There are no chapter or section headings, and so the entire lecture reads as one. Despite the discomfort this brings to a reader like myself who comes from the background of making longer essays like this one out of smaller works, there is a clear unity to the work as a whole. The author includes a lot of her own poetry, a great deal of discussion of her own life and the struggle for mental health she has faced and that ended up leading an aunt of hers to commit suicide after having born a child out of wedlock. The author clearly wants to say a lot about both the spiritual need for our daily efforts to connect us with God and with other people as well as scoring points as feminist scholar seeking to point out that those tasks which are judged as women’s work are generally poorly valued either in terms of praise or in terms of financial remuneration. The book would have done a lot better had the author realized she had a male audience that was inclined to be sympathetic to a point, but books like these seldom appreciate the wideness of their potential audience.
At its heart, this book is one about the struggle against depression and rebellion that we all face as human beings . To be sure, it is a book about women’s work, but even more than that it is a book about the way that the seemingly purposeless nature of our daily work, and certainly this is true of men just as it is true of women, is part of what connects us to life as a whole. Some of us, myself included, might prefer a life where we were able to live in our abstract and intellectual realms without having to pay heed to the efforts it took to obtain our daily bread by the sweat of our brow, but the same work we often consider to be useless and profitless toil under the sun is how we show that we honor God by working out our own salvation by paying attention to how we live our lives. The efforts we take for self-preservation and for self-improvement are often the way that we show respect for the gift of life that God has given us. Even if short and imperfect, this little book has a lot to offer both men and women readers about the quotidian mysteries of our lives.
 See, for example: