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ROTW #5: Doing the Dishes

The latest reading assignment in my Religions Of The World: Eastern Faith Traditions class was The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh.  Hanh is a Buddist monk/Zen master who founded the School of Youth for Social Service in South Vietnam in 1974 as an outgrowth of "engaged Buddhism".  The book came about from a letter of encouragement to a staff member keeping the school open while Hanh was in exile in France.  He shares some very practical means by which anyone can learn skills aspiring to "mindfulness" - the ability of being awake and fully aware.

Early in the book, Hanh speaks of "washing the dishes to wash the dishes".  Effectively, he suggests that washing the dishes should be the most important thing done while doing it, to focus on the task at hand.  Rather than thinking ahead about what might be done next, washing the dishes is what you are doing right now, to be "in the here and now".  It is as important as anything you have ever done, and so important to do it now and do it well.  Even before I read the book, the phrase "doing the dishes" meant something to me.  However, dishes I wash by hand are not the dishes at home (I rely on the aid of a dishwasher machine), but rather these 'dishes" are the holy vessels of a communion stack on the altar at my church.  I'm on the Altar Guild at Grace Church.  From time to time, either as a member of a weekly crew, or as Crew Leader of the week, I do "daily" set-ups for several weekday eucharists.    

I generally seek times during the week when few, if any, folk are around so I can work in solitude.  Our clergy are just down the hall, around the corner from the sacristy and doors to the sanctuary/nave.  Usually afternoons following morning services or midday prior to evening services are mostly quiet and serene.  Sometimes, a parishioner playing the pipe organ will be practicing in the choir loft.  I prefer quiet, but sometimes, music is welcome while I "wash the dishes".

My typical practice, or routine, has some order and purpose to it.  Mindfulness?  Perhaps.

After opening the sacristy and turning on lights, I ensure holy vessel towels are laid out on the counter on either side of the silver (washing) sink.  If the eucharist I am setting is the first "daily" of the week, all elements are clean and in the sacristy cabinets.  If the daily is mid-week, I don white gloves to clear the elements from the previous service.  I go into the church to the epistle side Lady Altar (LA), stopping at the crossing to reverence the High Altar, then genuflect at the LA rail, slide open the rail gate, and step in to reverence the LA before anything else.  I collect the covered, but used, communion stack and burse, carry them to the sacristy counter just inside the door, and place them on the closest vessel towel.  I also bring in the corporal from the altar, the lavabo bowl and used towel, and small glass cruets of wine and water.  All are placed to the right of the sink near the piscina sink (which drains into the ground) where any blessed water left in the cruet or lavabo bowl is poured away.  Then leftover wine not yet consecrated is poured back into a wine bottle under the sink.  The linens are separated, with unused linens and other ornate pieces (veil and burse) moved to the island in the middle of the sacristy; the used corporal is shaken out over the piscina, soiled linens are rinsed over the piscina, and then placed in a tub to soak.

The silver sink is readied by running hot water.  When the water is hot, the drain plug is placed and soap is added.  Then taking the dirty dishes from the right hand side, they are washed, rinsed and placed on the left hand towel, one at a time.  First, the paten used for the bread, then the small wine chalice.  After that, the lavabo bowl and the glass cruets.  In each instance, I am careful to wash all the exterior surfaces of these holy vessels, rinse them thoroughly, and place them gently on the other towel.  After all "dishes" are washed, the soiled linens are dumped into the soapy water to soak further.  Then, with a third holy vessel towel, I dry the paten, chalice, lavabo and each cruet.  After drying the first piece, I walk it over to the island and place it on the working corporal.  All silver pieces are dried and placed on the island.  The glass cruets remain on the counter by the sink.  

Once the drying is done, I move over to the island to begin assembling the "stack".  First, new linens are taken from the small linens drawer and laid on the counter.  This includes a new LA corporal, a fresh purificator and lavabo towel.  After checking a daily set-up sheet and liturgical church calendar for the 'color of the day', the proper burse (which holds two extra purificators) and veil are set out with the new corporal laid out on top of them.  The chalice is place in the center of the working corporal with another purificator opened and laid across the top of the chalice with its folds to the back (facing away).  The paten is set atop the purificator, with a small priest host on it from a side drawer in the island.  A linen-covered cardboard "pall" in placed on top, then the entire stack is "veiled" with the appropriate church season altar appointment.  The fresh lavabo towel is laid across the top of the lavabo bowl and set to the side of the stack.  Then I move back to the silver sink to fill the glass cruets with wine and water, leaving the wine cruet to the right of the water cruet.  Again donning my gloves, I began to move the new elements from the sacristy out to the Lady Altar.

At the LA, the fresh corporal is laid out in the center of the altar with the embroidered cross to the front.  The stack is placed in the center of the corporal.  I remove the veil to ensure the small cross on the chalice faces to the front, the purificator is straight, the cross on the paten is to the "top" (toward the back of the altar), and that the priest host and pall are straight.  I then drape the veil over the stack, ensuring the corners of the veil point to the sides front and back.  The burse is placed against the back of the altar on the left hand side.  The other items placed on the altar are 1) the book-stand with Book of Common Prayer (BCP) open to the liturgy of the day (Rite I or Rite II) with the ribbon placed diagonally across the opposite page; it is placed to the right-front of the stack, 2) a silver spoon on another purificator, laid behind the book-stand, and 3) the propers (Collect and lectionary readings) for the weekly services set to the left of the stack.  The lavabo bowl and towel and the wine and water cruets are brought out to the credence shelf on the wall to the right of the LA.  From left to right (or back to front) on the shelf is the lavabo & towel, a ciborium holding loose individual communion wafers and extra wafers packet (50 "in"/50 "reserved"), and the water and wine cruets with handles to the front.  The cruet stoppers are lined up with the handles.  Before closing the gate at the altar rail, the LA flowers are watered, and the altar space is swept.

When necessary, the fall adorning the lectern is changed as the church season dictates.  A small wooden bench is brought down the the High Altar and placed on the Nave floor near the LA; this is for the Lay Eucharistic Minister assisting at the service.  Also, the center kneeler from the High Altar communion rail was brought down to use in the gateway of the Lady Altar.  Sometimes, the entire sanctuary might be censed.

Back in the sacristy, liturgical vestments are set out for the priest celebrating the eucharist.  A white alb is hung outside the clergy closet, and the appropriate church-season chasuble and stole are laid out on the vesting sacristy counter, along with the priest's cincture.  The chasuble is laid out first, with the front down and collar snaps open.  Then a priest stole is laid on top in the shape of an "H".  Finally, the priest's cincture (rope girdle) is laid out on top in the shape of an "S".   

The final task for "daily" work is tending to the small linens left soaking in the silver sink.  Ensuring there are no residual wine stains or make-up smudges on the linens, they are rinsed, ironed while still damp, folded in specific, intentional and devout ways, and then put away.

There's a lot to "washing the dishes" for the church.  I cannot honestly say the dishes and other things themselves are the sole focus of my work as I am doing it.  However, the things I do, I do carefully, intently and reverently.  In many ways, this work is meditative in nature.  However, Thich Nhat Hanh's The Miracle of Mindfulness has definitely presented me with a new purpose to be "mindful" in all things.  In the future, "washing the dishes to wash the dishes" will be my Rule rather than the exception.
"O loving Saviour, we pray Thee to send Thy blessing upon the Altar Guild and the work of all its members.  Give us Thy grace that we may be loyal to Thy Holy Church and faithful in our care of holy things.  Grant that as we adorn and make ready Thy Altar, we may learn greater love and reverence for all that belongs to Thy service, and through all outward symbols come to a clearer vision of the inward and spiritual truth taught by them.  We ask this for Thy sake, O blessed Lord.  Amen."