When Poor Clares talk about “Dishes,” they usually aren’t referring just to plates, cups, and bowls.
In our monastery, as in many other monasteries, the word “Dishes” refers to a specific time of day and to the whole range of activities involved in cleaning up after dinner. The word also implies community, interdependence, sharing, and working together.
“Dishes” is a time of day because it follows dinner, our main meal of the day, which we eat at midday. Because we have a set time for dinner, “Dishes” also tends to start around the same time each day. If a sister says that something will happen “after Dishes,” we all have a sense of when that will occur.
As for the activities involved in “Dishes,” they too are fairly defined: putting food away, loading the dishwasher, washing pots, pans, and serving dishes by hand; drying and putting things away; sweeping and mopping the kitchen floor; vacuuming the refectory (dining room) floor; wiping down and cleaning all kitchen, refectory, and serving counters; cleaning the dining tables, stove, microwaves, and other appliances; taking out the compost, trash, and recycling; taking used towels, napkins, and cloths to the laundry.
Everyone knows what needs to be done, so as we bring our (lower-case “d”) dishes into the kitchen after dinner, we grab our aprons and quickly scan the room to see which chores are underway and which still need to be started. Newcomers often find this high level of activity overwhelming: fifteen sisters completing approximately 15 separate tasks in less than 15 minutes, all in a relatively small space. It can feel like a dance that is being choreographed on the fly. Within a few weeks, however, newcomers have mastered the steps to this “Dishes” dance.
“Dishes” is the only manual work that we, as Poor Clares, do together as a community. Where other work is done by individual or small groups of sisters, with “Dishes,” everyone is involved, from the abbess to the newest member. It is truly a community activity.
The cleaning tasks need to be completed, but completion is not the most important thing. What matters most is that we do the work together. If one sister finishes a task before the other sisters finish, she goes to help them. It’s not the case of “I’ve done my bit; you do yours.” There is no “mine” and “yours.” We all finish the work together. “Together” is what defines “Dishes.”
In some places, cleaning up after a meal is done half-heartedly, hurriedly, or on auto-pilot; it’s not a high point of the day. For us, it is quite different; it is an integral part of our day. The mood is light-hearted; the laughter is frequent.
This common activity of cleaning up together reminds us that our vocation includes a call to community, a call to pray, live, and work together, 24/7, 365 days a year. We come together six times a day for the Liturgy of the Hours; we come together as we celebrate Eucharist. We eat our main meal of the day together. And then we clean up together.
It can be challenging to live and work so closely together. This is as true for religious communities as it is for families where people work from home. It’s helpful to remember that each day — and at every moment of each day — we can start anew. We can choose to love and help one another, to build and nurture relationships. We can start anew by doing something simple and small … like Dishes!