“What’s my line?
I’m happy cleaning windows
Take my time…
“I’m a working man in my prime
Van Morrison, “Cleaning Windows”
I was walking on 15thSt. in downtown Philadelphia on my way to meet a fellow priest for lunch when I felt tiny drops of water fall on my head. Because it was not raining at the time, I looked up to see where the water was coming from. There perched on the side of a large downtown skyscraper was a window cleaner attached to the building by a lone safety wire. In his hands were a bucket and a “v.” Directly in front of me was a mother pointing upward to showing her son the window-washer hanging precariously from the side of the building.
The lyrics to “Cleaning Windows,”one of my favorite Van Morrison songs, immediately came to mind. It’s a song Van Morrison wrote about his work from 1961-62 when he and his partner Sammy Woodburncleaned the windows of the terraced homes in Belfast. The song reveals the simple joy and contentment that Van Morrison found in the rather ordinary task of cleaning windows.
Oh, the smell of the bakery from across the street
Got in my nose
As we carried our ladders down the street
With the wrought-iron gate rows
Oh, Sam was up on top
And I was on the bottom with the v
We went for lemonade and Paris buns
At the shop and broke for tea
I have always found this song to be a profoundly spiritual song. It points to the realization that people in many times and places have had, namely that God is often experienced in the utmost simplicity of everyday life. Christians perhaps best know the kind of spirituality that finds God in the midst of everyday activities from the witness of Brother Lawrence.
Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, born Nicholas Herman in 1611 in French Lorraine, was a large and clumsy man who was always breaking or accidentally smashing things. He had served as a soldier until wounded and then as a footman. His conversion at the age of eighteen happened as he noticed a leafless tree against the background of snow and thought of the wonder of God that would be made manifest in the spring when that tree again bloomed. In 1666 he joined the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites of Paris as a lay-brother to atone for his own perceived inadequacies but instead found only the grace and mercy of God. He was put to work in the monastery kitchen where he worked for the next 25 years. He died in 1691 around the age of eighty.
The Practice of the Presence of God, first published in 1691, contained excerpts from conversations with him and from his letters. In the one of the conversations he remarked “that he was more united with God during ordinary activities than in religious exercises, in which he was generally afflicted with spiritual dryness.” He observed that “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer.”
In the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.
Where Van Morrison finds contentment in the everyday task of window cleaning, Brother Lawrence finds the presence of God in the midst of the noise and clatter of his kitchen.
Brother Lawrence’s “practice of the presence of God” was really quite simple: wherever he found himself, he reminded himself continually that God was always near to him. This practice meant that he never strayed far from the well of God’s merciful presence and explains how in the midst of a busy kitchen, he was able to find rest and refreshment in God’s presence.