Bookish Thoughts: The Quotidian Mysteries

It’s no secret that I adore the writing of Kathleen Norris. I found The Cloister Walk to be such a rich work of poetic reflections and gentle spiritual imagery. Dakota is an equally compelling look at rural life, and in The Quotidian Mysteries, the blend of lectio divina; a deep, quiet feminism; and joyful domesticity earns it a cozy place among my beloved books of inspiration.


The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and ‘Women’s Work’ is the text of the 1998 Maleleva Lecture in Spirituality, given by Norris at St. Mary’s College, in Notre Dame. In it, she explores ‘the quotidian’ or daily things, that “ground us in the world”.  A deeply personal and reflective little book – full of poetry, stories, spiritual reflection, and scripture.

All of Norris’ writing is grounded in experience. She fills her books with life-details and snatches of memory. The Quotidian Mysteries is no exception. We begin with an account of her first Catholic Mass, and her enthusiastic recognition of the priest’s domesticity “puttering about the altar, washing up after having served so great a meal to so many people. It brought the mass home to me and gave it meaning. It welcomed me, a stranger .. after the experience of a liturgy that had left me feeing disoriented, eating and drinking were something I could understand.  That and the housework.”


She goes on to acknowledge the ways in which “those daily chores..[have] come to seem the root of women’s oppression.” but while doing so, consistently brings the quotidian out of the realm of oppressive duty, ‘women’s work’ in the dismissive sense, and into the realm of the holy. It is “the work of the priest at mass” – and so a priestly role. But because we are a culture that has turned away from household gods and the quiet power of dwelling within the household, the work of the home-priest or priestess is abandoned. It is “precisely because it is so important, so close to us, so basic, so bound up with home and nurture [that] it is considered to be of less importance than that which is done in public.” 

In “Laundry, Liturgy, and ‘Women’s Work’ ” Norris rebuilds the domestic altar, grounding it in her experiences in both Catholic and Protestant worship but extending it beyond Christian circles through reflections and poems by Buddhists, secular feminists, Jewish women, and others. The domesticity of men is not excluded, and Norris highlights the need men have to experience the grounding of quotidian tasks as well as women: “What I do, must be done/each day, in every season,/ like liturgy.” Though her focus is primary on the relationship of women to these daily tasks: “I pray/ to Mary Magdalene, who kept seven/demons,/ one for each day of the week./ How practical; how womanly.


Kathleen Norris also explores, briefly, the despair of the daily: acedia: the noonday demon who plagues those “called to a vocation that is inner-directed” – who, “because of the lack of distraction in their daily lives” can fall into ennui. Throughout The Quotidian Mysteries, the realization that “dailiness can lead to such despair and yet also be at the core of our salvation” is explored in relation to both acedia and the Incarnation of Christ. Norris emphasizes that Christ’s Incarnation subjects Him to the daily as well, as well as the evidence throughout Scripture that “God’s attention is indeed fixed on the little things..the meaningless workings of daily life.” and that in stepping into the domestic, in taking up the roll of priestess within the home, we embody God Himself, bring in order out of chaos.

It is a rich and delightful little book, with only one small warning. Norris herself is childless by choice: “whatever I was destined for, it was not motherhood” she write, and while she employs birth and mothering imagery well, she also uses the concept of barrenness within her book. It is not entirely problematic, but – especially for those struggling to conceive and/or longing for children – her reflections on her own conviction against motherhood are painful and though she acknowledges the sensitivity, it’s obvious she’s speaking from the outside in this area. So if you are or have experienced the pain of infertility, read with care.

If you read The Quotidian Mysteries, please, let me know what you though of it!

Blessings and happy reading, all!

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