In this adventuresome and watershed work, Thomas Moore presents an inspiring overview of the sacred art of soulful living. Here is an excerpt on meaning.
"Several years ago I gave a lecture on the medieval idea that the world is a book to be read. Monks used the phrase liber mundi, the 'book of the world,' to describe a spiritual kind of literacy. Afterward, a woman, a housewife, who had attended telephoned to ask if I would come to her house, to read it in this way. I had never done such a thing, but in therapy I had been reading dreams and paintings for years, so the idea was appealing.
"Together we walked through the rooms, observing them closely, and quietly discussed our impressions. This 'reading' was not an analysis or an interpretation. It was more 'dreaming the house onward,' to paraphrase an expression of Jung's 'dreaming the dream onward.' My idea was to see the house's poetry and alphabet, to understand the gestures it was making in its architecture, colors, furnishings, decorations, and the condition it was in at that particular time. The woman was truly devoted to her home and wanted to give housework a place of dignity in her life.
"Some of the images that came to us were personal. I heard stories of a former marriage, of children, visitors, and her own childhood. Others had to do with the architecture of the building and with American history, and a few touched on philosophical questions about the very nature of dwelling and shelter.
"I remember in particular an immaculate bathroom with smooth tiles and cool colors. The bathroom is a room full of strong imagery and psychological content bodily waste, cleansing, privacy, cosmetics, clothing, nudity, pipes connected to the underground, and running water. It is a favored setting for many dreams, an indication of its special appeal to the imagination. This bathroom seemed to me unusually orderly and clean, and having agreed to an honest reading of the house, we discussed the efforts my hostess put into keeping this room spotless.
"In this reading of her house, I wasn't trying to figure this woman out, or come up with some new way for her to live her life. We were simply taking a special look at the house in order to glimpse signs of the soul that lies hidden in the everyday and commonplace. At the end of our tour, we both felt unusually connected to the place and to its things. For my part, I was motivated to reflect on my own home and to think more deeply about the poetics of everyday life.
"The home is a place of daily work, whether or not one has an 'outside' job. If you were to read your own house, at some point you would find yourself standing before the tools of housework: vacuum cleaner, broom, dustmop, soaps, sponges, dishpan, hammer, screwdriver. These things are very simple, and yet they are fundamental to the feelings we have of being at home. Jean Lall, an astrologer and therapist from Baltimore, lectures on the soul of housework. She calls housework 'a path of contemplation' and says that if we denigrate the work that is to be done around the house every day, from cooking to doing laundry, we lose our attachment to our immediate world. There is also a close relationship, she says, between daily work and the house and responsibility to our natural environment.
"I might put it this way: there are gods of the house, and our daily work is a way of acknowledging these home spirits that are so important to sustaining our lives. To them, a scrub brush is a sacramental object, and when we use this implement with care we are giving something to the soul. In this sense, cleaning the bathroom is a form of therapy because there is a correspondence between the actual room and a certain chamber of the heart. The bathroom that appears in our dreams is both the room in our house and poetic object that describes a space in the soul.
"I don’t mean to inflate the simple things of life with exaggerated meaning and formality, but we might be reminded of the value to the soul of doing our daily chores attentively and with an eye to detail. We all know that at some level daily work affects character and the overall quality of life, but we usually overlook the way soulfulness can adhere to ordinary housework and the gifts it can bring to the soul. If we let other people do our ordinary work for us, or if we do it ourselves without care, we might be losing something irreplaceable and eventually experience that missing element as a painful sense of loneliness or homelessness.
"We can 'read' the house of our outside work life in the same way I read that woman's home: examine its environment, look closely at its tools, consider the way time is spent and note the moods and emotions that typically surround the work itself. How you spend your working hours what you look at, sit on and work with makes a difference, not only in terms of efficiency but for its effect on your sense of yourself and the direction your imagination takes. Some businesses cover over their soulless conception of work with a veneer of fake walls, plastic plants, and pseudoart. If that is what we give to the workplace in the name of beauty, then that is the measure of soulfulness we will have at our job. Soul cannot be faked without serious consequences. In his poem 'The Garden,' the poet Andrew Marvel refers to 'a green thought in a green shade.' Surrounded by plastic ferns, we will be filled with plastic thoughts."
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