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Brushing Teeth (Days 7 & 8)

So far I have happily followed the author (Tish Harrison Warren) on a journey toward finding meaning in the monotony of our daily routines. Sleeping, waking, making the bed: easy metaphors and plenty of growth available here. I have to admit, however, that I was taken aback a little at the subject of “Brushing Teeth.” It’s hard to think of a more mindless act than brushing your teeth. How can such a monotonous daily routine become anything of spiritual value, especially given the usual context of looking in the mirror and seeing myself in the least-presentable state I will be in all day (I hope!)? Well, it turns out, looking in the mirror is a pretty good place to start.

Back in Chapter 1, something Tish said struck a chord, and I’ve been pondering it ever since.

When I awake, yawning, with messy hair and bad breath I am greeted again with the truth of who I am in my most basic self. . . . [But] soon we’ll get buttoned up into our identities: mothers, business people, students, friends, citizens.

The concept of putting on an identity, a version of ourselves that we project to the external world feels like a basic truth that results in a morning ‘get up and get dressed’ ritual. If getting out of bed and putting on my identity is an essential routine of life, then brushing my teeth may be the most basic act of that routine.

So how, exactly, can brushing my teeth be a holy act? Let’s look at this ritual of hygiene in two parts.

  1. It’s easy to look in the mirror and take stock of all that we feel is lacking or wrong about our bodies. Instead we must learn the habit of beholding our bodies as a gift, and learn to delight in the body God has made for us, that God loves, and that God will one day redeem and make whole.
  2. These small tasks of caring for our bodies, as quotidian as they are, act as an embodied confession that our Creator, who mysteriously became flesh, has made our bodies well and deserves worship in and through our very cells, muscles, tissues and teeth. . . .
    When I stand before the sink brushing my teeth and see my reflection in the mirror, I want it to be an act of blessing, where I remember that these teeth I’m brushing are made by God for a good purpose, that my body is inseparable from my soul, and that both deserve care.”
But for me, any act of worship in my first hour of wakefulness would need to be simple, mechanical,  something similar to the act of ‘saying grace’ as a child.

The reasons for brushing my teeth are pretty simple: I want to continue to be able to eat solid food for many years; and I don’t want to annihilate my fellow humans (and my self-esteem) with terrible breath. Worthy goals which you no-doubt appreciate. However, because these goals lack the sense of the higher purpose to which I (and my body) are called to, our secular culture often defines that purpose for me. Tish puts it this way: “We will come to see our bodies primarily as a tool for meeting our needs and desires.”

The higher purpose, though, is much more compelling. “Through the practice of an embodied liturgy we learn the true telos of embodiment: Our bodies are instruments of worship.”

Wow, good stuff. After finishing the chapter, I vowed to try this out. The next morning as I stood at the sink, in the foggy pre-sunrise, semi-conscious state I’ve been perfecting for over 50 years, the inspiration from the day before eluded me. Halfway through the brushing routine, I vaguely remembered something about my ‘basic self’ being beloved by God, and how my teeth brushing is really a holy act of worship. Huh? Not feeling it . . . Clearly this was a ‘morning person’ thing, not meant for those of us who don’t fully wake up until we have been ambulatory for an hour or two. I decided to mull this over later in the day, when my brain is much more amenable to, well, thinking. So much for the body AND mind theory. I guess my body just can’t worship autonomously.

Upon reflection, I realized that at 6 a.m. my brain couldn’t process deep thoughts or concepts like ‘quotidian’ or ‘liturgy,’ not to mention any metaphors for the Christian walk. So, I decided to re-read the chapter, determined to find a way to achieve that ‘embodied liturgy’ Tish spoke about. Lo and behold, there was mention of something I completely glossed over my first time through, and ironically, it had everything to do with what could be referred to as “liturgical prayer.”

The author briefly discussed the benefits of reciting prayers, and how her young daughter developed a habit of pausing before she eats to sing a prayer of gratitude. For the author, brushing her teeth became a sort of non-verbal prayer, an act of worship that claims the hope to come. But for me, any act of worship in my first hour of wakefulness would need to be simple, mechanical, something similar to the act of ‘saying grace’ as a child.

So now, I’m working on a developing a simple prayer that embodies some of the truths revealed in this chapter:

  • My ‘basic self’ is loved by God, even in its most unattractive state
  • My body is a gift from God, and caring for it includes worship, gratitude, commitment
  • When I brush my teeth, I’m actually pushing back in the smallest of ways against death and chaos
  • The result of cleaning: my minty breath, a little foretaste of glory

Hopefully I’ll commit the short prayer to memory and push it into my consciousness about the time I’m brushing my teeth. Maybe I’ll even do it at the before-going-to-bed brushing. I wish I were poetic, since a rhyme is easier to memorize. Perhaps one of you can offer a poem for non-morning people like me? Certainly, while brushing my teeth, my mind is still stuck in the ‘I don’t want to don my identity yet’ mode, but perhaps, a little liturgical prayer will remind me to affix that identity to the One who calls me Beloved, even when I have morning breath.

Having Bodies (Days 9 & 10)

Making the Bed (Days 5 & 6)