By Elise Seyfried
I AM NO STRANGER TO SACRED SPACES. For 20 years I worked at a church where, several times each week, I’d leave my office, slip into the sanctuary, and sit in welcome, peaceful silence for a few minutes. On frantic Sundays, I had a hard time feeling very spiritual. I’d be constantly distracted by the children’s sermon I was about to share, the announcements I needed to make, the congregants pressing $10 bills into my hand to pay for their mission trip fundraising hoagies. But on weekday afternoons, all would be calm, all would be bright, sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows. I would pray, and sense God’s presence so strongly there. Which of course makes sense: Churches are, by definition, holy places.
Out in nature, I also feel very close to the Lord. I feel this closeness whether I’m walking the beach in coastal Delaware at dawn or traversing the magical rainforest in Seattle’s Olympic National Park. God’s glorious creation surrounds me at every turn, and again, prayer is my instinctual response. Are these also holy places? Naturally.
But there’s one place, quite different from the others, that to me is the very holiest in my life. It’s not a chapel or cathedral; it’s not a mountain or waterfall. It is, instead, my tiny kitchen.
TWO VERY DIFFERENT KITCHENS Growing up, our family moved quite often. Not once, in our wide variety of kitchens, did I feel contemplative or prayerful. My mom hated to cook, and we ate more than our share of warmed-up TV dinners. To my mother, food was a necessary evil, to be prepared and consumed as quickly as possible. Holiday “feasts” were a particular nightmare, but really, fixing any average meal was a dreaded chore. Our kitchens were places of constant clutter. They were also always the locations of a shiny black telephone on the wall. That was Mom’s only happy place in the kitchen. She would sit for hours, twirling the long, spiral cord between her fingers, smoking endless cigarettes, drinking bottomless cups of tea, and chatting with one or another of her friends. Mom was a great friend—comforter, sounding board, and entertaining and delightful phone companion. She was laser-focused on her long conservations, and totally oblivious to the mess surrounding her.
In stark contrast, I love cooking. Preparing the evening meal is often the highlight of my day. I truly enjoy perusing the little bookshelf in my kitchen, selecting just the right cookbook with just the right recipe, then browsing in the spice cabinet for the perfect seasonings. The most important ingredients, of course, are the people I feed: my husband, children, grandchildren and friends. It is a joy to consider their favorite foods as I plan the meals. Sometimes I wish it was a larger space (no room for a table), because then it would be perfect. But I treasure my small kitchen nonetheless, and not just for the breads and stews that emerge from it.
It’s where I am also spiritually fed, as I create, share, laugh and sometimes cry (and not just when chopping onions). In my kitchen, I can show love to my family and friends. It’s the room, much more than our spacious family room, where my five kids prefer to gather and talk. It’s where the coffee is brewed early every morning by my husband and served to me in bed. He’s done this throughout our entire marriage, and it’s such a beautiful symbol of his devotion and caring. My kitchen is a place where such acts of love and hospitality flourish. It’s a place where our busy hands become our prayers.
I guess this makes my mom a Mary, and myself more of a Martha. These two sisters, dear friends of Jesus, had markedly different approaches to life, and to their relationship with the Lord. Mary chose to sit at Christ’s feet and listen to him, while Martha bustled around cleaning the house and getting dinner ready. In Luke 10:42-42, Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but few things are needed—indeed only one. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Reading Scripture, it’s generally understood that, between the two women, it’s preferable to be a Mary.
But I wonder. Why does it have to be all or nothing? Can a person be an attentive and engaged listener to God, even while stirring a pot of soup or rolling out pie dough? Even Marys, after all, have to eat sometimes. I think maybe Jesus just wanted Martha to take a break once in a while, to settle comfortably into his Word as a child would settle into a parent’s lap. Perhaps He didn’t intend to imply that Martha’s diligence and devotion to caring for Him was any “less than” her sister’s reverent stillness.
The practical day-to-day chores do need to be done. I believe there is a way to frame these activities, not as busy work, but as gifts. Gifts to one another, yes. But also, wonderful gifts to God. A central focus of our Lutheran worship is the Lord’s Table, and our remembrance of the Last Supper, which lives on as our supper too. One of my favorite activities during my time working at church was baking the bread for First Communion with the groups of little ones. We’d gather in the church kitchen, hands washed and aprons on, to mix and measure the flour, baking powder, salt and water. Small hands would mold the dough into loaves and etch crosses on them before they were baked. The resulting fragrant loaves would bless the whole congregation as we celebrated the introduction of the children to Holy Communion. Another kitchen. Another holy place.
There are many different locations that can be experienced as sacred spots. Quiet churches and hushed forests. Noisy and happy kitchens. If we believe that God is everywhere, surely God is also where the refrigerator and stovetop are. Which makes all kitchens, even the smallest ones, holy places.
Today, as I head to the grocery store, I will choose the produce, fish, milk and cheese with care. I may be preparing a meal to deliver to a new mom, or a recently widowed older friend (that happens in my kitchen too). Or it may just be the dinner I’ll be serving tonight at 6, as my sweet grandsons race to the table, anticipating a favorite food. We will join hands first and give thanks. Thanks for the gift of our lives. Thanks for the fellowship and love we share. As for me, I will give thanks for my kitchen, where I cooked the dishes we’ll enjoy this evening. Where I know my God is always with me, smiling as I slice the tomatoes and boil the pasta noodles.
Where I, a Martha if ever there was one, feel every bit as loved and appreciated as Mary.
Holy places can be right where we are, even if we aren’t kneeling in a pew or traipsing through the woods. Even if we’re just emptying the dishwasher. What a blessing to have God’s holiness all around us!
This article is from the September/October 2023 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.