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  Give us our daily shower

Victorian gas crisisThe gas crisis contains some interesting lessons. As well as revealing highs and lows of neighbourliness, it teaches us something curious about how we make our day. It’s a case of ‘you don’t know what you’ve got, till it’s gone.’

We now realise that our bodies can survive quite well without the daily hot shower. Many find the Spartan bathing principle—cold and quick—quite adequate for physical needs. So why were we so attached to it in the first place?

Perhaps the real meaning of the shower is more symbolic than practical. Cloaked by habit, it is difficult to see the more artful role it plays in our day. Unbound by practical logic, the shower now seems to be something of a ritual. What kind of ritual is it?

For anthropologists, most rituals serve to bridge two incompatible moments in time. Thus adolescent rites of passage mark the transition from childhood and adulthood. If the shower is a ritual, what does it bridge?

Most of us, thinking what is peculiar to the shower, conjure up images of tone-deaf divas and backyard Pavarottis, expressing themselves with a passion found no where else in the day. And how many of our brightest ideas owe their origin to our free-wheeling thoughts behind the plastic curtain? As a shame-free zone, the shower bridges bedtime dreams with our waking reality. Our private fantasies intermingle with the business of the day. And as our days become more mentally demanding, it is increasingly important to purge these nocturnal fancies from our system.

That doesn’t quite tell the whole story. It seems reasonable that we need some ritual to open the day, but why the shower? Not all cultures do this. The Chinese greet the sun with Tai Chi exercises. How did the shower become what the poet Les Murray calls ‘this enveloping passion of Australians’? Perhaps it owes something to our inherited history of the sacred.

Today, many Christian services still feature a ritual known as the ‘Asperges’, when the priest sprinkles water on a congregation. (This has descended negatively into everyday parlance as ‘casting aspersions’.) The Orthodox tradition extends this to the ritual of Theophany, when houses are blessed with branches of basil dipped in blessed water.

Such practices have their roots in the Semitic religions that preceded Christianity, where this sprinkling, or ‘lustration’, an essential part of the sacrificial ritual. According to a Jewish source, as the smoke from the burning meat ascended to the heavens, the priest’s gentle shower of water symbolised divine reciprocation. Perhaps our choice of the shower owes something to the Judeo-Christian tradition, in which sprinkled water is the conventional means of purification.

It may seem ridiculous that something so ordinary as the daily shower should have sacred meaning. Yet that is also the case with many rituals of other cultures, such as the Muslim evening prayer. Perhaps rather than envying the way that non-Western cultures saturate their day with symbols and rituals, we can learn to celebrate what we already have at hand, everyday.

So on that first hot shower, we might re-consider our need for imported exotic rituals. As the Dutch say, ‘We just act normally, that’s crazy enough.’

Article by Kevin Murray published in The Age 6th October 1998

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