A Spirituality of Cleaning

This Saturday is the community cleaning day for our complex. I was asked to write a little bit on this topic for the monthly newsletter, here’s what I came up with:

They say that cleanliness is next to godliness. I don’t know who ‘they’ are or what got them to say that in the first place, though I suspect it involved either small children or lazy husbands. I’m certainly not sure this is what we would think of as good theology. God made the world. God loves the world. I’ve seen the world. It’s not that clean. There’s dirt everywhere, after all.

I’ve also encountered a lot of clean people. Sometimes, I suppose, they’re godly, but not often. When we think of a particularly holy man or woman we don’t conjure up the image of someone in a nicely pressed suit, or with well-coiffed hair, sitting primly in their sterile living room. Just the opposite, in fact. Christ was born in manger. Where animals ate and drank and… did everything else that animals do. It was dirty and smelly, no doubt. Cleanliness, then, can sometimes seem like a bit of a bother, a distraction that keeps us from the business that always seems much more important. There’s always something to do, something to read, someone to talk to, and if Jesus saw fit to live his life among us, not looking at the outside but at who we are as people, does it really matter how neat and orderly we are? Martha tried to be the clean one, after all, and you see where that got her.

Sure, there is the matter of appearance, keeping our self clean as part of our involvement in society. There’s a clear reason why, then, to keep our most immediate space clean. That’s the space that reflects most upon us personally. As for the rest? Well, there are people to do that for us, preferably at a time when we won’t notice them around.

And yet, I wonder a little bit, what it means for this life lived in and around seminary to clean up a bit more, putting down the book for a second, turning off the computer, not rushing off to yet another bit of rushing, and tidying up beyond my most immediate responsibilities.

There’s a spiritual discipline involved. As a way of combating what they called the noonday demon—that bit of spiritual depression that catches up to us at times—the early monastics suggested manual labor. Work in a field. Do a bit of construction. Weave some baskets. Do something physical. We have exercise to get our bodies moving, but exercise still lacks what I think is a necessary bit. Work is pragmatic accomplishment of a task. There’s something satisfying, even spiritually so, about working in a physical way where there’s a clear physical result. It’s good for the body and it’s good for the soul. Especially if it’s work being done for the sake of others.

Jesus did this, after all. Although the man of honor, the person on the mission of missions, he took time to do the sorts of stuff that the servants were supposed to do. He washed feet. We are apt to turn it into a religious exercise, another bit of liturgy, sometimes even formally performed in the midst of a service. But, while it had symbolism, to be sure, the act of washing feet wasn’t really a religious sort of act. People walked around in sandals. They had dirty feet. Feet needed washing. It’s all very practical.

We don’t tend to have dirty feet anymore, but we do have dirty cars, and dirty sidewalks, dirty carports, dirty laundry rooms, dirty railings, and generally dirty surroundings. Because of that it’s good and right to put aside our own tasks, even if for a moment, and go out to do a bit of work cleaning. Because it’s an act of generous service. Because it’s a modeling of servant behavior. Maybe most of all, because our common areas simply need a good bit of cleaning and since we’re all here, we are able to do that which needs to be done. Cleanliness might not actually be next to godliness, but I have to think that being willing to go out and clean that which we don’t have to clean, helps us further along to becoming the sorts of people God wants us to be.

And if not, at least the laundry room might smell nice for a couple of weeks and we’ll finally be rid of those leaves from last Fall. Plus, it might even give us a chance to meet some of our oft busy neighbors. I think there’s something Christ-like in doing that too.

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