An old man said to a brother: “The devil is like a hostile neighbour and you are like a house. The enemy continually throws into you all the dirt that he can find. It is your business not to neglect to throw out whatever he throws in. If you neglect to do this, your house will be so full of mud that you will not be able to walk inside. From the moment he begins to throw, put it out again, bit by bit: and so by Christ’s grace your house shall remain clean.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 11.48
Who likes cleaning? Really. Possibly the only thing I dislike more than cleaning is being dirty. So I try to clean often when I can (and when I’m not overtaken by sloth). This old man uses this common chore to teach an important spiritual lesson: just as a house can only be cleaned “bit by bit,” so it is with our souls.
“I expectantly waited for the Lord,” writes the psalmist, “and he attended to me. He heard my prayer and removed me from the mire of misery and the muddy clay” (Psalm 39:2-3 [VUL]).
The Old Testament is intensely preoccupied with the idea of ceremonial cleanliness. On the one hand, Jesus seems to want his followers to move beyond the categories of the clean and the unclean. On the other hand, it is more accurate to say that he teaches us how these categories are better understood in more spiritual terms rather than with a connection to literal, external realities.
For example, with regards to Jewish dietary customs, he says, “Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man” (Matthew 15:17-18).
He is worried about us consuming rotten spiritual food and then bearing rotten spiritual fruit, not so much with eating one food but not another. It should be said, however, that such traditions have value to the extent that they witness to the more important, spiritual realities—Jesus, after all, still practiced Torah.
But his point seems to be the same as that of St. Paul:
[O]ne believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? (Romans 14:2-4)
What is more important? Being a servant of God, who receives all those who have cleansed their hearts.
Which brings me back to cleaning. We call cleaning a chore and often mean that word in the most pejorative sense. Surely cleaning must be a punishment for our sin! But perhaps not. Or, at least, it is as much a remedy for sin as a punishment.
“The enemy continually throws into you all the dirt that he can find,” says the old man. “It is your business not to neglect to throw out whatever he throws in.”
A while back I worked for a few years as a janitor. While this is often assumed to be one of the worst jobs, I quickly found that it was low stress and actually paid better than a food service or retail job. Plus (perhaps best of all), I got to work mostly alone—no customers, no coworkers, just me and my portable CD player (i.e. an MP3 player for comparatively old people).
The more I worked at that job, the more comfortable cleaning became. I confess that it is much less comfortable today. I look at a sink full of dishes and more often think of a good reason to put off washing them instead of accepting this necessary chore.
Why don’t we want to do these sorts of chores? Washing dishes isn’t difficult work. Thank God, we now have a dishwasher, which makes the task even less labor-intensive. For me, it is mostly that, unlike one friend and coworker of mine, I don’t really like getting my hands dirty.
For others, I think, and perhaps for me sometimes as well, the most unattractive part about doing the dishes is that there is no other way to do them than one at a time. Even with a dishwasher, some rinsing is usually necessary and each must be loaded one at a time, “bit by bit.”
It is not difficult work. It is not even always very time-consuming. But it requires us to work little by little, to slow down and work on each small task.
So it is with our souls. The work of asceticism is not really difficult. Fast from a few foods every now and then to build self-control. Follow a rule of prayer for mornings and evenings and try to pray meditatively throughout the day. Remember the poor and give alms if you can. Be happy with what you have instead of always wanting more. And so on. These are not difficult things to do.
The trouble is when we don’t want to work “bit by bit” to clean away the devil’s mud from our hearts. In that case we become estranged from our true selves. We are evicted from our own hearts, wherein alone we can meet with God. “If you neglect to do this,” says the old man, “your house will be so full of mud that you will not be able to walk inside.”
If it comes to that, we need help. We need the prayers of others. We need God’s cleaning crew, the clergy of his Church, to help us clean everything away in confession. And we always need God’s grace through the sacraments—these are our spiritual cleaning products without which no amount of scrubbing will suffice.
But in the end, like the dishes, for most of us it is a struggle with akedia or “sloth”—that spiritual boredom that arrests our motivation. And interestingly, one thing the fathers recommend to cure this spiritual sloth: physical work. Having trouble with the dirty dishes of your soul? Clean the dishes in your kitchen! Then see how you’ve found the effort you needed to pray, to fast, and to give your mind and heart to God.
There is even a Latin saying worth remembering: ora est labora, “work is prayer” (and vice versa). That is, work can be prayer if, while cleaning away the mud in our houses, we take time to examine our thoughts and feelings and clean away, “bit by bit,” the mud in our souls, constantly attending to the presence of God, who, when we expectantly wait for him, attends to us and hears our prayers.