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cleanliness“He [the new priest] also kept it differently, scouring away the blood after each slaughter and sprinkling fresh water; it smelled cleaner and less holy.” —C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

They say cleanliness is next to godliness. They, as “they” usually are, are wrong. G.K. Chesterton reminds us that saints can afford to be dirty, but seducers and politicians and hustlers of any trade cannot. Vice and the shallow pleasures of life demand to be dressed up so that we may trick our conscience into accepting them as virtues. All good religion has demanded of its adherents only that they live a life of vigor and passion, that they experience their humanity at its fullest. They must minister with the poor who live in the dirt. They must laugh and weep with their family. They must spill blood for altar and hearth. If they do these things, they will end their life in many ways: scarred and wrinkled yet content and holy. But one thing they will not be is clean.

It has also been said, by men far wiser than I, that beauty and order are inevitably intertwined. Chesterton, who said that the beauty of the painting is found within the frame, would no doubt agree. But it is important to remember that beauty does not arise from order; instead, the two often arrive hand in hand. Orderliness for the sake of orderliness would lead us to a Brave New World in which we cry, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

The great philosopher says he does the household chores because it is an aesthetic undertaking. Bringing order brings about beauty. And so it does. But not because order is being done for the sake of order. In Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, Roger Scruton explains that the way we set the table or arrange the room is done as an acknowledgment of our place in the world. It is solidifying the otherwise fleeting moments of beauty into rituals that remain with us and endow our lives with meaning. In this way, order is brought to acknowledge something higher than order. This is an element that modern philosophies like minimalism miss entirely. Under the minimalist rubric, order and simplicity are brought for their own sake, and the rubric does not discriminate against items of spiritual or familial value. The test is one of efficiency.

Maintaining order in the home, however, is not about efficiency. It is about being the caretaker for that which has been given to us and cementing the eternal beauty of family and religion into daily ritual. At the beginning of C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, the old priest tells us that holy places are dark places. Later in the book a new priest who thinks more “progressively” cleans up the temple and opens up the windows. The mystery evaporates. The same analogy can be made to home life. The meaningful things may be cluttered or messy according to the world’s wisdom. Bringing order for the sake of order leads us to a home that is cleaner but less holy, and in the end, far less beautiful.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of the Intercollegiate Review

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3 replies to this post
  1. Even a Utopian like H. G. Wells tacitly admitted this. In the film version of “Things to Come”, humanity achieves a material paradise, all chrome and antisepsis. And the ordinary people rebel, swamping their Scientist-masters and forcing the Scientist-masters to begin on some other planet.

  2. I think it’s easy to take cleanliness and good order for granted. When one is forced to live in disorder and filth, such as by a mentally ill spouse, then the absence of ‘holiness’ there becomes apparent. And the short moments and places when and where one can create a little cleanliness and order do have something holy about them.

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