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Cleanliness Is Next to . . . What, Exactly?


When I wrote Flunking Sainthood I spent the month of March 2009 trying to find God through housecleaning. Every day, I would try to infuse some thankless task -- washing the floor, scrubbing a trash can interior -- with the kind of prayerful mindfulness I had read about in Brother Lawrence's spiritual classic The Practice of the Presence of God. From the title of my own book you can probably imagine just how well mindfulness worked out for me. But it seemed a great idea in theory.

I've spent a fair amount of time since then pondering the wisdom and origins of the idea that cleanliness is next to godliness. Since we've come again to March, this month I will be ruminating at least once a week on the spirituality of housekeeping.

And here is what I am discovering: we tend to focus on the end result and imagine that the person with a clean house is somehow more righteous than the one whose dust bunnies appear so well-provisioned as to foment revolution. But I think we've missed the point that it's the process, not the result, that is godly.


This is a theme in one of my favorite spirituality books, a little-known gem by Margaret Kim Peterson called Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life. For starters, Peterson elevates housekeeping to "godly" status in an innovative way. She doesn't take the traditional tack and focus on the results of a clean house. She doesn't take the newer feminist tack and focus on housekeeping as work that is inherently valuable because it has traditionally been done by women. No, she takes a wholly new path: housekeeping is godly because it is something done by God.

I've never thought about God as our Giant Housekeeper in the Sky, but Peterson provides compelling biblical evidence that this is precisely God's role. He feeds the people (and in Exodus, he quells food-related complaints in a way that every parent will find humorous and familiar: Yes, you're having manna again, and you should be grateful you have any food at all!). He clothes the people; in fact, his first act after Adam and Eve's expulsion is to clothe them. When he later gives blueprints for the ark, tabernacle, and temple, God is almost obsessively involved with every detail of their design and execution. No detail escapes God's notice, from the height of the candles to the wood that's used (God turns out to have a near-fetish for acacia) to the precise color of the priests' ritual garb.

In short, the Bible's God come across as someone who spends a whole lot of time fretting about small domestic concerns. But the thing is that they're not small. Peterson's book draws on the example of Jesus to underscore the real importance of concrete tasks like making casseroles and making beds: they welcome the stranger. They express a rather abstract love in tangible ways that we can see, smell, touch. They are about finding -- and cultivating -- the sacred in the everyday. 

And if that's not godliness, what is?


The photo of cleaning hands is from Shutterstock and is used by permission.

Topics: Faith, Doctrine & Practice
Beliefs: Christian - Catholic, Christian - Orthodox, Christian - Protestant, Interfaith, Mormon
Tags: cleaning as a spiritual practice, cleanliness is next to godliness, flunking sainthood, god as housekeeper, housekeeping in the bible, jana riess, keeping house: the litany of everyday life, margaret kim peterson

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