June 20, 2013 by lucieromarin
Bill Bryson’s ‘At Home: A Short History of Private Life’ contains the story (I don’t have it here – sorry) of a New York millionaire whose collection of priceless antiques (which included, I think, medieval artifacts) was thrown away after his death or bankruptcy, with the words, “We don’t deal in second-hand goods.”
Those of us born and raised in the family of God can end up like this; dismissive of the furniture and furnishings of faith, forgetting that they’re valuable because we’re so used to them. This is partly why I like converts; they walk into the House, see something on a shelf I haven’t noticed or dusted for years, and ask me what it is. I shrug, “That old thing? I dunno. It’s weird-looking,” only to see the newcomer lift the item, find the mark on its underside, and cry, “Limoges! You have Limoges!”
This isn’t a pro-apostasy blog because, irrespective of whether or not Catholicism is the true faith, (which it is), most recovery from conservative burnout and disappointment doesn’t require the complete emptying of the house. (There are some exceptions to this, but most of us aren’t them.) Having an all-or-nothing personality, I’ve learned that the all-or-nothing approach to anything is usually is too extreme, and total overhaul is one of those too-intense-reactions that backfire ten years later, when you watch an episode of ‘Antiques Roadshow,’ and realise that you now have to go crawling through the barns of the nation, because that little old jar was worth, like, fifty grand, and now you need some of your stuff back.
We don’t have to store all our junk, forever, just in case we need it one day. We also don’t want to throw away priceless antiques. We don’t want to throw away things we take to be useless or ugly and then find out that the only problem was that we didn’t really know how to use or display them. The best armchair in the world will be annoying if you try to leave it in the kitchen.
This isn’t a liberal, modernist, or relativist approach to faith (though I admit how someone could use it to those ends!). I’m not saying that nothing is objectively true, or that we can make up things to suit ourselves. What I am saying this that truth is the conformity of the mind with reality; we can’t change reality, but we can learn to see and adapt to it better. This means accepting that the mansions of our interior castles need to be cleaned and decked-out from time to time, especially after those castles have taken a battering; besides which, a good spring-cleaning is not just about getting rid of things; it’s about rediscovering those beautiful things you’d forgotten you had.
I, for example -speaking of clutter- was taught as a child to name my guardian angel and to address it by that name. I practised this steadfastly, on the grounds that the priests who promoted this practice were so orthodox and loved by the Holy Father and had a saint for a founder and everything. Then, in my late twenties, I heard another orthodox priest – one not a member of a personal prelature – caution against it. Well, it was pretty hard to believe that my chaplains got a basic point of philosophy wrong, but, some Thomism later…turns out they did. That pretty little piece of antique china was actually a piece of plastic made in 1983; it had to go. (And that left more space for learning the Tenebrae responsories, which were certainly not made in 1983.)
I’m not offering a specific list here of what to throw and what to keep, because everyone is different. Some people need to fast. Others need to stop fasting. Some people need to take a night off from public devotions. Other people just need to make those devotions in a different parish. Some people need to take the little chair that’s been stuffed in the corner of the nursery and put it by the fireplace – someone, say, who has long neglected a half-understood devotion or an apostolate that would, in fact, suit her lifestyle perfectly. Others need to wrap the chair in pretty paper, give it to a friend, and convert the nursery into a singing-room – someone, say, who has spent too long campaigning about matters bioethical when his real talent is for liturgical music.
Now, while spring-cleaning is usually solitary work, it is possible to take advice from others about it; sometimes another eye can tell you where that picture needs to be, or another mind can identify the source of that bizarre odour from underneath the floorboards. However, don’t take advice from anyone who uses your spring-cleaning to attack your faith. The pious and impious variants of this attack are variants of the same thing – an attack, not just on your Church, but on you. Both “You need to think more about God and less about yourself,” and, “You only believe this because you learned it as a child,” flatten your spiritual history into something completely without nuance, colour, or depth. Your interlocutor either genuinely believes that your prayer-life has been one long hypocrisy or he thinks that you’re a giant moron who has never once exercised your mind in the course of your entire life. You don’t need to waste time on this.
Spring-cleaning can be tiring work. It can be embarrassing and dusty – but it can also lead to the unexpected discovery of fifty dollar notes hidden in your stationery drawer (true story!). And to step back afterwards, looking at your bright new room, suddenly all cosy and welcoming – that’s a wonderful feeling!