Sunday, February 26, 2017

Cleanliness: A Sunday Rumination

     To those who’ve wondered where the Ruminations have disappeared to: I know it’s been a while since I last did one of these. I can’t produce them to order, or on a schedule; they require something extra, some impetus I can’t merely summon as I please. But then, that’s the case with other aspects of a life of faith, as well.

     “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Who hasn’t heard that one a few dozen times? (Mainly as a child, when he’d been told to clean up in preparation for some adult affair he’d rather have declined to attend.) And who, in his mud pie-making years, has never been moved to ask “Why?”

     It’s a good question. It comes to mind this morning in connection with a passage from a recent novel from John Conroe’s Demon Accords series, Snake Eyes. Christian Gordon, an angel who has volunteered to become human and act as God’s policeman against demonic incursions, is about to participate in a rather perilous interaction with an enraged elemental. His partner, a powerful young witch, is creating a confinement in the hope of improving their chance to survive the encounter:

     I closed my eyes and tried to empty my head....When it was nice and inky black, I pictured a sword. Not just any sword, but my sword. The one shown to me by Barbiel, one I’ve apparently held for eons, one that was made when I was made. It shone bright in the blackness of my mind. I reached for it. I hadn’t done this much, mostly because I was always afraid it wouldn’t work. That I wouldn’t be able to get a hold of it...that I’m not worthy to hold it anymore.
     But suddenly I felt it in my hand, and when I opened my eyes, it was shining bright in the early morning sun. It sang to me, a song of divine creation and hope. The God Tear necklace round my neck sang back to it.
     That was the easiest I’ve ever retrieved it from its pocket dimension sheath. Of course, things are easier when you don’t have a multi-ton demon charging down on you.
     Declan was watching, frozen in place, but he blinked when he saw me notice him. “Ah, that’s freaking awesome!”
     “I know, right?” I replied. Then I tied the cord to the hilt and used the pointy part to scribe a circle in the dirt.
     “Ah, don’t you think it’s like, disrespectful or something to dig your Angel sword in the dirt?” Declan asked, raw disbelief in his voice.
     “Well, let’s see,” I said, still walking the arc, still digging the line. “He made the earth and dirt, right? And He made the sword and me also. So what’s the big deal?” I asked, not telling him that it just felt like the right thing to do.

     Pretty ballsy, eh? Of course, Chris is / was an angel, so perhaps he’s not bound to human standards of reverence for objects created by God. (Life must be pretty interesting for an angel-made-flesh who’s married to a vampire that’s about to bear him twins.) But he has a good point. All of Creation is ultimately traceable to God. None of it could continue to exist without His approval. “So what’s the big deal?” Specifically, why ought we to make a big deal out of cleanliness, as if it were a route to Godliness, or at least to holiness?

     It’s about our aspirations and our essence.

     We are made in God’s image. Not our physical forms, of course; those are entirely utilitarian, designed to give us what we need to survive and flourish among the predators and other hazards of temporal existence. His image is in our souls: transdimensional, transtemporal entities through which we can hear His voice, if we listen attentively. He does not command us to “cleanliness,” however defined – and you may take it as written that what constitutes “dirt” in the sense of bodily uncleanliness has varied wildly over time and space – but to love of Him and love of neighbor. Dirt, the soil upon which we stand, exists as much by His will as our souls.

     The dirt is as utilitarian as our bodies. We need it: to stand on, to grow crops in, to suppress the dust that would otherwise billow around us, and so forth. (Try growing a decent lawn without dirt. I dare you. Your neighbors would swiftly have words with you.) But as with all useful things, the usefulness of dirt is a matter of context.

     In tending to those other useful items, our bodies, we tend to dislike dirt for several quite valid reasons. It mars our appearance. It makes us itch. It can invite parasites unfriendly to our health. So we remove it as best we can, that we might have more attention to spend on other things.

     It can be a bit difficult to pray when you’re itching all over, swarming with lice or fleas, and you’re aware that your pew and the two or three ahead of and behind you are completely empty for all too obvious reasons.

     We cleanse ourselves for utilitarian reasons, but also for spiritual ones. In tending to our bodies we perform a kind of veneration, a gesture of appreciation and gratitude for what we are and what God has given us:

     For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother's womb. I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well. My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. [Psalm 139:13-15]

     Gratitude is the secret to enduring happiness: yet another of His gifts, and ironically perhaps the one spurned most often. It follows that conscious expressions of gratitude, including the efficient care and maintenance of what we’ve been given, are valuable aids to the conservation and nurturance of our faith.

     So we clean. We strive to remain clean, not merely for the utilitarian benefits but also in recognition that our bodies, His most personal temporal gifts to us, are items for which we should be thankful both in word and in deed...and that dirt, like all other useful things, has its proper place, beyond which it’s not useful but an encumbrance of which we should strive to rid ourselves.

     May God bless and keep you all.

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