On Messiness

Day 11 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.

Ferry Flyer by SLF

Ideas are clean. They soar in the serene
supernal. I can take them out and look
at them, they fit in books, they lead
me down that narrow way. And in the
morning they are there.Ideas are straight–
            but the world is round,
and a messy mortal is my friend.
            Come walk with me in the mud.

                                            — Hugh Prather

One of the challenges with a blog, especially a blog that focuses on contemplative practices, beauty, domestic arts, and spirituality, is the ease with which the presented vision becomes an unreachable utopia. There comes a moment when it all seems impossible and there is a pile of dishes in the sink, the counter is buried, laundry needs folding, alongside faltering relationships, frenetic work, and the world gone angry.

In these moments, I take a deep breath and try (try) to remember Francis de Sales amazing lines,o speaking to us from his 17th century Introduction to the Devout Life:

“Undertake all your affairs with a calm mind and try to dispatch them in order one after the other. If you make an effort to do them all at once or without order, your spirits will be so overcharged and depressed that they will likely sink under the burden without effecting anything.” 

The act of writing helps me understand and reinforce a particular vision and vocation of life, but to blog this life and these practices requires honesty. My spiritual practices get dusty from disuse, my faith wavers, my counters are not always clean, and currently my basement is doing an almost perfect impersonation of the room of requirement–complete with rickety stacks of boxes just ready to collapse. (Lots of boxes. So many that I’m thankful for a door to close on them. Minerva is not allowed down there, I fear she’ll disappear into the pile, never to be seen again.)

Many years ago I read a wonderfully intense and scholarly tome called The Interior Carmel: The Three-Fold Way of Prayer by John C. H. Wu, a renown Chinese scholar and Christian contemplative. For scholars interested in the art of prayer from the Carmelite tradition (John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila), this is an amazing book, but what I remember most is it’s chapter on humility. Wu begins the chapter discussing the important role of humor in the spiritual life–we need to be able to laugh at ourselves. We need to not take ourselves so seriously.

We are the stuff of earth, humus. Sometimes the most humble thing to do is to laugh at our humanness. It’s all the same root, planted deep in the soil of God’s creation. Being humble is remembering that fact: glorious, blessed, graced, beautiful, but also prone to spiritual messiness. Reading Wu’s chapter, I breathed a sigh of relief: I need not get this life as Christ’s disciple perfect.

Perfection is God’s work in me, not my own. And it’s a much different perfection from the one of production, efficiency and success that US culture upholds.

Francis de Sales offers another bit of wisdom:

“Go on in all simplicity; do not be so anxious to win a quiet mind, and it will be all the quieter. Do not examine so closely into the progress of your soul. Do not crave so much to be perfect, but let your spiritual life be formed by your duties, and by the actions which are called forth by circumstances. Do not take overmuch thought for tomorrow. God, who has led you safely on so far, will lead you on to the end.”

Little Me

Something unknots in the general vicinity of my heart when I realize that God is not expecting me to make myself who he’s called me to be. Rather, it is God’s work in me, grace like yeast, transforming from the inside out.

It is a perfecting of love, by Love itself.

But I am impatient. I point to the basement boxes, the imperfect prayer, the broken relationships, all the sins I’ve done, and all the good I’ve failed to do.

He points to the cross.

God in the flesh, in the humus and humility of human life.


So, before we go further into cultivating sanctuary, before the photos and practices and posts paint an incomplete picture of simple human effort, I encourage you to look to Jesus. He is our sanctuary first, the author and perfecter of all God calls us to be.

Little Me and New Heart