Does your house have dirty corners?
In my apartment, there are certain places I just can’t bring myself to clean. The baseboards, for example. Or the muddy entrance hall. Or the awkward section of floor behind the toilet. Because I don’t want to touch these spaces, I’ll grow used to them looking grimy over time and hope that one day I will be motivated to bust out the vacuum and get to work. But frustratingly, when this happens, these spots are the first places in my apartment to show dirt again.
Just like in a home, my soul also has some dirty corners. These are the areas of my heart that don’t align with my expectations of myself or the image I want to project. They are recurrent sins that I struggle to overcome, or dark spots of negativity, or temptations that I seem to stumble upon involuntarily. These stagnant places are difficult to identify and even harder to clean. And usually, after I confess these sins and failures, they are the first to start building back up in my soul.
I imagine that these spiritual corners develop in the same way that dirt piles up in my house: they constantly accumulate. I dust my windowsill but next month it’s black again.
In nature, the law of entropy is defined as the tendency of all matter toward disorder and disarray. I can think of no natural process that contradicts this law. Though most of our human activities—cleaning, building, repairing—attempt to delay the natural disintegration of material, none can make a permanent difference. Dust always settles. And whether the entropy is happening in my home or in my soul, I’m tempted to ask: why even bother cleaning?
One answer is that cleaning up is a simple activity that a person can complete in a day. It generates a sense of accomplishment so that afterward it’s easier to tackle more of the items on one’s to-do list. This is true even if the results last only for a short time: William H. McRaven explains in his motivational book Make Your Bed. If doing small, daily chores makes this difference at home, then performing regular acts of spiritual maintenance should have the same effect on our souls. Just a little bit of cleaning every day should empower us to take the next right step.
So, what is ‘spiritual maintenance?’ Cleaning dirty places around the house is easy enough, but how does one sweep out a corner of the soul?
Confession is the primary method. A conscience requires vetting just as a house needs sweeping. If we let our sins build up for too long, we can become overwhelmed by their sheer magnitude and give up. In the past, I have hesitated to attend confession because I felt embarrassed by my chronic sins. I believed I was a hypocrite, confessing the same failure time after time, only to go out and fail again the next day. And I did—I do. But I also get into bed every night, unmaking the sheets that I so neatly tucked in that morning.
Just like how making a bed or cleaning the floor empowers us to accomplish other household chores, confession brings a feeling of accomplishment that energizes us to take the next step on our spiritual journey.
It is important to distinguish here between good confession habits and scrupulosity. What I am not saying is that we must run to the confessional every day or even multiple times a day to recount our tiniest errors for fear of eternal perdition. That’s about as effective as spending the entire day on our hands and knees in the kitchen, wiping up every single crumb the moment it falls to the floor. All we would do is tire ourselves and grow angry at the people spilling the crumbs.
This means that we need other methods of keeping our souls clean—tools to supplement confession. A daily examination of conscience is a great way to stay aware of our failures and try to do better in a balanced, unscrupulous way. Using the right examination of conscience matters. Here are two solid but different examples: a very thorough one and a basic one for married women (though men could easily reverse the language). Some other methods include regular prayer or daily mass and adoration. Paired with consistent confession, these tools help keep our souls well-swept.
Here at the end the analogy breaks down, because faith takes us somewhere that a clean house never can. While sweeping up piles of dust at home matters for one’s sanity and productivity, in the end, that lifetime of effort passes away in an instant. The results don’t last. Spiritual cleaning, on the other hand, does make a permanent difference. A lifetime of small acts of spiritual maintenance performed faithfully, despite one’s tendency to fall back into the same sins, does much for the state of the soul in the afterlife. If regular prayers and confession don’t have a noticeable effect day to day, that’s only how they appear. Unlike our universe, which we know will finally rip away to nothingness, Christ promises to gather all things to Himself and make them new.
We as Christians live in this world but are not of it. Let us keep our souls well-swept every day, so that at the end, like the five virgins whose lamps were filled with oil, we might await the coming of the Bridegroom with joy.