Resisting Spiritual Hygiene


Something Matt Allen said around minute 6 of Episode 5 of his Uncut podcast has been nagging at me.  His conversation was with Pastor Brandon Lemois of the Community Covenant Church in Rehoboth, and Matt told an anecdote from his childhood that I think I’ve heard him tell in more detail before.

In summary, when he was a boy, he started out Catholic, but a priest told him during CCD that he’d have a dirty spot on his soul if he didn’t go to Mass, his outraged mother changed denominations.  When he’s told the story in the past, I think Matt described the priest’s statement more as saying that we have dirty spots on our souls and go to Mass to have them cleaned off, which seems like a very mild bit of theological metaphor to force a family to change churches.

If religion has any truth to it, after all, then we can’t believe that we are spiritually spotless without it, or that we can achieve perfection without guidance.

What makes Matt’s joking about this anecdote particularly strange is that he repeats in Episode 5 an idea that’s been poking at him from every direction lately: that constraints bring freedom.  You exercise to be strong, for example.  You follow the rules of academic discipline in order to increase your knowledge to the point that you’re able to go where nobody has gone before, intellectually.  You structure your life in a responsible manner so that you have a stable platform from which to truly experience life.  If you learn the skills and discipline necessary to safely fly a helicopter, it can take you anywhere.

Following basic rules of hygiene is a critical part of freeing ourselves from the burden of illness.  Why, then, would it be outrageous to present attendance at Mass as a necessary part of spiritual hygiene?

This comes down to a very theological principle.  We accept God’s dominion because it makes us free.  We’re freed of the world’s constraints for the feather-light burden of faith.  We’re freed of the fear of death.  We’re also freed of the fear of failing in our earthly endeavors.  When we accept that God is in control, we can go out into uncharted land seeking converts.  We can embark on the crazy project of making the world a better place, and in God’s eyes, we’re as good if it doesn’t work out as if it does because we made ourselves better.

If we’ve acknowledged our need for something greater and have done our best to find ways to overcome our weakness and tendency toward self-serving delusion, God is the ultimate parent proud that we did our best and were true to our family’s values.  We need guidance and correction, however, to know what “best” is supposed to be and what our values are.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    Why I stopped being catholic (only my mother was Catholic, and the first Catholic my father had ever knowingly met). At CCD (then called “catechism”) the nun instructed us to draw t-shirts then mark them with pencil points until they were black. These black marks were our sins. The nun noticed that I had drawn “cuffs” on the sleeves and neck of my T-shirt. She took a ruler to my knuckles (I remember it as an architects scale). My father saw that, and that was the end of my Catholicism. I guess Matt Allen wasn’t the only one.

    The nuns were Dominicans. I know now that is the same “order” which brought us the “Inquisition”. The nun’s name was “Sister George”, that struck me as strange. They were all assigned men’s names, Sister Joseph, etc.

    • ShannonEntropy

      I need not yet again recount the many adventures of my four years of living in a Roman Catholic boarding seminary high school to explain why I now consider myself a “Recovering Catholic”

      The Church is self-immolating, as exemplified by this recent article in the Pro-Jo =>

      • Rhett Hardwick

        This will probably give rise to a few choruses of “It’s a wonderful day for an auto de fe”. But I have always questioned what kind of guy joins an organization restricted to men (who wear dresses) and are denied women? At least to me, this does not smack of piety. Having gone to a largely Protestant college (“Catholics” was a semi derogatory term meaning recent Irish or Italian immigrants. I have heard such usage in Boston, in relatively recent times at a lunch club, of ancient origin, that I belonged to), Dev. of West. Civ. stressed the vow of chastity as a constraint on libidos, mixed with the power to tax peasants. Stories of priests playing with alter boys and nuns were always rampant among my Protestant relatives.

        Particularly among “non-denominational” Protestants, there is nothing unusual about switching churches. Moving to a new town, you shop for a church. You are seeking a minister you admire, not familiar ritual.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    Just picked this up off a “clickster” on the 30 saddest cities in America. Perhaps it is because I only keep track on the East Side, but I hadn’t noticed Real Estate values declining.
    “We’re not saying that if you move to Providence then the city gives you sleepless nights, but the city happens to be in the top 10 for sleep-deprived metro areas. Perhaps people are worried about their real estate since home appreciation in the past 10 years has been -26.4%.”

  • Joe Smith

    Hmm..resisting spiritual hygiene – maybe the church should look inward and ask itself in the face of changing educational marketspace how its educational arm “rebranded” Catholic education to appeal more to non-Catholics and cafeteria Catholics in order to chase the dollars instead of “freeing itself” on chasing dollars to retain its Catholic-centered identity.

    or how leading “Catholic” universities started to chase more athletic and ranking prowess instead of “freeing itself” of those to keep a focus on educating lower income students and providing access to catholic families.