It was on the lawn in front of the Silverstream Manse that I lost my faith in the unimpeachable excellence of cleanliness. Cleanliness is a good thing; but, like most good things, it can be overdone.
We were lounging under the shade of a giant elm—Sidwell, Clive Hislop, John Broadbanks and I. We had survived, without much trouble, the tedium of a committee meeting, for, on this occasion, the dreariness of resolutions and amendments had been tempered to us by the idyllic conditions under which we met. To keep in line with tradition, the meeting should have been held in a dingy classroom in the city; but John Broadbanks, who had a genius for making drudgery delightful, upset the usual procedure.
‘There are only four of us on the committee,’ he wrote to the secretary. ‘Why should we all go to town to bore each other to death in a stuffy old classroom? Come out to Silverstream; we can have the meeting on the lawn; you can bring your pipes; and we’ll have some afternoon tea to keep us from falling asleep over the business.’
It was so arranged. We quickly reached the end of the agenda, and John slipped off to arrange for the afternoon tea. On his return to the group, he was attended by little Don. Don had an exercise-book in his hand and wanted his father to set him a copy. Taking his fountain-pen from his vest-pocket, John wrote across the top of the page in his best copper-plate, the words: Cleanliness is next to Godliness. And Don, advised by his mother to get some irksome tasks out of the way as quickly as possible, scampered off to copy it at once.
‘That’s wholesome doctrine for a growing boy!’ remarked Hislop, smilingly, as he watched Don’s retreating form.
‘Oh yes,’ laughed John, ‘it’s a proverb; and, somehow, proverbs seemed to be made to be inscribed on the pages of copy-books. But, like most proverbs, it’s more epigrammatic than true. It’s good as far as it goes; but the trouble is, it doesn’t go far. The Bible itself warns us, you know, against making a fetish of cleanliness. But, I say!’ He exclaimed, with sudden enthusiasm, ‘if you fellows have not yet chosen your text for Sunday, I can recommend that one: Where no oxen are the crib is clean. That’s the other side of the proverb that I wrote in Don’s copy-book. It’s a very important side, too!’
But, at that moment, he was interrupted by the arrival of his wife with the afternoon tea.
‘Sermonizing again!’ exclaimed Lillian, turning playfully upon him. Do you think these ministers want you to talk texts to them all the afternoon?’
‘Indeed, it was a very good text that I was giving them,’ replied John, in self defense. ‘It was the text that I often quote to you, my lady, when you scold me about the untidiness of my study. As I often impress upon you,’ he said, taking the cups from her tray in order to hand them to us, ‘it would be very easy to keep the study tidy if I never went into it. Where no oxen are the crib is clean. They’re all going to preach on that text next Sunday: I can see the light of an inspiration coming into Sidwell’s face.They’ll have a great sermon on The Empty Crib at Balclutha on Sunday; you mark my words!’
Cleanliness is next to Godliness, says the proverb that John Broadbanks inscribed so boldly in his boy’s copy-book. It sometimes is. And sometimes, on the contrary, it is as far from godliness as pole is from pole. Cleanliness is often a blessing; but it is often a curse. In the fourth chapter of his terrible prophecy, Amos tells of the horrors that the Most High has sent upon his reprobate nation in hope of leading them to repentance. ‘I have sent unto you war and pestilence and famine, yet have ye not returned unto Me, saith the Lord. And I also have given you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and want of bread in all your houses, yet have ye not returned unto Me, saith the Lord.’
Cleanness of teeth! The cleanliness that is not a blessing but a curse, and a curse most terrible! I know a man whose ledger is spotlessly clean: his business is a failure! I know a woman whose nursery is hushed and neat: her child is dead! I know a carpenter on whose workshop floor there is no litter of shavings: he is taken to drink, and never goes near his bench! In each case it is because there are no oxen that the crib is clean. The cleanliness is the cleanliness of stagnation; the cleanliness of inactivity; the cleanliness of death.
Like everything else, cleanliness may be purchased at too high a price. The grocer cannot afford the clean ledger; the barrister cannot afford a tidy office; the farmer cannot afford the clean but empty stall. Herein lies the weakness of monasticism. I may prevent the dust and defilement of the world from settling on my soul by imprisoning myself in a cloister. But, separated from the world, I can no longer serve the world. I have stultified and disqualified myself. I have rendered it impossible for me to do the work that I was sent into the world to do. It is better for me to enter into the hurly-burly and to do my work, even though my soul gets somewhat dusty in the doing of it. …
The empty crib saves the farmer a lot of trouble; but, on the whole, it would be better for him if it were occupied by oxen and needed constant cleansing and attention. He has a clean crib, it is true; but, on the other hand, he has no oxen with which to plough, and his farm must go to rack and ruin. The same principle holds true of the easy conscience and the complacent soul. Where no oxen are the crib is clean, and, where no illumination is, the conscience is clean also. An uninstructed conscience may be coaxed into approving of any enormity. Every crime in the calendar has at some time or other been committed by a man whose conscience applauded the deed.
The atmosphere of the dining-room looks perfectly free of dust until a shaft of light suddenly shines across it, and then, in that luminous line, a million specks are seen to be dancing. It is a parable. When there was no divine work going forward in the heart of Job, he talked all day long of his integrity and charity; but, when a spiritual illumination broke upon him, he abhorred himself and repented in dust and ashes. Before Paul caught the vision on the road to Damascus, his soul was like an empty crib. Nothing was going on there. And, as a consequence, he was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, proud and perfectly content. But when there began in his soul that wondrous work that transfigured him and, through him, shook the world, he cried out of the bitterness of his spirit that of sinners he was chief.
Let every minister be thankful that his study needs tidying; let every barrister be thankful for the bustle and confusion of his office; let every carpenter be thankful for the heap of shavings on the floor; let every mother be thankful for the tumult in the nursery; let every farmer be thankful for the crib that needs cleaning out! It shows that there’s something doing. In exactly the same way, let every man be thankful when his conscience cries out against him; the evil day is the day on which conscience resolves to speak no more. And, above all, let every man be thankful at having discovered the defilement and contamination of his own soul. As with the defilement in the farmer’s stall, it is a sign of life. We have all heard of the visitor who, inspecting a little country cemetery, pitied the ill-health of the grave-digger. ‘You’ve a terrible cough!’ he said. ‘Umph,’ retorted the old man; ‘but there’s plenty here’—pointing to the tombs—‘would be very glad o’ my cough!’ That is so.The cough is a sign of life; but, for all that, the cough must be cured or it will drag the old man down to his grave. The sight of the dirty crib is a healthy sight, but it is at the same time a call for cleansing. The torments of an aroused conscience, and the recognition of inward pollution, are symptoms of spiritual vitality for which a wise man will give thanks on bended knees; but they are useless and worse than useless unless they drive him, in his desperation, to the fountain opened for all sin and for all uncleanness.
Taken from The Crystal Pointers, pp. 175-186.