Order and the spiritual life

September 21, 2009 | 35 comments

A Three-Minute Book Club post

I’m working on a post for tomorrow that I’m really excited about on the topic of order. Since I don’t have it done yet, I thought I’d do a quick book post with an excerpt that I’ve been thinking about as I write it. It’s from 10 Prayers God Always Says Yes To by Anthony DeStefano, which I bought after reading this stunning recommendation from a mom who experienced unthinkable tragedy. The whole book is a great read, but I today I’ve been thinking a lot about this observation on the topic of order:

Near the end of the Bible we see yet another indication that peace and order are part of God’s character. After the Crucifixion, Christ’s body was placed in a tomb and covered with a shroud. Two days later the apostles discovered, to their amazement, that he was no longer there. When Peter entered the tomb on Easter morning, he observed that the burial shroud was separated from the cloth that had covered Christ’s face. The Gospel of John then reports the following fascinating detail: “the cloth, which had been on the Lord’s head, was not lying with the linen shroud but was rolled up in a place by itself.”

Think for a moment what this means. Jesus Christ, who Christians believe to be God himself, didn’t just rise from the dead and miraculously appear before his disciples. Nor did he just get up off the stone slab he was lying on and exit his tomb, leaving his shroud and facial covering on the floor. No. Before Christ completed his mission on earth, he took the time to roll up his burial cloth and put it neatly in a corner. That means that the very first thing God did after rising from the dead was tidy up!

It’s such a tiny detail, but it means so much. Remember that this is the same God who separated light from darkness and brought order out of chaos when he created the universe.

I am a natural slob, and I always used to maintain that I could be just as happy in a messy room as I could in clean room. But over the past few years I’ve been converted on this issue, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it coincided with my religious conversion. As I seek to daily achieve that sort of deep peace that only comes through union with God, I find that it’s much more difficult to do when my physical surroundings are in disarray. And now that I think about it, it makes sense: after all, the God whom I seek to know and emulate is the God of order. Any other ex-slobs (or, in my case, trying-to-be-ex-slobs) experienced anything like that?


  1. Jenna

    Wow, this idea of order and tidiness has been on my mind a lot lately. because I too am a slob! But to think of Christ "tidying up" in His glorified Body!… I'd better get working.

  2. Judy

    I will buy this book. I feel so for Marian and her family. Our daughter, who thankfully wasn't on campus at the time, was a senior at Tech – weeks away from graduation. I clearly remember the events unfolding on the TV and the anxiety and sadness. I will add her to my prayers and hope that if I ever experience a tragedy that rocks me to my core, I am able to pass along hope to others as she has.

  3. Anonymous

    It goes back to what the Bible said that if you can't be trusted with the small things, how can you be trusted with the big things?

    A friend once told me that the state of your spiritual life can be deduced from the state of your room. Sadly, I can't seem to go for two days without messing up my room in one way or another.

  4. Enbrethiliel


    Wow! Great choice, Jennifer!

    It hits this "recovering slob" right where it hurts, too. 😉

    I also happen to love exegesis like this, which draw the little details we tend to overlook into the light at last. Thanks for sharing this passage. If the rest of the book is this good, I'd love to read it.

  5. Peony Moss

    *raises hand* Another not-naturally-orderly person here (and one who really got a lot from that book as well).

    I'm chuckling to myself; last week I was frantically busy with a lot of stuff and the disorder started to pile up. My Big Plan was to tidy up today, but I woke up with a sinus infection and am knocked flat….

  6. lizzykristine

    Some seasons of life are naturally more slobbish (usually health problems, for me), and during those times, I am thankful for mercy. God doesn't care about the horribly unvacuumed floor.

    But disorder secretly grates on my soul, perhaps because we were created in the image of an orderly God. When there is not order in our home, I don't sleep as well, I can't concentrate on God as well, and I am not efficient in my tasks. Funny how that works….

  7. NY Mom

    I think orderliness is related to dignity. Dignity of person, dignity of place, reflecting both inner and outer environment.

    My problem over the years was hoarding (for a rainy day; because my grandparents were immgrants who never threw things away out of thrift; b/c I felt "virtuous" or creative doing so). After 26 years of marriage I am gleefully detaching from things, loving simplicity and spareness, and finding more joy in giving away than in keeping.

    And the net result is restored order. So it's all good!

  8. Smoochagator

    Yes, yes! I am an ex-slob and I LOOOOOOVE having a tidy and organized home now. I could write 1000s of words on this subject (in fact, the first version of my comment was extremely verbose!) but I'll save the details and philosophical ramblings for my own blog. What I DO want to say, though, is that I credit one book for my "conversion" – The Messies Manual by Sandra Felton. I've read many books and articles about organization, but Felton's book changed my life because it changed my entire attitude and approach to housekeeping. I highly recommend it to any other "messies" out there who are desperate to transform their homes (and their lives)!

  9. Lindsay

    A priest once told me in confession (sloth, ugh!)that God is a god of order and how we should create and maintain order in imitation of him. He said hell was a place of chaos and disorder.

    Thank you for sharing that thought! Lovely and challenging!

  10. Roz

    I don't know if I'll ever be converted on this issue. I appreciate order and beauty a lot, but I lack the self-control to achieve it in small, constant steps.

    Though it's hard to read things like this without being distracted by shame at my shortcomings, I'm going to ask the Holy Spirit to transform that weak-kneed avoidance into the kind of resolution that he can use.

  11. Jenee

    Oh my – I know where you are coming from here! I am such a slob, but lately I've been wanting to clear out a lot of 'stuff' (literal stuff and emotional stuff) in my life.

    I realized that I really don't need all of this stuff – I need to pare down a bit. I feel like it's stifling my spiritual journey, number one, and number two maybe someone else can benefit from some of these items.

  12. Holly

    In the early days of my relationship with my husband (when we were living together, but not yet married and even in the early days of our marriage), the main argument we had was over orderliness. He was a faithful Roman Catholic and I was a heathen (my words, not his) and I had a problem with clutter. Everywhere. After my "conversion" and subsequent growth in faith in the Lord, I have found much more peace in our home when it is uncluttered and welcoming – even if it's just for us.

  13. Headless Mom

    Wow. I had never seen that before. Thank you for that.

    Tidying up before doing God's work… a lot of food for thought…

  14. Meika

    Oh, that review had me in tears.

    I've just been ruminating on this topic in the last few days. I think that for me a lack of order is indicative of a lack of discipline, which plays out in both my spiritual life and the physical realm. My spiritual life was the best it's been when I was in seminary, required to spend time thinking spiritual thoughts and seeking the mind of God on a regular basis, but is much weaker now that I need to do it on my own. I find the same thing with time management when I don't have an out-of-the-house job and its deadlines, and it also applies for me with food – my weight control has been all managing my environment and I am just now realizing that I also need to manage myself, as well (this epiphany I'm having on discipline actually began at Weight Watchers). It makes perfect sense to me that these things go together. Cleanliness is next to godliness, indeed?

  15. Anonymous

    I have become overwhelmed with possessions, especially books, magazines, etc., etc.

    I actually suspect (because I am a bit dyslexic) that some of us "messies" have to work much, much harder at achieving order because it does not come naturally to us. I think that there may be some inherent, even in-born, aspects of dealing efficiently and effectively with our physical things and surroundings.

    Right now, a friend is giving me about three to four hours a week helping me in a major cleaning and decluttering effort. It's making an enormous difference to me.

    I notice several things:

    1. Astrida "sees" how things can be better organized. I don't seem to have that visual capacity. That lack adds to the clutter problem. BUT once Astrida helps me to get everything ordered, I'm going to work very hard at "following her vision" and MAINTAIN everything she has helped me establish.

    2. Astrida is setting up systems that I can follow. Incoming magazines and newspapers will go where they belong; ditto bills, etc., etc. And, of course, she's helping me to find places to put all these things.

    Another problem for me: I have a minor health problem but it has major implications for me. I can't "count" on sleeping well. As a result my schedule is always helter-skelter. I don't function well without sleep AND I often don't sleep well. For messies, order requires extra effort and thought (because it doesn't come naturally to us). When I'm really weary, it's hard to function, especially if it is to do something to which I am not naturally adapted or able.

    btw, I'm highly allergic to dust. There is a lot of cleaning involved in this de-cluttering project. I was gasping for breath and had to leave at one point on our first go-round. On our second session, I had so much trouble breathing hours after our work session that I wasn't able to sleep. I actually wondered if I should take myself to an emergency room if I got even a tad worse (which I didn't). A friend suggests getting a mask, a serious mask that really protects one. I'm going to trawl the internet to identify and buy one.

    Final observation: some people view order as almost a moral issue. (One of my sisters does.) Those of us with problems in this area need help and encouragement, not condemnation. In a related area, I knew someone who was criticized for laziness for years. She even prayed about her sin, confessed it, made novenas to overcome it, etc., etc. Turns out she had an undiagnosed medical condition: she wasn't lazy, she was ill! (It was an alternative doctor who helped her. She made major dietary changes which transformed her life.)

    I'm not making an excuse for my messiness, but I am aware that some of us — and I seem to be one of those — don't "process" physical things or the physical world the way normal people do. I think I'm one of those people, so I have to exert extra effort — one reason I "live in my head" so much. Now THAT'S an orderly place!

  16. Dawn Farias

    Yes, order brings peace. I am looking forward to your post.

    For some reason I'm reminded of a children's museum we used to visit when living in Wichita. There were volunteers on hand whose only job was to go around and put the toys back in order. Kids would come right around and knock it all out again.

    I asked one of the volunteers about it and the purpose was to keep things orderly so that the displays would be inviting to the children.

    I've seen that in my own house. When things are jumbled no one can think of a thing to do, but when stuff is a bit organized then they are happily engaged.

    Except for crawlers and toddlers. I think they are happiest when there is a bit of a varied mess all over the floor.

  17. Roxane B. Salonen

    I like what lizzykristine said about some seasons of life being more naturally slobbish. Can you tell I am fighting off this very thing as I try to mother five children? I agree that peace can be found in order, definitely, but when that order feels impossible to achieve on a given day, sometimes only order of an internal nature will do, and I think if we don't consider this, those of us who fight this daily will feel like failures. But the premise is right on and something to work toward!

  18. Elizabeth@Frabjous Days

    Oooh! Lightbulb moment! That thing about the shroud never occurred to me before…

    I'm a recovering slob, too. With lots of relapses.

  19. Sharon

    I'll think about that passage the next time I get up and don't feel like making the bed! 🙂 I also am a natural slob, and between my three boys and me, we are slowly driving my poor husband crazy with clutter. I'm working on it though, and I've seen houses much more cluttered than mine; your post has given me encouragement.

  20. Elizabeth Mahlou

    I think that there is a distinct connection between respect and order — which is why my kids' messy rooms bothered me until I realized that I could bring overall order to the house (on the surface, at least) by shutting their doors and letting them live in their own chaos until they decided it was time to organize, which ultimately they did).

  21. Shylock

    YES! I am a recovering slob in the sense that my nature hasn't changed, but I believe that I can make the decision each day to change my slobbish habits. For me, it all started with making my bed in the morning. Never used to, but it does make such a difference overall! It starts my day with orderliness, and it's more appealing to think about getting into a fresh bed at night.

    Since I'm a procrastinating multi-tasker, I have tried to incorporate just small little tidying up tasks throughout my day, even just emptying the dishwasher or something. It really doesn't take that long to keep a neat space!

  22. Carrien

    Oh me too!

    It's amazing how once I figured out how to bring order to my days I enjoy them a whole lot better than I used to.

  23. Lucy

    Oh my, YES! What a great connection! I'd never thought about that before. I am on a long-term quest for order and simplification and I know that I function better when certain surfaces are clean. I am not naturally tidy, but clutter and mess make it very hard for me to focus. I have always maintained that God is a God of order. This is a good motivation and this book might need to go on my wish list!

  24. Anonymous

    I've always preferred to be in beautiful and clean spaces than messy, dirty ones. Those just bring me down. I'm encouraged to see a healthier view of being neat & orderly. It seems to me that neat people have been catagorized as having mental illness, OCD and Felix Unger type issues for decades now. To go even a step further, housework has been denigrated by at least two generations of women who believed that they were mentally and intellectually above sweeping and and vacuuming.

  25. Rebecca

    This is definitely very interesting. I would caution, though, against making a one-to-one correspondence between order/lack thereof and the state of one's, I don't know, soul for lack of a better word. I am a person who is very, very bothered by disorder, clutter, and mess (really!) Living with a husband, pets, and four kids has forced me to let that go, A LOT. Two of the kids are too young to pick up after themselves. The two who are old enough are not mine (they are my stepdaughters), and I am not really in a position to get them to do too much (that is dad's job), and if I were to spend as much time as I need keeping things neat and orderly, I daresay my home would be an unwelcoming place for my family to live. (Picture Bree from Desperate Housewives…)

    Forcing myself to "let go", a little, I think actually IS helping me to be a better wife, mom and stepmom.

    That is not necessarily to make an excuse for sloth; but rather to put this issue in a slightly different perspective. At least one other commenter said something about having too much stuff, and I think this is key. Simplify, simplify — don't have too much stuff you don't need and then a semblance of order is so much easier to achieve.

  26. Lana

    I am with Rebecca on this one. Being "tidy" or "orderly" goes way beyond having a clean house. It is a state of detachment from things and it also must come from humility. Kimberly Hahn talks about this a bit in "Graced and Gifted" where she says that it is impossible to do it all in a day (housework, childcare, other work) and so it must not be God's will for us every day! But the non-negotiables (the priorities) are still there: children must be cared for and they must be fed. So guess what has to go? Yup, all that "tidying up." It has definitely been a lesson in "letting go" for this mom of little ones…

    About poverty and detachment, I can't help but think of that film, "Into Great Silence" that Jen recommended about a year ago. When we embrace poverty, our priorities become very clear.

    Finally, about the shroud: I just can't see that the purpose of folding it up would have been simple tidiness. It must have been more, even an act of love–toward his mother, or the others who cared for him after his death and who would have handled the shroud. I picture him standing here, victorious after death and taking stock of his surroundings. Maybe he picked up the shroud and touched it because he love it for itself, because of all that it meant to Him as it wrapped both his broken body and then his resurrected one.

    I guess that comes back to the issue of caring for "things" in the sense that if we treat what we (and our spouses and children) own with care, it can be an expression of love for them, and the gifts they are from God.

    (sorry for the treatise)

  27. 'Becca

    I agree that some tidiness and structure is necessary for one's life to be useful and glorify God, but which direction the learning process works depends on your starting point!

    Like an Anonymous wrote: "some people view order as almost a moral issue." That was me. I was more naturally inclined toward tidiness and organization than my parents, and I grew up in a town where many people judged a woman's worth by her housekeeping. I heard judgment of my mother and praise for my efforts to rise above my "disgraceful" home (it wasn't really that bad, except by comparison to the local standard of homes that look like hotels) and I built up a lot of unhealthy pride about it.

    When I was 21, I fell in love with a man whose room was filled with heaps of chaos. In our 15 years together, we've learned from each other, and we've BOTH improved. He did need more order in his home to help get his life in order. But I needed to relax about some things in order to adjust my priorities to what's really important.

    I mean, I used to have trouble praying at home because I kept noticing dust and getting up to remove it. It didn't work to clean before praying, because it was never perfect and there was always something else to do. I needed to learn to pray while working, but I also needed to learn that perfecting appearances in my earthly life is a dangerous distraction. For me. I was coming from a different extreme than you are.

    It's also been important for me to let go of judgment of less tidy people. Rather than learning to love Daniel despite his messiness, I have learned to love him and thereby accept the messes that don't really matter. I do speak up when a mess is a real problem for me, but I've learned that not every out-of-place object automatically qualifies. Through this process, I've become easier on myself, less prone to assume that anyone who sees my living room with my 4-year-old's toys all over the floor will tell the whole town I'm an unfit mother.

    The single most helpful insight I've had about this was the part of Mere Christianity in which C.S. Lewis says that worrying about how your home appears to guests is the kind of Pride that is a deadly sin, esp. if it prevents you from welcoming guests.

    Speaking of which, although the women in my hometown looked down on my mother's housekeeping, my brother's and my friends loved coming to our house because we were ALLOWED to do things like build blanket forts, scatter art supplies all over the dining room table, set up an elaborate toy city and leave it in place for several days' play, and help cook; their mothers wouldn't tolerate such mess. And they certainly weren't allowed to keep interesting things (like a lovely chunk of ceramic that broke off a power-pole insulator) because their mothers would throw them away without asking. Remembering that, I try to respect my son and object only to the messes and clutter that really do trouble me.

    Your post about duty before holiness was kind of alien to me, because it's so easy for me to let a sense of duty overwhelm me into working and working at unimportant little tasks and never finding time to nourish my spirit. I once read magazine advice to "make love first; then do the dishes," and I've found that applies not just to sexual love but to making the time and energy to love God and others a higher priority than keeping up with the chores.

    But again, that's me. I guess I'm Martha and you (and many of your commenters) are Mary in that story.

    One more thing, though: One way of expressing love for my family and my parish is by serving them. The simple acts of cooking and washing dishes become sacred ministry for me when I remember to pray through them and view them as acts of love.

  28. Sister Lynn

    yes, yes, yes!

    By nature I am a complete mess! But I find that I am less focused and more cranky when my surroundings are messy. I love the peace of a well ordered room – NOW – if I could only muster the discipline to keep them that way!

    sister Lynn

  29. JKK

    I struggle w. sloth continually. When the junk/clutter is cleared away, I can breathe.

    A clean, open space (in my kitchen, bedroom, office) feels like an invitation to come in & create something beautiful.

    and wasn't Adam's job to create order?

  30. Emily J.

    Another recovering/relapsing slob here. Appreciate 'Becca's comments from Mere Christianity, since I also grew up in a house where we were allowed to make messes, but married a man who loves order. It's my little gift to him to tidy up before he gets home, but his gift to me is not to complain if signs of family fun are still evident. Kathleen Norris' Quoitidien Mysteries inspires on this subject.

  31. Julie Culshaw

    The author of the biblical narrative describes the cloths in two locations precisely to impart the idea that Jesus himself removed them, rather than someone else. This has nothing to do with neatness or orderliness, and I think it doesn't help anyone to read the gospels with that kind of scrutiny.

  32. Lindsay

    And yet, Julie, that does not take away from the significance that it was rolled up separately instead of tossed in the opposite corner. As the inspired word of God, scripture speaks to us in infinite ways communicating the nature of Our Lord. I'm not sure that any insight is too small if it helps us grow in virtue.

  33. Julie Culshaw

    But it is so nit-picky. This kind of Biblical exegesis reminds me of the warning not to obey the letter of the law, and forsake the Spirit.
    I simply take disagreement with spending too much time on this sort of thing, it is quite fruitless. For some reason, it makes people feel good, but I think it is time wasted that could be better spent elsewhere.
    If you are a slob, you should clean up out of love for others, but not spend too much time finding Bible verses to spur you to action. There are so many things in the Bible that need our attention so much more than the linen cloths in the tomb.

  34. monica_divineoffice.org

    I am a slob with great potential for an ex-slob, I try like I do with my faith and everything else! I know I'm not alone in my struggle 🙂

    Liturgy of the Hours

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