An advertisement for furniture showed some very attractive settings for kitchens and bedrooms, boasting that the company’s strength is its low pricing.
The kitchens displayed in the poster were immaculate. Every part of every surface of the cooker, microwave, dishwasher and cooking utensils gleamed spotless and unused. Unblemished cupboards, newly-painted and pleasing to the eye, flanked equally pristine working surfaces. Not an item stood out of place, positioned as with a ruler. Uniformly white, unscratched, cutting boards lay symmetrically positioned on the working surface. ‘Master Chef’ could do no better!
Looking at the bedroom furniture, items were strategically placed to maximise space. Delicate bedside lamps bent gracefully ‘just so’. Bed-sheets showed the perfect creases of the newly-unwrapped-from-the-packet. Perfectly-fastened wardrobes and cupboards proved that the householder believed in absolute tidiness and order…
…and the posters gave the impression of vacant houses, where people might exist, but in which nobody actually lives. No dumped mugs or magazines. No scuffed doors where small children came into collision with hard wooden surfaces. No evidence of meals shared, of work accomplished, of ventures started. No sign of ‘family’.
The posters were beautiful…and sterile.
Many years ago, I escorted a wealthy Arab couple who were interested in the possibility of buying the millionaire’s house near the convent. The millionaire was away at the time, so the gardener acted as tour guide. Showing us around the garden, equipped with pinewood sauna and teardrop-shaped swimming pool, he stopped at the rose garden, which had been planted within the two or three days before the owner brought his wife to see their new residence. “Do you know which is the best rose bush here?” he asked, extending his hand towards the exquisite £2,000 worth of perfectly pruned roses. “That one”, he indicated. “And do you know how much it cost? It was free with four gallons of petrol!”
Tidiness is a very valuable aspect of life, but there is something about the actual process of living that is not tidy and does not go according to plan. Anybody with small children has to cope with crumbs on the new carpet, shoes anywhere but on the feet of their owner, piles of dirty washing waiting for attention and plates of leftover food in the fridge. Bedroom cupboards are valuable dumping grounds for all sorts of items waiting to be put away ‘when there is time’. The parents of small children have to cope with the unexpected shock of little ones trying their best to be good, but rather unconventionally so. (One of my sisters found her 3 year-old ‘helping Mummy’ by cleaning the bathroom with my sister’s toothbrush!)
Living is not tidy and compartmentalised. If it were, it would be boringly predictable, utterly sterile and with no opportunity for personal growth, for appreciation of others, for fun, or for relaxation. Ask any mother if she really needs to put in pride of place the wilted weed she’s just been presented by her toddler. She will ensure that it goes exactly where she and the little one can see and enjoy it, even if it’s the most public place in the home. Most fathers will be oblivious of the mess (or more oblivious than usual!!!) as they help a child to fix a broken toy.
Yet take that one step further. When we go to church, is it a house or a home? I ask this after hearing a radio programme in which the presenter remarked that, years ago, her mother was asked not to attend her local church (fortunately, not Catholic) because ‘people would be offended’ by her colour!
Does that sound extreme? Hopefully, these days, it would not happen and, in any case, seeing the racial mix of Catholics generally, it would be unlikely. However, another true story of recent recounting was only too possible. A man went to Mass wearing a cap, which he wore throughout the celebration and in spite of several tactful reminders that, ‘here, we don’t wear caps in church’. As he left, he pointed out to the parish priest that, in the two years he’d been attending that particular church, nobody had said a word to him and yet, that day, because of his cap, three people had spoken to him!
How often do we make an effort to greet a newcomer to the parish? Does the Sign of Peace also extend to be a handshake of welcome, of peacemaking and of friendship rather than a perfunctory ritual?
Have you ever noticed that, in exchanging the Sign of Peace, people smile at each other? Doesn’t it go one step towards changing the church from a house into a home? It’s not as if we mean to be unfriendly, but it is very easy to shake hands whilst thinking of something else ... and yet the person to whom we turn might, at that moment, be urgently in need of the genuine sign of friendship and support that is so easy to offer through a handshake and a smile.
God doesn’t expect us to do everything right all the time. He’s a father. He knows that our days are sometimes a bit messy in spite of our best efforts…but then, he has made this world, not a house, but a home.