Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Backyard Character

September 2nd, 2009 | 2 min read

By Cate MacDonald

Hi everyone, remember me? After a couple of guest posts and many years of faithful reading, I've come to join the boys as a regular contributor here at Mere-O. I tried to link my previous posts for you but, well, I don't know how. However, if you search my name you can read them and get caught up, should you so desire. All that to say, thank you for having me.

After reading The Man Who was Thursday for a class I was teaching, I've been thinking a bit about character formation (I'll explain why later this week). This is the first in a short series of thoughts on the value and development of one's character.

Backyards are private affairs in suburban Southern California. With high fences, cement walls and locked gates, they belong exclusively to the inhabitants of the house. I was thinking about this while watering my one surviving flowering plant and as I surveyed my surroundings I began to view the condition of my backyard as a test of my character. Mine was a disaster.

I read a morning devotional once about the significance of cleanliness to the life of the soul. The author (Elizabeth Elliot, I believe it was) told a story about a former head mistress she had at boarding school. She was known for randomly checking the rooms for made beds and folded clothes, telling the girls she “would have no pious talk coming from messy rooms.” They had a hall in the old boarding house containing a series of small oriental rugs. It was known as Character Hall because an individual’s character was tested each time she accidentally disturbed one of the rugs. Would she turn back and straighten it, or would she leave it for someone else to correct? The seemingly insignificant and everyday tasks of maintaining one’s home were viewed as a window to the state of the soul.

When something remains mostly private, it is easy to let it fall into disarray, whether it be a closet, a garden, or a failure in our character that seems to affect only a few. Imagining that hidden is the same as irrelevant, we pass over the secret places of our life and soul to focus on the parts of us that everyone is looking at.

I’ve started gardening as one effort towards keeping the hidden parts of my house more beautiful. As Fall approaches and the weather cools, it is becoming a pleasant place to be, even if it is a very few of us who see it. Amending my character and healing the hidden, ugly parts of my heart is more challenging and nuanced, and so much more important. It is my hope that attending to my tangible responsibilities, however invisible, will daily remind me of my internal goal of a transparent life.

It was rewarding to make a dirty, uncomfortable place into something inhabitable and enjoyable. People need flowers to sit amongst and a hospitable soul to listen to them. Hospitality and charity flow from the well-ordered soul with nothing to hide and a house with no skeletons in the closet (or the garden).