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).

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Posted by Cate MacDonald


  1. Cate,

    Thursday is a romp don’t you think? It really is like a nightmare. I think Chesterton is still greatly underappreciated. Most people I know read a very narrow selection of his writings and completely miss what was most important to him and why. They never deal with The Thing that most animated and determined his thinking.

    In fact he may be the most perceptive man of English letters in the past 100 years. Very few moderns have anywhere near the scope and depth of his erudition. Todays professors and theologians are by and large specialists and pay the price for that in ways they cannot imagine. Not so with Chesterton, and he saw more deeply than all of them. Lewis knew it. So did the likes of Etienne Gilson and Hans Urs von Balthasar and Richard John Neuhaus and Hilaire Belloc his good friend and comrade in arms.

    Please forgive me but aren’t you being a bit fastidious with the gardening equals the state of the soul thing? I mean garden if you love to garden. But don’t garden as a means to godliness. Don’t do it as a sort of discipline for order. Do it for beauty perhaps. Yes do it for the love of beauty, which would then make it very much doing it for the love of God. After all beauty is the forgotten characteristic of being.

    I think Chesterton was a fantastic image of Christ in his very unique way; they say he was almost always full of joy and gusto and good will. He was a fantastic controversialist and debater. I am almost positive he must have been a great slob. There are the repeated anecdotes of him having to call his wife from some place or other to find out where he was supposed to be!

    One of the profound aspects of his understanding of the Faith was his grasp of the implications of the Incarnation for what it means to be a human being. That is something that took me a very long time to begin to see. Belloc would very likely have tromped the mud and dirt and sea of Europe all over Mrs. Elliot’s rugs and Chesterton would have laughed all the while at the consternation of those who would use this as a means to judge character. This seems a form of Puritanism and Chesterton knew how to judge Puritanism.

    If you don’t mind me asking what all of Chesterton have you read?

    Highest regards,


  2. I.J.,

    Thanks for the long and thoughtful comment. I’ve not experienced as much of Chesterton as I would like, having only read Orthodoxy, The Man Who was Thursday, and a Father Brown mystery or two. And I’ve certainly not thought as thoroughly about him as you have, though I tend to agree with your assessment of his significance.

    Fastidious is such a terrible word that my first inclination is to cry, “no! not in the slightest!”, but I suppose it depends on what you mean. I wonder how one would garden in order to enjoy the beauty of it, which you do approve of, without restoring order in a chaotic and dying environment (my garden is both). As for gardening unto godliness, my garden is simply an analogy and working on it reminds me that there are other things that should be in order too. If it is fastidious or puritanical to believe that we can act in such a way that effects the state of our soul, even when it comes to the way you keep your home, then, sadly, your assessment of me is accurate.

    Whatever his outward habits and appearance, I suspect that Chesterton’s soul was well-ordered. It is my opinion that he could not have written what he did if he did not know what he was about when it came to his life in Christ. I guess he didn’t need the outward reminder as much as I do.

    “Beauty is the forgotten character of being” is a fantastic little quotation. What do you mean by it?


  3. Hello Cate,

    I do not meant to imply that you are fastidious and perhaps that was to strong a word. And you are right really, such discipline can have a very positive effect on us. And by all means if you think you should do it then do it, after all the dictates of conscience are sovereign and always to be obeyed.

    And I know the tremendous fruit things like the Benedicitine Rule have born for over 1600 years. Their discipline and order is very informed and with great purpose. Benedict is the epitome of zeal and balance.

    Beauty is one of the transcendental characteristics of being. Unity, truth, goodness, beauty. All of reality is contained within these characteristics. It is a long story (if you are interested let me know) but much of Christian thought since Scholasticism, and especially Protestantism, has abandonded Beauty. Barth understood this clearly but could do little, it seems, to remedy the situation. The problem with abandoning beauty (of course this must be properly understood) is that you abandon the fullness of reality and in so doing you diminish truth and goodness.

    Forgetting beauty you reduce theology to propositional truth and ethics. Over the past 400 years even propositional truth has been attenuated to the point that one despairs of being able to say what is true and what is not. This has led to doctrinal anarchy. And so by and large theology is reduced to ethics and becomes moralism. Chesterton knew this. The most popular preacher in America is Joel Osteen, little more than a positive thinker in Christian guise.

    The very reason Chesterton is such a delight to read is the beauty of his style. It has to do with form. Again, not something that is very well understood in contemporary culture. Of course he has a profound grasp of reality. But his staggering gift of parallelism (some say paradox but this is incorrect) illuminates difficult ideas with known ideas and is not even approached by any other English writer. The power to see in such a manner, and make such connections, is so colossal that it is hardly even recognized for what it is. It is so rare that people don’t know what they have encountered. Just give it a try yourself sometimes, it is nearly impossible. And yet these things rolled out of his mind seemingly spontaneously. Did you know that he did not sit down and write his books, he dictated them, and almost never revised a single word. If you have written much you know how unfathomable that is.

    Anyway, beauty is the analogous manifestation of God’s glory. When we behold and are enraptured by beauty we encounter the eternal. The heavens proclaim the glory of God. This lies near the heart of the contemplative aspect of life.

    “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after…to behold the beauty of the Lord” -Ps 27:4



  4. Interesting thoughts here and yet I have a ideas regarding the E.E. note “The seemingly insignificant and everyday tasks of maintaining one’s home were viewed as a window to the state of the soul.”- I am guessing we are speaking mostly of women in this post and that is part of my issue- Not every Christian woman is the perfect housekeeper Elizabeth Eliot speaks of and let us remember the Mary / Martha story. I am more of a Mary myself . . .My soul can be just fine even when my house is not. With 5 children under the age of 19 including twins and a 6 year old, I have piles sometimes but feel my soul is a different issue all together . . .

    Cornelia Seigneur



  5. Cornelia,

    Thanks for the comment. I wasn’t thinking of women particularly, beyond the fact that I am a woman and this post is, at least in one way, about me.

    I’ve actually published this post in one form or another elsewhere on the internet and have gotten a reaction similar to yours before. It’s interesting to me because I feel like the argument for cleanliness is a mild one, stating simply that it matters, that one’s everyday lifestyle means something.

    The story of Mary and Martha is an interesting one. It is certainly about priorities, though I don’t think a disinterest in housekeeping is central to Mary’s obedience. Rather, it seems to be about understanding when it’s time to simply sit at the feet of Jesus. Mary was fortunate enough to see him face to face. For her, listening was about just sitting in front of him. What I’ve found is that oftentimes listening to Jesus means attending to my daily responsibilities with a heart that’s attuned to how my lifestyle affects those I invite into it.


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