Augustine’s house in in complete disorder. For years he has neglected to carry out basic maintenance work. The chimneys have not been swept in living memory. When he lights his stove, more smoke comes into his living room than goes up. To make matters worse, Augustine is lazy and hates cleaning. Dishes are piled up in his kitchen. The oven is so dirty that lighting it could cause an ecological disaster. In all areas of the house dust reigns supreme.
Finally, the moment arrives when Augustine realizes that things cannot go on like this. So he opens the daily newspaper and finds the section headed “Cleaning Services”. There are only two ads in this section, and they are very different from each other. The first one claims that it can put right any domestic mess. All it asks is that the owner absent himself while they clean the house from top to bottom. Ovens, chimneys, carpets, upholstery – all will be returned to pristine condition. This is exactly what Augustine was looking for, which is why he finds the second ad a little hard to figure out. It doesn’t promise to clean the house at all. In fact, it seems to expect the owner to do it himself! This is what it says:
JC House Renewal Services. House in a mess? Unable to go on? We guarantee that we will not clean your house for you. Call on us if you want the disorder in your life resolved permanently.
Surely this ad is in the wrong section, Augustine reasons, and he lifts the phone to dial the other number. But then out of curiosity he decides to phone JC House Renewal Services to see what they are about. He can always call the real house cleaners later.
The phone is answered by a very melodious voice with the sound of harp music being played in the background. “Hello, this is Angelo here. May I help you?”
“Hi Angelo, my name is Augustine. My house is in a mess and I was wondering if your company could help me?”
“Certainly, Augustine, that’s what we’re here for”.
“Can you send someone out to clean it up then? Oh, and by the way, how much does it cost?”
“We’ll send someone out, but it’s not going to cost you anything Augustine. The price was paid by our company leader when he died for you sake”.
“Died for my sake? But when was my life in danger?”
“Your life is still in danger, Augustine. The dissolution in which you are living can only lead to death if things remain this way”.
“Fine. Well, I’m not sure if I know what you’re talking about, but if you want to send someone out to clean my house for free, then I can certainly accept that”.
“Oh no, Augustine. It doesn’t exactly work like that. The price has been completely paid for putting your house in order, but now you must put it in order yourself”.
“Just a minute! What’s your game here? You said you were going to send someone out!”
“Yes, our company leader will visit you – ‘Eucharistic visitation’ we call it. But he doesn’t come to treat you like a child and do everything for you. You sit in his presence for a while and contemplate him. And all the time he is actually working on your spiritual faculties, but at a level deeper than your feelings. He is strengthening your resolve, purifying your desires, healing your inner wounds. You may not necessarily perceive what he is doing, but he is nevertheless giving you the grace to overcome your vices and put the house in order yourself.”
“Put the house in order myself – you must be joking! Give me one reason why I shouldn’t call this other company that does everything for me and leaves the place in pristine condition!”
“Sure, Augustine. I can give you one reason, or more if you want. For starters, that company cleans the surfaces but does nothing to clean you. In a few weeks or months, your house will be back in the very same condition as before. Our leader aims to transform you. Not only that, he aims to do it with your full cooperation. He respects your freedom and gives you the opportunity to work with him in achieving something noble, good and worthwhile. The other company does nothing for you, Augustine, the person underneath the appearances. They impinge on your freedom and usurp responsibilities that are rightfully yours. And they make you pay for it!”
Augustine slams down the phone and goes looking for the number of the other company. He is about to dial it when he starts thinking: “Do I just want my house cleaned in a superficial way? Or do I need to be changed myself?”
The intention of this little story is to provoke reflection. How often we long for solutions to our problems! We know that our lives are in a mess and we want a saviour to come in and straighten things out. We struggle with the same old weaknesses. We keep falling in the same old ways. We want to cry out, “Lord! Lord”, but Jesus himself has told us, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7,21).
There are thousands of Christian denominations, many of them with different understandings of how we obtain righteousness before God. Is it all a matter of God’s grace? What kind of cooperation is needed on our part? The more extreme Protestant positions insist that nothing is required on our part except for a minimal assent of faith in Jesus as our saviour. The Catholic view has greater balance. We are saved by the grace of God, but he loves us so much that he wants us to cooperate in redemption. No loving parent would permit themselves to do everything for their child to the extent that the child failed to become independent, mature and fully alive. We have been created in the image and likeness of God and he wants us to fill the humanity that he has given us. This requires that we cooperate with him in redemption, in getting our own house into order and in helping to order the houses of those around us.
“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”(Ephesians 3, 14-19)