Every day at 5:30 a.m., without fail, the rooster’s call woke me up, a piercing alarm against the backdrop of a delicate dawn. Quickly throwing on my ratty jeans and T-shirt, I stumbled out of the cabin, half-awake, and headed toward the cow barn.
In my sophomore year of high school, I and three other girls spent two weeks as eco-ambassadors working on a 200-acre dairy farm in upstate New York. We needed this early start to get the cows in their stalls, feed them hay and pellets, clean and prep their udders for milking, connect their teats to the milk pumps, record the gallons produced, and when the ladies finally returned to pasture, clean up all the droppings that they left behind. And cow patties are big. And messy.
After the milking, we attended to the hungry goats, chickens, ducks and pigs. The rest of the day was spent mending broken fences, planting and weeding, and other necessary tasks before the morning’s labor repeated itself during the evening chores.
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Needless to say, by the time the day was over, I was covered from head to toe in sweat, muck and mud, my clothes stained with pee and poo and God-only-knows what else. In brief: I was dirty.
When my parents arrived to bring me home, they chuckled, wondering how long it would take to air out the cow smell from the car — and from me. The two-week stint in high school, meant to teach us the ethical and theological confluence of working the land sustainably, awakened in me a love of and a deep dedication to a simple, pure, truly natural life.
And such a life is often messy.
Holiness is not ‘perfection’
But there is dignity and holiness in the messiness that comes from living a full and fully authentic life in which we strive to be one with the Lord. Parents with children probably know this best: between soiled diapers and toys scattered everywhere, kids baking cookies and finger painting on walls, life is a holy mess. Even without children, life is hardly orderly. There are days when dishes pile up in the sink, when the dog drags mud all over the house, when the desk gets so cluttered you can’t even find the keyboard.
The reality of our lives truly lived reveals that we aren’t perfect. We tend to conflate “perfection” with beauty and holiness. And while God wants us to continuously strive for spiritual perfection manifested in good words and deeds, he knows that the reality of our lives is much richer and fuller than the inauthentic, materialistic “perfection” elevated in social media. Unlike the staged Instagram shots of picture-perfect poses, curated clothes, immaculate kitchens and impeccably decorated foyers, real life is quite a bit more humble than that.
The Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that, “There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens,” and goes on to list different seasons of our lives, such as “a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (3:1, 4). I think we can add to this list, “a time to make messes, and a time to clean them.” We won’t always have everything just so in both our homes and our lives. Chefs have a method for cooking: mise-en-place, meaning everything in its place. Sometimes this will be the case for us, and sometimes it won’t. In both scenarios, God is there with us.
Messiness as a full-time job
Moreover, our seasons of messiness will be different and look different from others’. We shouldn’t judge what we think are messes or complications in others’ lives. I can’t help but think of the tragic end of Antoni Gaudí, the brilliant designer and architect of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. The Sagrada Familia is one of the most captivating churches I’ve ever visited. In fact, Gaudí’s nickname at the time was “God’s architect.” As Gaudí aged, he practiced extreme fasting and didn’t care much about how he looked. He usually wore simple, raggedy clothes and skipped shaving. On June 7, 1926, Gaudí, who was hard of hearing, was hit by a tram as he crossed the street walking to his daily confession. Unfortunately, because of his disheveled look, everyone mistook him for a homeless man, and no one helped or took him to the hospital. And that’s how one of Spain’s premier artists died: because he was misjudged by his messiness.
In fact, messiness can sometimes be a full-time job. Recently, my husband introduced me to his favorite show growing up, “Dirty Jobs” with Mike Rowe. Traveling around the United States with his camera crew, Mike reveals the dignity of jobs most of us would be faint of heart to try: making charcoal, laying rebar, inspecting sewer drains, recycling unused restaurant food, exterminating infestations of pests from buildings, repairing elevator shafts, and so much more. Without these laborers, our entire societal infrastructure would crumble. Their work is far from glamorous, and it’s a shame that these professions are not better respected and encouraged.
I have had a very meaningful career so far in my life, but I have to admit that I felt a truly unique sense of fulfillment at the end of a long day of farming. That’s because there is a holiness particular to hard physical labor — to messy work. After all, Jesus himself trained as a carpenter under his father, Joseph. And a third of his apostles were fishermen — which, if you watched Mike Rowe’s show, you would know is certainly a dirty job.
Mike Rowe once told the magazine “Family Handyman,” “Embrace a little bit of discomfort. If it’s uncomfortable, it’s probably taking [you] someplace worth going.” He’s right. Life without a little bit of mess wouldn’t be as meaningful. As full of the Lord.
How to pray
close your eyes.
or leave them open.
listen to the wind on the songbird’s wing.
watch the waves roll in on a distant shore. count the shells they left behind.
or the stars in a cloudless night sky.
marvel at the colors of the sunset. or the leaves as they change.
pick a daisy to make a daisy chain. or plant one in the ground again.
cook a Sunday meal for your family.
call your friend on the phone. or walk into the woods alone.
say the rosary. or say what you feel.
kneel in a pew.
kneel to light a candle at your grandparents’ grave.
or to tie the unraveled ends of your son’s shoelace.
or to clean your daughter’s toys left behind from play.
play fetch with Fido. or cuddle with cat in your lap.
wash the dishes.
feel the soap run down your hands and remember
that every labor no matter how seemingly insignificant is good in God’s eyes.
everything, every movement, every sinew of our muscles
contracting and relaxing for goodness is a gift for God.