Dust to Dust

Time for a good confessional washing of the soul



I was the weekend guest of a lady friend who, I discovered during my brief stay, had a fetish for cleaning her apartment. In the years I’ve known her, never have I seen her happier than when cleaning her surroundings. With the vacuum hose draped around her neck like a python, she’d maneuver around her precisely arranged furniture ― her eyes glazed over in frenzied ecstasy as her machine sucked up all the dust and lint she found.

At the end of the day, however, Earth’s gravity had done its job by weighing down nearly invisible airborne particles. After another layer of dust had settled, she had her ready-made excuse to redo it all over again. Her scrupulosity extended to the windows that didn’t have a speck or spot to blemish the view beyond. I almost smashed into her glass patio door because she was so meticulous at window-cleaning.

One evening, we were watching a movie when an item attached to her study door fell with a soft thud. She rushed to discover that the plastic letters spelling her name in a frame-holder were scattered on the floor. Nothing could induce her to put it all aside until after the movie. She behaved as though her identity was at stake, snatching the strewn letters and reasserting their proper order.

“Why are you so fastidious about cleaning house and keeping things orderly?” I dared to ask.

“My home has to be spotless in case I die. I’d be embarrassed if a policeman or medical examiner found me without proper makeup and everything in a mess. I can just hear all the snide remarks.”

Her hairdo and cosmetics in the event of her death were of the utmost concern to her. Her apartment had to be kept clean and orderly, just in case.

How can a corpse be embarrassed? I wanted to ask — but then I thought better of it. An appeal to logic seldom succeeds in people afflicted with obsessive-compulsive disorder (or OCD).

“Cleanliness is next to godliness,” she’d often say, to justify her anxious conduct.

I wondered what it is about the human soul that craves cleanliness and orderliness. Was it only survival sense, like avoiding contamination from bacteria by washing hands before meals? I discovered that religious purification rites and obsessive ritual cleanliness had gone hand in hand for thousands of years.

In ancient Jewish and Muslim rituals, and even now, ablutions are commonly done before entering a holy place of worship. The Buddhists, Hindus, and Native American shamans have all had ritual purity practices. The Cherokee still practice theirs by diving into a running stream before a sacred ceremony or competition.

In Scripture, during the Last Supper, Jesus wrapped himself with a towel to wipe the washed feet of his Apostles. That obviously meant much more than customary tradition. It was a symbolic gesture of soul-cleansing servitude by their Master — a ritual the Pope still performs. In the third century, the custom of washing hands as a preparation for Communion was required of Christians. During the fourth century at Benedictine monasteries, monks and nuns washed in a fountain before Divine Office.

These days, Extraordinary Ministers apply hand sanitizer before dispensing the Host. No doubt such cleansing rituals safeguard the health of all communicants. But when the human instinct for cleanliness turns into an obsessive-compulsive ritual, it suggests a desperate spiritual condition prevails. Weak human nature readily defers to physical ritual, but the spirit requires a prayerful introspective remedy.

The similarity between rituals of obsessive-compulsive persons and the traditional religious purification rites has been noted by experts. A soul and a home interior both need to be kept clean of dust and filth from this world. What religion labels as the seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride) continually gravitate upon us. Failure to keep the soul uncluttered and uncontaminated by sin could be the deep-seated reason for obsessive-compulsive disorders.

If my inner vision is kept spotless, much as my friend’s patio door, then the hoped-for eternal realities I’ve visualized beyond the veil will be kept sharp and clear, not distorted or obscured by my sinfulness. No matter my personal efforts to keep blameless in this grimy world, inevitably my sins accumulate like dust. Before taking Communion, practicing Catholics are urged to perform a purity rite called the Sacrament of Penance. The more tears shed in sorrow and repentance, the better. A good confessional washing of the soul is prudent now and again.

Diligence in this vital spiritual chore might help me avoid ending up anguished like my obsessive-compulsive friend who has to have a spotless house and a glamorous demeanor when she lays down on her deathbed.


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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