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    a woman cleaning her apartment windows

    Clean House, Clean Heart

    Spring cleaning is an ancient tradition. It has spiritual roots, and might offer spiritual benefit.

    By Mary Grace Mangano

    March 23, 2024

    I can smell the house where I grew up, exhaling its wintry dust as spring first breathed into its rooms. I can remember the smell of floors freshly cleaned and how it felt for the windows to be open, their screens eased out of the frames. These mesh panels would wait in the driveway, next to the soapy buckets of water my sisters and I used to wash them (inevitably, someone would spray someone “accidentally” with the hose). Back in the house, my dad would lift a mop, its head wrapped in an old rag or T-shirt, and wipe it in slow strokes across the ceilings. The floors and baseboards would be scrubbed, firewood removed to an outside pile, woolen winter blankets put away so lighter linens could dress the beds. Our house would put away its winter clothes and become lighter, brighter with our annual spring cleaning.

    The tradition of spring cleaning is ancient. Its modern version appears in the nineteenth century, but it survives – the American Cleaning Institute says that 78 percent of Americans did an annual spring cleaning in 2022. The celebrated Marie Kondo encourages people to turn their spring cleaning into a “dignified ritual – one that our homes deserve for all they do to protect and nurture us,” as a way of expressing gratitude to the home. Kondo explains that “the goal is to have a freshly cleaned home to welcome a new season, so the sweet spot for a spring cleaning ritual is often those final gray days just before the weather changes.” In fact, this timing may be connected to the origins of spring cleaning when – dignified or not – it was less a choice and more a practical necessity.

    a woman cleaning her apartment windows

    Photograph by Stock Italia / Alamy Stock Photo.

    For millennia, people heated their homes by burning wood or coal; floating smoke particles left household surfaces quite dirty. The end of the winter season meant it was finally time to wash away all the soot and dirt. In addition, the heavy curtains used for insulation, smelling of smoke and closed-up spaces, would be removed and aired out. The windows would be scrubbed, walls whitewashed, carpets beaten. When warm weather had truly set in, the chimneys would be swept. Today, many do all this and more. They clear the gutters and put away heavier linens, but they’ve also updated – they donate old clothing, sort paper and digital files, and recycle out-of-date technology.

    But if many of the modern reasons for spring cleaning are rooted in Victorian pragmatism, the true beginnings of a spring cleaning tradition go back even further than that and stem from religious and cultural rituals.

    While some people wait until the vernal equinox or even the first warm-weather day to start spring cleaning, most Jewish families’ cleaning coincides with preparations for Passover, particularly in the kitchen. As a memorial for the Jews who fled Egypt without time for their bread to rise, preparing for Passover involves removing anything leavened, or chametz, from the house and refraining from eating anything leavened for eight days. Some families include other measures to ensure the kitchen is devoid of anything that has touched chametz, such as pouring boiling water on a stainless-steel sink and cleaning ovens to kosher them. Many families have pots, flatware, and table settings stored for use only during the holiday to ensure that they remain kosher for Passover.

    In Iranian culture, the thirteen-day festival of Nowruz dates back more than three thousand years to an ancient Persian commemoration of the new year. The first day of spring, the equinox, is considered the first day of the new year and in the days leading up to it, a house cleaning called kooneh tekouni, or “shaking of the house,” takes place to prepare for the coming year. Similarly, the Chinese clean their houses as part of the preparation for their new year in February, sweeping out all the past year’s dirt and grime to start fresh. In fact, brooms are hidden on the first day of the new year so that none of its good luck will be accidentally swept out.

    For many Christians, the season of Lent involves special cleaning. Members of the Greek Orthodox church clean house for a week leading up to the beginning of Lent and Catholics strip the church altar the day before Good Friday during Holy Week. In general, the Lenten season is considered a time to fast and to pray and to abstain – to remove the extraneous, much like the curtains and extra layers of winter – to focus on receiving God. We might remove things from our diets our routines or physical space, but we also try to remove the clutter of our hearts and souls so as to be purified.

    When this time of year rolls around, we want to make space in our homes – both our actual homes and the homes of our hearts.

    Whether our own inclinations to clean in the spring come from an impulse brought on by warm weather or buds on the trees, a desire for change, a need to clear away winter’s muck, or whether they are connected to religious and cultural traditions, we can all look to these rituals for cues – particularly for ways our outward cleaning is a reminder of its relationship to our interior lives as well.

    Former US poet laureate Tracy K. Smith’s poem “Ash” extends a metaphor of the body as a house. The first line begins, “Strange house we must keep and fill.” It is strange that our bodies are, in a way, houses that our souls occupy. While this isn’t a perfect analogy, Smith’s poem reminds us that we must “keep” and care for our bodies – and I would add our souls as well. Smith writes that the body is a “House infested/ With desire,” a “House of lies/ And pride and bone.” The language of infestation seems to suggest that this “house” needs to be rid of (some of) its desires, perhaps purged in a season like Lent. It’s interesting to me that she chooses to title this poem “Ash” and not “House.” Whether it’s at all connected to her choice of title, “Ash” calls to mind Ash Wednesday.

    On Ash Wednesday, we ask for clean hearts. We hear that we should go to our “inner room” to pray to God. We listened to the psalmist sing, “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me.” (Ps. 51:3-4) The soul is an inner room and words applied to cleaning houses – wash, cleanse, wipe out – are sung in a petition for its purification. The Ash Wednesday liturgy also includes Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Cor. 6:19–20) Paul urges his listeners to know that their bodies are a house – a temple – where God dwells. I don’t know if Tracy K. Smith held this in mind as she wrote “Ash” or if she was thinking about being “dust to dust” and the reality of bodily decay. Regardless, both she and Saint Paul compare the body to a place of dwelling.

    Emily Dickinson lived during a period when spring cleaning was relentlessly necessary – and even backbreaking. In a somewhat snarky letter, she wrote, “‘House’ is being ‘cleaned’ – I prefer pestilence.” It’s hardly an uncommon feeling. We don’t want to go through the effort of cleaning, or the idea of it causes us to procrastinate, or we truly prefer things in their current disarray. And yet – when this time of year rolls around and the days lengthen and the light is brighter – there is something in us that desires to clear away and clean and make room for what is new. We want to shed winter’s darkness, to open windows, to reorganize. We want to make space in our homes – both our actual homes and the homes of our hearts. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church the heart is poetically described as a dwelling place: “The heart is the dwelling place where I am, where I live; … the heart is the place ‘to which I withdraw’ … It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death.” Our daily lives happen in our houses, and in our hearts. That is where we live. Naturally, we need changes in the natural or liturgical season to remind us to remove what has become cluttered or weedy or covered in layers of dust.

    Create a clean heart in me, O God. A steadfast spirit renew in me. This is the prayer of the heart that is ready to be recreated. Simone Weil says that in order to allow the seed within us to grow, “we cannot avoid destroying whatever gets in its way, pulling up the weeds, cutting the good grass, and unfortunately the good grass is part of our very flesh, so that this gardening amounts to a violent operation…. That is the meaning of denying oneself.” In avoiding chametz, or in the “shaking of the house” before Iranian and Chinese New Year’s, in the abstinence and fasting of Lent, we deny ourselves, getting rid of what gets in the way of the new season, the new life that awaits us, so that, like the bulbs waiting in darkness beneath the earth, we might grow and flourish in the light.

    Contributed By MaryGraceMangano Mary Grace Mangano

    Mary Grace Mangano is a poet, writer, and professor. Her work has been published in Church Life Journal, America, Fare Forward, Dappled Things, The Windhover, and others.

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