It is interesting how some things stay with us and even become operating principles in our lives.
During my junior and senior years in high school and into college I worked in the maintenance department of Appco (Appalachian Oil Company) which owned a number of convenience stores scattered throughout the Tri-Cities and beyond. What I and my fellow workers heard over and over again from our supervisor was that every store had to be clean and well maintained both within and without. In that job I spent countless hours at these stores pulling weeds, planting shrubs, mowing lawns, painting doors and helping with some mechanical and plumbing repairs. I must say that the Appco stores were always well maintained and clean and to this day I cringe whenever I walk into a dirty convenience store and, if it is too dirty and unkempt, I will not return.
Likewise, part of me grieves within whenever I encounter an unkempt and cluttered church both within and without. Old bulletins and papers stacked on the table beside the presider’s chair along with a plethora of missals drives me nuts as do parish hallways strung with outdated posters and fliers. Scattered and poorly maintained landscaping does little to bring a sense of beauty and prayer to a house of worship I believe.
De-cluttering does not have to cost a lot nor take a lot of time. “Start small and do what you can when you can,” is a good motto I believe. Our diocese is in the midst of building a new cathedral and it is neat seeing the artwork that is currently going within that sacred space but it is not just cathedrals that should witness to the beauty of God and our faith. Every church, chapel and mission is “God’s house” and can have a simple and noble beauty that helps to set the soul at rest.
Here are a few thoughts to reflect upon. Most regard the outside landscape of a church (maybe because that was the area I worked in mostly at Appco. I still cannot walk past a weed without feeling the need to pull it up!) but the principle of de-cluttering certainly applies within churches and chapels also.
Know the geography and terrain. The parish I am currently at has a very thin top layer of soil. As soon as it does not rain for a day or two in summer, plants and grass begin to dry up and turn brown. We recently received a bequest which allowed us to redo the landscaping in the parking lot and in front of the church and parish office. It would have been foolish (and poor stewardship I believe) to put in plants that would require heavy amounts of water and care. Rather, we made use of river rock and specifically chose plants that were hardy, drought resistant and low maintenance. The end result looks quite good and fits the terrain.
What is manageable to your community? What does the Gospel ask of us? I am all for parish landscape crews if it fits your community but it does not fit every community and it also seems that life is getting busier and busier for most people and families. Parishioners should take pride in their church but at the end of the day what is more important – that the lawn was perfectly mowed every Sunday or that parishioners and their families grow in their discipleship and strive to live that discipleship out in the world? I do not pretend to know the answer but it is a balance worth reflecting upon.
What is best for the environment? This is a question I find myself continually returning to after reading Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si” as well as my own growing interest in protecting and safe-guarding creation. Do the plants and shrubs we favor around churches help benefit the environment or do they just look nice from our human perspective? Can our parish grounds themselves become places that benefit and support creation? A couple of years ago now I planted two butterfly bushes in front of our Parish Life Center because they fit and enhance the space, they are low maintenance and hardy and, in regards to this question, they are a benefit to bees and butterflies. A simple choice in a planting can have ripples of effect.
Time can become cluttered also. Last fall, our parish went through the process of changing our Mass schedule – no small feat. In the old schedule there was only thirty minutes between each of our four Sunday Masses. There were a variety of factors necessitating the change but one that I saw as pastor was the limiting effect of such a small window of time between Masses. People came in for their Mass and then they hurried out in order to let the next group in. The opportunity for community and fellowship was stunted. Now that we have more time between Masses (as well as making space by clearing out clutter from our vestibule) people are actually spending more time talking and enjoying each other’s company after Mass. Sometimes schedules in the life of a church community can get cluttered also. It is worthwhile to step back and evaluate our schedules every now and then.
A church, chapel or mission should strive as much as it can to be an oasis for the soul in a busy and distracted world. Often times in the church world we focus on the “big architecture and art work” to facilitate this and we overlook the more simple, daily and nuanced realities. Clutter “clutters” and it distracts. Seeking to move aside the clutter that can accumulate both within and without the church should be seen as an act of hospitality. It is the discipline of keeping God’s house open and clean as a place of welcome, a home where the soul can find rest and respite.