Friday, 27 April 2018 06:34

Lessons from the Latrine

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Jesus said, "What enters the mouth passes to the stomach and is expelled in the latrine." It's the Word of God. Our Lord is not squeamish about telling it like it is, in any context. I quote His words by way of preparation for an anecdote related to toilets.

During a period of my priestly life, I spent many mornings studying in a university library. Every morning, regular as clockwork, after celebrating Mass and praying with the community, I entered the building, climbed the stairs, detoured to my seat near the window, deposited the computer on the desk, hung my coat on the back of the chair, and made my way from there to the toilet.

There were three stalls with toilet bowls in the men's room. Forgive the crudeness, but they were usually stained from previous use. The summits of Christian contemplation are not incompatible with the use of a toilet brush. In fact, anyone who is disinclined to stoop to the use of a toilet brush should also give up the thought of ever reaching the heights of union with the God who stooped to wash our feet. 

Since the users of the university men's room were mostly priests and seminarians, the idea that the cleaning ladies had to scrub the stained toilet bowls struck me as an anti-testimony. Perhaps it's because I am a bad person but, if I were a cleaning lady and I had to clean toilets used mainly by priests and seminarians, I would tend to say to myself, "Hey, I don't mind cleaning the toilets; it's only natural that dirt and dust accumulate in toilets just like everywhere else, but has no one ever spoken to them about using the toilet brush to clean the stains they leave in the bowl after use? Surely their mothers should have mentioned it to them at some point, or, if not, the rector of the seminary, or, if not, their own sense of hygiene and common decency should have brought it to mind?" 

In order to spare the cleaning ladies such negative temptations in their thoughts about priests and seminarians, I spent a few minutes every morning employing the toilet brushes to remove the more scandalous stains, before washing my hands and returning to my desk and commencing my studies, pleased with myself for having begun the day with such an act of humility and service.

One particular morning, as I was merrily scrubbing away, there was a loud knock-knock-knock-knock on the door right behind me. I put the scrubbing brush in its place and opened the door. It was the receptionist from the information counter downstairs. He was yelling at me in Italian and gesticulating furiously, pointing at the floor. I looked down.

There were stains of dog dirt in the shape of shoeprints on the floor. He led me all the way to my desk and from there back to the door and the stairway. I felt like a little puppy being caught by the scruff of the neck and led to stick his nose in the poop he had deposited on the carpet in the middle of the sitting room floor as his master firmly repeats, "NO! NO, NO, NO!!!"

The evidence was irrefutable. I had well and truly "put my foot in it." Out in the street I had stepped on a pile of fresh dog droppings and carried the forensic proof of that fact with me every step all the way to my little act of charity in the bathroom. When my Italian friend has sufficiently calmed down and returned to his counter, I sheepishly returned also to my desk, and continued my day with as much dignity as I could muster. 

Afterwards, as with all things, one asks, "Okay, Lord, what is it You wish to teach me today?" 

Isn't it the case sometimes that, even while we are doing good, even while we are performing acts of charity and service, even while we are busily building God's Kingdom, we are also leaving a trail of smelly spiritual footprints everywhere we walk? Little gestures of irritation, harsh glances, self-love, complacency, pride and self-satisfaction, harsh judgments of others, a thousand and one tiny thorns in the Lord's Flesh hidden often from us, but not from the Lord and not from our neighbors?

Am I permitted to say that the Lord sometimes has a "wicked" sense of humor? By this I refer to a gentle and mischievous way of encouraging us to look at ourselves. It is at once playful and affectionate, but also piercing and transformative.

St. Bernard said that when we see our wretchedness our eyes should light up with joy like the gardener who contemplates the pile of manure that will make his garden fertile with fruits and flowers of all kinds. That is the spirit with which we should perform our daily examination of conscience. The saints did not flee from the sight of their own sins; on the contrary, they delighted in it, as an opportunity to praise and glorify God's mercy, and to convert their hearts truly and fully to Christ.

If our examination of conscience makes us sweeter and gentler in our dealings with others, it's a sure sign we're doing it right. If not, we may well need an Italian angel to knock-knock-knock-knock good and loud on our toilet door.


Fr Colm PowersFr. Colum Power, born in Cork, Ireland, in 1965, is a Servant Priest of the Home of the Mother. He obtained a Master's degree in literature in 1991 and a doctorate in the History of the Church in 2013. He is author of A Touch of the Gardener's Hand, Honey from the Lion's Carcass, and James Joyce's Catholic Categories. He devotes his time to apostolic activities for the youth organized by the Servant Brothers of the Home of the Mother. Fr. Colum Power is author and editor of the FFA blog "Random Reflections".