Kathleen Norris tells a story of a little boy who wrote a poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” The poem begins with a confession: he doesn’t like it when his father yells at him. The monster’s response is to throw his sister down the stairs, then to destroy his room, and finally to destroy the whole town. The poem concludes: “Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done all that.’”(1)
The confession of Saint Paul bears a fine resemblance. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but I do what I hate.” Regret indeed has a way of shining the floodlights on the mess within us. Norris narrows in on the faithful candor of this child describing his own muddled story: “‘My messy house’ says it all,” she writes. “With more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy made a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out. If that boy had been a novice in the fourth-century monastic desert, his elders might have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance.”(2)
The journey of a Christian through the season of lent posits countless opportunities to peer at the monster within. There are days in the life of faith when I question whether I am living up to the title of Christian or disciple—or even casual acquaintance. In the midst of Lent, I find there is no question: I am not. Yet, as G.K. Chesterton wrote in his autobiography, I have only ever found one religion that “dared to go down with me into the depth of myself.”(3) For forty self-reflective days, this is what Lent asks of us. What we find are messy houses, filled with hidden staircases built of excuses, and idols of good deeds atop mantels of false security—in short, the home of Christ in disarray at our own hands.
If we were to remain shut up in this place alone, we might begin to wonder why we should ever hope for anything other than mess and wreckage. Paul’s confession marks the futility of our own efforts to clean the house. But we do not make the journeys to the depths of ourselves alone. In fact, we should not have discovered the messes had they not shown to us in the first place. We are guided to these places in our consciences, to images of ourselves unadorned, and finally to broken and contrite hearts. Faith in Christ is the opportunity to be searched by the Spirit of Truth, the Breath of Holiness, the God who maneuvers us through messy rooms and sin-stained walls and mercifully exposes monstrous ways. It would indeed be a futile journey if we walked this path alone.
Instead, the very Spirit that shows us the monster in a messy house shows us the one who removes the masks, clears the wreckage, and makes us human again. In a scene from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, Aslan the lion is seen tearing the costume off the child in front of him.(4) The child writhes in pain from the razor sharp claws that feel as though they pierce his very being. With mounting intensity, Aslan rips away layer after layer, until the child is absolutely certain he will die from the agony. But when it is all over and every last layer has been removed, the child delights in the newfound freedom, having long forgotten the weight of the costume he carried.
The journey of a soul through its messiest rooms is not merely a drive-by glimpse of the depths of our sin and our need for repentance; it is not a journey for the sake of guilt or even right-living. It is true that we are shown the weight of our masks and the extent of our messes; we are handed the great encumbrance of our own failures. But all so we can be shown again the one who asks to take them all from us. All so we can be fully human. “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows… But he was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:4-5). Quite mercifully, it is through the dingy windows of a messy house that one has the clearest view of the cross.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace (New York: Riverhead, 1998), 69.
(2) Ibid., 70.
(3) G.K. Chesterton, The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 334.
(4) Story told in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 115-117.