From the Hebrew fathers comes the oft-quoted phrase, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”  But we Americans have gone the Hebrew fathers one better.  We have acquired, according to Dr. Robert Odenwald, Director of the Child Center and professor of psychiatry at Catholic University, a new fetish, “supercleanliness.”   Dr.  Odenwald described “supercleanliness” as “the number one compulsion in our American culture. . . which engages so much of a mother’s effort that she has no time to play with her children or to listen to their questions and fanciful stories.”

A certain amount or orderliness is necessary for the efficient running of a household.  Things can be so cluttered that it takes longer to find what you are looking for than it would to put things away.   A certain amount of cleanliness is necessary for health.  Though dermatologists claim some of us take too many baths, an occasional one is all to the good and we should still wash our hands before meals.   Food and dishes should be clean and the floor the baby creeps on needs regular washing.   But once the requirements for health and safety are satisfied, we are free to decide whether our free time should be devoted to things or to people.

Is it not possible that it may sometimes be more godly to be less clean?  Many a housewife has been convinced that she has failed as a homemaker if her home could not be truthful described as immaculate or spotless.  For such a woman it is truly an act of charity when she leaves the fingermarks on the woodwork in order to take the toddler out into the sunshine.

I have nothing against a clean house.  It is that extra polish that bothers me — the cleaning that serves no purpose other than to impress the neighbors.  When children are many and small, “supercleanliness” is purchased at the cost of crying babies, frayed nerves, children who are not allowed to invite their friends in and whose creative activities are limited to those which do not make a mess.  The parents never seem to have time to read a book, listen to music, or inform themselves on the voting issues.  I venture to say the cost is too high.

It might occasionally be in order for husbands to encourage their wives to forget the dust bunnies under the bed and try whooping it up a bit with the family.   The more children she has, the more necessary work there is to do,  the more a mother needs a bit of jollity.  As one mother put it, “My children are not going to remember whether the house was sparkling all the time, but whether we had fun.”

Dr. Ernest Osborne of Columbia University also thinks that we overdo neatness.  Says he, “In the United States we have made neatness and cleanliness almost moral virtues.  From the early years we stress their importance.  And, indeed, there is real satisfaction in seeing things neat and orderly.  But may we not overdo the job at times?

“Many adults have learned to be so ‘fussy’ about these things that they cannot tolerate standards of cleanliness and neatness that are not as high as theirs.  Irritation that may grow into quarreling between husbands and wives comes because one drops his clothes all over he place, leaves a ring in the bathtub, or is untidy somewhere else in the house.  Others make the family uncomfortable because they can’t sit still if everything is not ‘picked up.’

“Apparently these strong feelings develop because in childhood parents have become very emotional about developing habits of cleanliness and order.  Those who as children have been made uncomfortable and unhappy if everything was not kept spic and span tend to carry over the same feelings into adult life.  It’s more important in human relationships to be a comfortable sort of person with whom to live than to be a model of neatness.  We parents ought to check up once in a while and see whether we may not be overdoing this neatness business.”

So, polish the breakfront — if you can’t think of anything better to do.  That same time might be spent reading to your children, telling your husband you love him by preparing that special dish he is so fond of, writing a letter to a shut-in friend, or saying a rosary for your alcoholic cousin.  By resisting the temptation to become known as a “wonderful housekeeper,” you grow in two ways:  in humility (everyone knows how humiliating it is to be caught with a dull breakfront!) and in charity — for you have made the world a better, happier  place for your neighbor.  Sometimes to be less clean is to be more godly.