St. Catherine of Sienna, when she felt revulsion from the wounds that she was tending bitterly reproached herself. Sound hygiene was incompatible with charity, so she deliberately drank a bowl of puss.I don't know about you, but that's pretty damn disgusting. But the bit that caught my attention in the quote was the phrase "sound hygiene was incompatible with charity."
The "uncleanliness" I mainly talk about in Unclean is moral. "Sound hygiene" in this sense is moral purity, spiritual righteousness.
But there is also the more literal, concrete and bodily forms of uncleanliness and hygiene. Instead of sins there is body odor. Instead of a "moral stain" there are tobacco stains on teeth or grimy stains on clothing.
What I'm speaking to here is less the moral boundary between saints and sinners than the sensory boundary between the rich and poor.
George Orwell, in his book The Road to Wigan Pier, has a powerful meditation on the sensory boundary. In this passage he concludes that "the real secret of class distinctions," the "impassable barrier" between us, can be "summed up in four frightful words":
"The lower classes smell."
...Here you come to the real secret of class distinctions in the West--the real reason why a European of bourgeois upbringing, even when he calls himself a Communist, cannot without a hard effort think of a working man as his equal. It is summed up in four frightful words which people nowadays are chary of uttering, but which were bandied about quite freely in my childhood. The words were: The lower classes smell.When you welcome people from the margins you are going to have to cross a sensory boundary. There will be odors left on your person, in your house, in your car. You will enter places and encounter bodies where "sound hygiene" becomes thrown up against love and charity. So as with St. Catherine there will need to be a moment of self-overcoming, the disciplining of our senses so that we can become people of welcome and embrace.
That was what we were taught--the lower classes smell. And here, obviously, you are at an impassable barrier. For no feeling of like or dislike is quite so fundamental as a physical feeling. Race-hatred, religious hatred, differences of education, of temperament, of intellect, even differences of moral code, can be got over; but physical repulsion cannot. You can have an affection for a murderer...but you cannot have an affection for a man whose breath stinks--habitually stinks, I mean. However well you may wish him, however much you may admire his mind and character, if his breath stinks he is horrible and in your heart of hearts you will hate him.
Everyone will have different sensory triggers. For me it's a particular smell that pushes me to the edge. The best way I can describe this smell is a combination of feces and cigarette smoke. That particular smell, common where I'm choosing to be, is my sensory boundary.
That smell is a liminal space, a moral threshold where I, like St. Catherine, must make an intentional choice to move forward rather than backward.
The fate of my soul, my entire Christian walk, hangs in the balance at that threshold.