According to Dictionary.com the phrase “cleanliness is next to godliness” was first recorded in a sermon by John Wesley in 1778. All of us are familiar with the phrase. Indeed in today’s COVID reality cleanliness is vital for churches as well as all other institutions in society. In no way do I want to take away from the need for hygiene and safety in those places where Christians are able to gather and celebrate the Eucharist (here in Ireland the government has imposed a second lock down and churches are not allowed to celebrate any public liturgies). But I think it is also worthwhile for us to reflect on the ever-changing nature of liturgy. What is laudatory in one age is reprehensible in another. Some of what is important for us today, may in the future be considered as unusual or simply crazy!
Reflecting on our necessary effort towards hygiene today, I remembered a passage about the famous martyr St. Thomas Becket (+1170). Today we would expect cleanliness from any holy person, but in the twelfth century it was the total opposite. Thomas’ holiness was proven precisely by his filthiness. When they were preparing the martyr for burial, they discovered that his clothes were of a poor quality. He was wearing a linen undergarment, but beneath that was a hair shirt which was “alive with vermin, the torment of which must have made his life a martyrdom.” Indeed, an old French life describes it in this way:
But these goat hair garments were thickly covered on both sides with minute vermin; they were all over them in crowds and clusters; their attacks on his flesh were such that it was astonishing how he could have endured such punishment. He suffered a far worse martyrdom whilst he lived than he did when they killed him in the church, for then he died at once and was taken into bliss — but all this vermin that had entrenched itself on him tormented him day and night for years.GARNIER (Guernese) of Pont-Sainte-Maxence, Vie Saint Thomas Le Martyr De Cantobir, 5806 in Janet Shirley, trans., Garnier’s Becket (London: Phillimore, 1975), 132-65.