Basements were standard in the houses of my youth. The two flat where my grandparents lived on the South Side of Chicago had a basement – a real basement with dirt walls, piles of coal and coal dust, narrow stairs to walk down, a healthy musty smell, and two bare electric lights. Our family homes on the South Side also had basements, as did both our homes in Hinsdale. My Mom was an ardent cleaner of basements. Whenever she was stressed, blew her top, or felt overwhelmed by life, (I see this now; didn’t see it then), she cleaned the basement. If I was the cause or recipient of her unhappiness, her move to the basement was sweet relief. There was no telling how much time she would spend down there. My guess; it all depended on precipitating causes. She certainly had many to balance. The metaphor didn’t strike me until many years later in life.
Psychology and spirituality both refer to the house as a metaphor for the self. If your “house” has a basement, then going down to clean the basement was going down into those recluse and hidden parts of herself where she could be alone and address them in her way. You know why I think this? Because, fundamentally, the basement didn’t change very much! There might be the occasional bag of items for Goodwill or a slight reorganization, but the actual cleaning fell to me. The basement was her place to sit within those places of herself where only she and her God would be.
Lent is time to have courage to sit in our spiritual basements, which only we know. Perhaps it’s time to give away a few items that are no longer needed and gather dust? Perhaps it’s time to clean up some old gifts and find a new expression for them? Perhaps it’s time to wipe clean the slate of sin, guilt, shame and resentment and prepare for walking back upstairs on Easter Day? I don’t know. You’ve got your basement and I’ve got mine. Our spiritual houses are built upon them. Jesus tells us in scripture that God built them and lives in them also so we have nothing to fear. Time to clean the basement!
Canon Al Johnson is the Canon for Congregational Vitality and Innovation for the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania.