So, last week was a week here chez Altieri. Between the steady stream of children who were our houseguests, emergency maintenance on our old city beater, and the hours Mrs. A. and I were keeping—both of us in Rome, working cases on US central time—the cleaning and tidying around here simply was not up to its usual snuff.
The endless meal prep took an especially heavy toll on the stove top.
The meals were delicious, accomplished with a surprising degree of economy, and well received (no casualties). There was some disarray in the other spaces of our abode, but more untidiness than squalor.
In the kitchen, we managed to keep the floors and counter spaces serviceable—I’m rather more persnickety than Mrs. A. in these regards, and she is very careful, indeed—but after pancakes, after tacos, after pasta and pancakes and burgers and dogs and fries for regiment-sized formations of semi-civilized prepubescent bipeds, the standard KP wipe-down of the burners was not getting the job done, and frankly, nether was I.
Inspired by John XXIII, I went to bed.
When I awoke, I set to work on the stove top. What should have been a five- or ten-minute operation took at least thirty, and involved a significant expense of elbow grease, as well as requiring the undersigned to bring hefty weight of experience in domesticity to spot all the grime, which gets in places one forgets are even there. One must be careful, and one must also be patient. An abrasive pad will take the carbonized pancake batter off the metallic surface quickly, but it will scratch. The Mohs scale is important.
The drop of egg white in the corner, the splash of pasta sauce that set over twelve hours (or was it twice that?) beneath the grating or in the well on which the burner cover sits, the burnt butter and bacon grease amalgam: each will come up only with the proper combination of cleaning product, time to soak, and pressure. At last, the job was done.
Just in time to start lunch.
I mention all this, because it dawned on me as I was hunting for stains and grease and grime, that one of the reasons our hierarchical leadership have such a hard time getting a handle on the institutional filth, corruption, and rot in the Church, is that most bishops have never cleaned stove tops as a matter of course.
That’s not an easy a problem to fix.
Certainly, it isn’t as straightforward as saying, “Put them in the kitchen!” and letting nature take its course. If you doubt me, try it with a child. The semblance of order a child will achieve, after two hours’ free rein in a domestic kitchen, will be entirely illusory and surface-level at best. At worst, it will involve the police, fire department, hazmat, and poison control. If it does not immediately involve all those, the project will eventually require the remedial intervention of pest control.
None of that will be the child’s fault.
Practically destitute of necessary life experience, unpracticed in attention to obscure practical detail, and wanting for real exposure to consequence, hence lacking in προαίρεσις, the child cannot be reasonably expected to dispose pots and pans safely and conveniently, store foodstuffs properly, place and attach appliances at once securely and with a view to appropriate use, or do any of the hundred-hundred things conducive to good culinary order.
Nota bene. This would be true of “good” children at least as well as it would be true of “bad” ones. Indeed, the good child, motivated principally by pleasant nature and fairytale sense of reality—both charming attributes in a child—would be as like as not to produce more baleful effects. Deliberate mayhem may cause more severe consternation in the short term, but it is usually easy enough—or at least a straightforward matter—to remedy. A judicious application of money is usually sufficient to the task.
Indulging a child in this way, however, could well produce persistent and disastrous consequences.
What if the child develops a taste for “organizing” the cupboards or “testing” the blender? What if the child fails to grasp that the original exercise was mostly in fun, and only meant incidentally to be edifying? What if the child takes umbrage at seeing sincere and generous actions unceremoniously undone? Again, children of the more intelligent and sensitive sorts will be at least as likely to react badly to any correction.
Still, children are teachable.
Christopher Altieri is Rome bureau chief and international editor of the Catholic Herald.