Better than We Found It


If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you.

–John 14:15-17–


In November of 2013, I attended a four-day convocation of priests at Hershey Convention Center.  One morning, as I was leaving my hotel room after breakfast, I spied two of the housekeeping staff, a man and a woman, standing in the hallway next to their huge cart filled with fresh towels and cleaning supplies.  Since I was wearing my collar, I walked up to them and said, “Good morning.  I am a Catholic priest.  I’m always looking for new material for my sermons, and I’m wondering if you could answer a few questions for me.  I like to ask people who have occupations with which I am unfamiliar if they can tell me the most surprising thing about the work they do.  Would you mind telling me what you have found most surprising in your line of work?”

The two looked at one another and smiled.  The young man, who spoke with a Latin American accent, responded, “Oh, Father, I’m amazed at just how quickly people can trash a room.  I don’t simply mean throwing pizza boxes on the floor and leaving garbage and cigarette butts everywhere.  Oh no!  People actually break furniture and punch holes in the walls!”

“You’re kidding!” I exclaimed.  It was my turn to be astonished.  I then asked, “What about tipping?  How many people leave you tips?”

This time, it was the woman who responded.  Her accent sounded Russian.  “Up until about five years ago, Father, people tipped pretty regularly.  Then they stopped tipping.  But only recently people have started tipping again.  And as a rule, guys who trash a room never give us tips.  It’s the people who leave a room in good order who generally tip the most.”

I’ve been pondering this for quite some time now.  A friend recently told me that at the hotel where he works, “guests” have been known to toss towels over lampshades, hurl Gideon Bibles out the window, leave food in the beds, fling mattresses on the floor, break bed frames, attempt to unscrew television screens from their mountings, leave oil stains on the carpets, shower with the curtain outside the tub so as to leave pools of water in the bathroom, and shove all manner of items (including whole rolls of toilet paper) down the commode.  Unbelievable!  No wonder hotel rooms are so expensive!

Did you ever stop to consider that the planet on which we live is very much like a hotel room?  If you have, you are in good company.  Saint Teresa of Ávila wrote:


We are quite well off here: there is only a single night for us to spend in this bad inn.  Let us praise God and strive to do penance in this life.[1]


C.S. Lewis echoes this thought, but perhaps in a more positive tone:


The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in.  The settled happiness and security which we all desire God withholds from us by the very nature of the world.  But joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast.  We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun and some ecstasy.  It is not hard to see why.  The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God.  A few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe, or a football match have no such tendency.  Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.[2]


If earth is not our real home but only a temporary lodging on our way to eternity, if C.S. Lewis is correct in saying that this planet at best offers us nothing but “pleasant inns,” comfortable stops along the way, then it stands to reason that we can learn much about a person’s philosophy of life by discovering just how he leaves a hotel room.  Am I, for example, a slob, insisting I have the right to trash a room just because I paid for it?  Do I take all the miniature portions of soap, shampoo, and hair conditioner, even if I do not use them, simply because I believe I am entitled to them?  Have I no thought for the housekeeping staff who will clean the room?  Do I refuse to leave a tip?  if I am the kind of person who trashes a hotel room, I’m probably selfish, inconsiderate, and self-indulgent.  I may even have an entitlement mentality.  Hey, I’ve paid for the room.  I can do anything I want with it.

Or am I quite the opposite?  Do I try to leave my hotel room at least as neat as I found it?  Do I consider those who will have to clean up after me?   Do I leave a tip?  If I leave a hotel room neat and in good order, I’m probably generous, thoughtful, and somewhat disciplined.  If I leave a tip, I’m thinking about the wellbeing of those who come after me.  I will most likely agree with Mr. Lewis when he declares:


It would be quite false, therefore, to suppose that the Christian view of suffering is incompatible with the strongest emphasis on our duty to leave the world, even in a temporal sense, better than we found it.[3]


So here is a good (and unexpected) question to pose to a job applicant or even to a potential spouse:  Suppose you are just wrapping up a five-day stay at a convention.  What does your hotel room look like when you leave?  If the interviewee or sweetheart answers honestly, you’ll have gone a long way in discovering something about that individual’s character.  Is the person self-centered or other-centered?

Jesus, well aware that He is about to check out of earthly life, promises His disciples to send them the Holy Spirit.  Our Lord is thinking about the Church He is leaving behind, and what better gift could there possibly be than the gift of the Holy Spirit?

I’m sixty years old.  I don’t know how much time I have left on planet earth, but it’s obvious that more than half my earthly life is over.   In the great five-day conference of Life on Earth, I figure it’s at least Thursday morning of my hotel stay.  It’s high time I stop thinking only of myself and begin thinking more about those I leave behind.  How will I leave this earth when my time here is up?  Will I have trashed the world around me because I had an entitlement mentality?  Will I have given no thought to subsequent generations?  Will I have left them unresolved problems?  Will others have to clean up my mess?  Will I have squandered on myself all the blessings I have received?  Or will I have done my best to leave the world better than I found it?  Will I have considered those who come after me and tried to leave behind a helpful legacy of love and generosity?  Will I have bequeathed to others tips of time, treasure, and talent?

Quaker missionary Stephen Grellet has given us a wonderful modus operandi.  Can we make it our own?


I shall pass this way but once.  Any good, therefore that I can do, any kindness that I can show, let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.


What about the poem, “A Psalm of Life,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?  Would that more of us took its message to heart!


Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time;


Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.


So, mes amis, let’s be as generous as we possibly can be with the blessings God has given us.  Let us strive to do as much good as we can for others in the time we have left.  Remember, earth is, at best, only a comfortable hotel.  Check-out time will be here before we know it, and we’ll soon find ourselves standing at the Front Desk to settle our account.

[1] Way of Perfection, Chapter 40.

[2] The Problem of Pain, Chapter 7, Proposition 4.

[3] The Problem of Pain, Chapter 7, Proposition 1.