Mrs. Tittlemouse's Intruders and Our Bad Habits

An illustration from Beatrix Potter's 1910 book, “The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse”
An illustration from Beatrix Potter's 1910 book, “The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse” (photo: via Wikimedia Commons)

My love for Beatrix Potter has been ever expanding since I have had children, and as each child grows I delight rereading the little books out loud. There is something so beautiful and timeless in the stories Potter tells of the personified animals. And while I really enjoyed this essay on Squirrel Nutkin, my life lately has been much like that of Mrs. Tittlemouse in The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse.

“Mrs. Tittlemouse was a most terribly tidy particular little mouse, always sweeping and dusting the soft sandy floors.

Sometimes a beetle lost its way in the passages.

‘Shuh! shuh! little dirty feet!’ said Mrs. Tittlemouse, clattering her dustpan.“(p. 12)

Mrs. Tittlemouse lives in a funny little house “all amongst the roots of the hedge.” When spring really sets in, she starts to find unwelcome visitors of the insect and arachnid varieties in every nook and cranny. She sends the intruding old lady in a “red spotty cloak” back home to her children. A spider comes in looking for Miss Muffet.  “Creepy crawly people” are in her dishes. Then she finds a beehive as well. The last straw occurs when the toad, Mr. Jackson, barges in, finds the nuts and seeds she has to offer to be unsatisfactory, and begins feasting upon the bugs that live in Mrs. Tittlemouse’s home. Things have really gotten out of hand, and once she escorts the toad out, she spends two weeks cleaning her home. 

I have been finding my home to resemble that of Mrs. Tittlemouse of late, for while I am generally a tidy, particular keeper of my house, the insects of the warmer weather are finding their way in. Just last week I assaulted and killed an intruder in my kitchen with a knife. This arachnid had launched itself at me from a perch on the ceiling and landed next to my freshly formed raw scones; the flat edge of a knife was the quickest solution. I was not going to let a spider ruin a perfectly good pastry. 

The sugar ants found their way around our kitchen window frame again, feeding upon the food left on unwashed dishes. We battled them two summers ago with traps, but it seems their colony has expanded again. So I cleaned the counter entirely, and my husband put out traps. They seem to be doing the trick.

The other morning a centipede that scurried across the floor near my baby found its final end with the help of my shoe and the vacuum.

And the houseflies have been making regular visits with the opening and closing of the backdoor as the children enjoy the warm weather that Minnesota has finally bestowed on us.

Nature has a way of making itself present, no matter what the season; and these unwelcome pests remind me of the spiritual life, which is constant battle, like that with intruding pests, to overcome the vices that invade our souls.

St. Francis de Sales in The Introduction to the Devout Life speaks of these things:

“Spiders do not kill bees, but they spoil and corrupt their honey, covering the combs with their webs, by which if they remain the bees are hindered in their work. So venial sins do not destroy the soul, but they hinder devotion, and so clog the powers of the soul with bad habits and inclinations that it loses that active charity which is the lifespring of devotion—always supposing that we willingly harbor venial sin in our conscience.” (Part 1, Ch. 22)

We all have unwelcome, or perhaps they are welcome, intruders of bad habits in our lives. Our attachments to our sins are an obstacle to union with God. Yet, are we willing to hunt them down with a fly swatter and kill the intruders, or keep the counters clean and set out traps? Are we willing to take off our shoes and stop those bad habits with a whack and clean up the debris that is left behind?

And cleaning up is not enough. Jesus spoke of this in Matthew 12:43-45:

"When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none.  Then he says, `I will return to my house from which I came.' And when he comes he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. So shall it be also with this evil generation."

It is not enough to eliminate the bad habits, but we have to allow Christ to fill us with His grace. To do this we have to purposely form good habits. We have to allow good to fill our souls and replace the places where we allowed ourselves to do evil. In order to eliminate vice, we have to combat it with forming virtue.

“If we are hindered by some particular vice, we should as far as possible strive to cultivate the opposite virtue, making all things tend to it; for by this means we shall subdue the enemy, and not cease to advance in all virtue. If I am specially tempted with pride or anger, I must, above all things, seek to practice humility and gentleness, and call in all my other devout acts of prayer, the Sacraments, prudence, perseverance, and temperance to my aid!” (St. Francis de Sales, Introduction, part 3, ch. 1)

When we want to combat a temptation, we need to turn to prayer and good habits. Focusing on ridding ourselves of venial sins is not just for penitential seasons, but should be a continual process. Now is the time to bring ourselves closer to God. Now is the time for a spring cleaning of the soul.