’Tis the season for new year’s resolutions and manipulative advertisements from your local gym! But instead of reading more articles about how truly productive people wake up at 4:00 a.m., let’s reflect on a commitment to living more simply in this new year, pursuing detachment from our possessions, and on the difference between secular minimalism and simplicity as spiritual practice.
Minimalism, “decluttering,” and simplifying are all en vogue. Having less is becoming trendy in our consumerist culture of McMansions and packed storage units. The Atlantic recently reported that the average American spent $971.87 on clothing items in 2017, adding sixty-six garments to our already overflowing closets. Year by year, the mindless consumption spins more out of control, leaving us unsatisfied and, in fact, making us unhappier. It’s not hard to imagine why there is a subculture moving in the opposite direction.
The minimalist gurus of the world are right about some things. Not being overwhelmed with too many possessions feels good. Having less clutter lowers stress. It’s healthy to disentangle ourselves from an addiction to purchasing items as “retail therapy.” But these are merely perks of having less. How we should view our possessions in light of the Gospel is a much bigger question.
Simplicity and Christian Charity
If our pursuit of simplicity is not informed by the concept of Christian charity, focusing on mere minimalism will come up short. Rather than decluttering with a Christian bent, true detachment from possessions differs in both intention and in practice.
I can spend weeks decluttering my house, and it will certainly be more pleasant to inhabit our space with fewer items inside. But it will be an empty exercise if it is separated from the spiritual life and our obligations to God and our community. We all can and should take a look at how we view our possessions, but not simply so that our homes can be minimalist dreamlands. We should pursue detachment to “stuff” for a greater purpose: ordering our desires so that we can love God and other people.
To highlight the difference between minimalism and Christian simplicity, we can think about a minimalist tiny house in comparison with a monk’s cell. While a tiny house is simple, free of clutter, and stripped to the essentials, the intention is primarily for the enjoyment of the inhabitant. The myriad items once owned were disposed of and replaced with a few of the finest and best items for the space. In some ways, a monk who possesses only a book or two, his habit, and a sleeping mat is living a minimalist dream, but his intention and his practice are markedly different from that of secular minimalists like Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. A monk chooses poverty and few possessions in order to have the clarity to pursue God wholeheartedly, and he gives away what he owns to the poor. The secular minimalist pares down an abundance of possessions in order to replace them with fewer, better items and an improved experience in the home. True detachment is motivated and informed by Christian charity, which is outwardly directed toward the common good of our brothers and sisters and our love of God rather than merely inwardly directed in pursuit of a pleasant home.
Detachment and Family Life
Of course, a vocation to family life in the secular world is going to require a different lifestyle from that of a single man in religious life. Most of us cannot get by with a prayer book and one outfit! But simplicity and Christian charity can still inform our decisions about consumption. Tackling the question of how to view possessions requires us to consider what it means to be a human person and how we are connected to others. There is a reason why the constant acquisition of more stuff does not make us happy: we were designed by God for much more than consumerism. Our hearts were fashioned to be satisfied only by God; possessions will never fill the space that only He can occupy. It’s not a matter of merely turning away from our culture’s over-consumption, it’s a matter of turning toward something of eternal value.
In 2015, my family had the opportunity to pare down our possessions for a greater purpose. We sold our house, left our jobs, reduced what we owned by more than half, and moved halfway across the country with our then three small children to live in a 650-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment on a farm with no flushing toilets for a year-long, agricultural internship. Our goal was to reconnect with each other and pursue a more fulfilling life.
It worked. We learned just how unnecessary are many things that we had believed were “necessities.” Without so much stuff distracting us, more valuable things came to the fore, especially how we wanted to structure our family life and prioritize relationships. Now that we live in the city again (and we have a lovely flushing toilet now, if you ever want to come visit), we have been reminded of how easy it is to acquire quickly far more than we need. To be honest, after two and a half years in our new home, it’s getting cluttered. It’s time to take stock of our possessions again—and of our relationship to them.
Gratitude for God’s Generosity
If you are also feeling the itch to purge in the new year, it’s important to shift your intention from merely having a more pleasant home to seeing all that you have as a gift from God. We have what we have not because we deserve it, but because we have a generous Heavenly Father. As St. James reminds us, “every good and perfect gift comes from above” (James 1:17).
If all that we have is given to us, holding onto our possessions and failing to be generous with them is a failure both in charity and in gratitude. We often act like a child who is presented with a new toy but refuses to share it with his sibling. We cling to our “stuff” out of a desire for security. This failure to trust in God’s providence results in an attachment to our earthly possessions that distracts us from more valuable, eternal things: our faith and our duty to love others.
Even if our wealth is acquired by licit means, we cannot avoid the reality that hoarding far more than we need when others go without is sinful. Think of A Christmas Carol’s famous old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge. Not merely his usury and exploitation of vulnerable people condemn him, but also his gold, that overflows in his counting house while the family of his poor clerk, Bob Cratchit, hasn’t two pennies to rub together.
By ignoring the source of all that we have, we deny our Creator. In his homilies on wealth and poverty, St. Basil the Great, a fourth-century monk and Doctor of the Church, challenges us, “‘But whom do I treat unjustly,’ you say, ‘by keeping what is my own?’ Tell me, what is your own? What did you bring into this life? From where did you receive it?” Everything in our possession—from the clothes on our back to our skills, talents, and our very lives—is pure gift. We can only understand what our relationship to our possessions should be in light of this truth.
Viewing all we possess as coming from our Heavenly Father shifts our perspective to one of detachment from our earthly things. But what does this look like practically? Our relationship to our possessions should be informed by the needs of our community. We should strive to see all we have as an opportunity to benefit our brothers and sisters in need. We should carefully discern what is necessary for us to purchase in the first place so that we do not have so much excess to “rehome” when we decide to “declutter.” Decluttering may seem to be a simple task, but it is, in practice, quite difficult.
Contenting ourselves with less can become an illuminating spiritual practice. While such a practice goes against cultural trends and can be a painful process, God desires us to have detachment from our possessions because He wants our vision to be clear enough to see what is truly important. In this way, our gratitude to God for what we have can grow, and our eyes are opened to things deeper and more satisfying than what we could ever purchase: time spent with those we love, the glory of God’s creation, and the beauty of our faith, to name a few.
So declutter your heart out. But do it with detachment and love of God and neighbor as the inspiration for your endeavor.