Last month we moved to a much smaller home. In preparing for this move I felt a deep need to pare down and simplify, even though by American standards we don’t have a lot. About a month before the move we packed up everything we possibly could, leaving unpacked only those things we absolutely needed for the last weeks. There were boxes and boxes and BOXES of things we occasionally use. The time, money and energy spent dusting, cleaning, packing, moving, unpacking, storing and otherwise maintaining these things is certifiable. I desire and need simplicity.
If anyone is serious about loving God totally, he must willingly entertain no self-centered pursuit of finite things sought for themselves, that is, devoid of honest direction to God. (Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M., Fire Within, page 134)
Our “Plain” and Buddhist Friends and Their Simplicity
During all of this packing my daughter had been sick, and even though she is 18, she still likes me to read to her. She can close her tired eyes and rest. She loves Christian romance. For Christmas we gave her a book of “Plain Folk” short stories, about the Amish, Quaker, Mennonites and others who practice simplicity and modesty in their dress and homes. I love picturing their simple, well-made homes. For me the “romance” of these stories lies in the desire they bring forth in my heart for spare, simple, handmade homes and the contentment and peace that lie therein.
At the same time we were reading this book, I was introduced to the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi through an article I read in our local paper. This concept comes out of Zen Buddhism but relates in part to personal style and home décor. It is an embracing of imperfections, natural aging processes and simplicity. Interestingly, the words wabi and sabi both translate to “lonely,” among other things, which puts in my Catholic mind, “solitude” and “simplicity.”
Some of the ideas wabi-sabi embraces are artisanship, the beauty that comes with age and wear, natural materials, accepting change, losing the polish and bearing the soul, embracing imperfection, less is more, repairing and keeping rather than replacing, carefully pondering before purchasing (“How will this look in three years? Interesting or just plain worn out?”), buying less but buying quality and accepting that a home is for the people who live in it, not for its appearance. Wabi-sabi is simple, organic, spare and low maintenance. It is very similar in practice to the lifestyle of the “Plain Folk” of American Protestantism.
Both of these simplicity-based lifestyles lie outside of Catholicism and make me glad for another point of unity between “us and them.” But this desire to simplify brings me home to my own Church’s call to simplicity, and ultimately to Jesus’ radical living out of both simplicity and poverty.
Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours. (Luke 6:20)
In Catholic Monasticism the most ornamental place is the Church, not the home. The cell where the individual consecrated soul lives is nearly bare except a bed, table, crucifix and perhaps a bookshelf and a small chest of drawers. None of those things is shiny and new. Perhaps the crucifix has been clutched through many dark nights. The bookshelf may be bowed under the weight of one too many books, revealing the one area of detachment the resident has yet to overcome. But overall the lack of material goods allows the residents’ souls to be uncluttered with care of things that are not eternal.
The Desire for Less Materially Reveals the Desire for More Spiritually
This is what I desire: to lessen the material in order to have room in my overburdened-with-modern-life mind for the care of the eternal. Our former pastor expressed this longing in a homily in which he spoke wistfully of the time and place where he grew up. Neither long ago nor far away, in his neighborhood lives revolved around the Church, which was huge and grand. The people themselves lived in homes that were small and simple. This has been reversed. Instead of families being wrapped up in the activities of parish life, of community, of formation of the next generation and of care for their neighbors, they are wrapped up in the care, maintenance and constant improvement of their homes, with parish life perhaps squeezed in for an hour on Saturday afternoon, in a church that may look more like a simple community theater than a traditional Catholic Church.
What is lost in this trade-off is contentment, true community, and a pace of life that is human. These are no small things, but the biggest thing that is lost in this gerbil-wheel of materialism is the primacy of our life with God. A big, beautiful home seems like a benign thing, but for many, if not most of us, it is a trap set by the world, the flesh and the devil, to ensnare us and keep us from maintaining and growing that most important relationship of our lives, our prayer life with God.
The human intellect is befogged in its natural capacity and in receiving supernatural wisdom when it clings to finite things for their own sakes. … St. Paul lays it down that the worldly individual not only does not grasp the things of the Spirit; he cannot grasp them. (Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M., Fire Within, page 137)
Some families, for a variety of reasons as wide as there are varieties of families, are called to have large, even grand, houses. But none of us is called to have anything “for their own sakes.” As in all things in this Catholic life, the size and shape of our homes depends on our families’ individual calls to serve the Kingdom. For some this means they need a big house and lots of possessions. There is nothing wrong with this. God is given glory wherever He is placed first. The problem lies in disordered attachment, which can just as easily be related to a small, simple house as a large, complicated one.
As I age, I want my own appearance to become more of a wabi-sabi Momma. I want to stop coloring my hair, to start wearing handmade clothes, to stop wearing make- up and drawing in eyebrows I no longer have. I want to dress in simple, feminine, natural clothing bought from the person who crafted it, and keep wearing them for season after season, year after year. I want people to see the sweater on the chair and know “that’s Suellen’s” because I’ve been wearing it for 15 years.
But isn’t this all just another kind of materialism? Isn’t it another kind of vanity? Am I not making an idol out of simplicity or a certain aesthetic? Perhaps I’m deluded, but I don’t think it is. The soul and body are eternally united and how we treat the physical has spiritual repercussions. Just as we form our spirits by our daily prayer life, by the liturgies we engage and attend, we form the physical portion of ourselves by the “material liturgies” we use. If these liturgies are simple and spare they allow us to place our spiritual liturgies first and allow them to grow deeper.
New Simpler Home, Old Simpler Devotions
During the moving process, the material part of our family’s existence necessarily became dominant. But now that we are settled into our new home, the pared down nature of our physical setting is inspiring a simultaneous paring down of my spiritual life. Certain books and devotions are natural and organic to my life now. Certain others may be trendy and fashionable, but they are not for me. These few well-written, well-worn books, along with the Bible, are the reading materials I need for daily prayer. The Rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, morning prayer and the Examen are the devotions I need to keep my spiritual life in order. All else simply takes away from the essential and leaves me confused, pressured and without the fruits of quiet contemplation. Just like too much clutter, no matter how beautiful these devotions are, they rob me of time, energy and peace.
A Tidal Wave of Materialism Is Coming at Our Children
In a family, trying to pass these lessons of simplification on to the next generation, our children, has been revealing. Nowhere in their lives do I see such conformity to the culture we live in as in the material realm. My children are embarrassed by my Apple 4S (a hand-me-down, no less). They ask when we’re going to get a new (refrigerator, car, set of dishes), not because the ones we have don’t work, but simply because they are no longer new. In this I see the temptation not just to “more stuff” but to constantly newer and upgraded stuff. This temptation leads families to make choices like Mom going back to work full time, or Dad taking an all-consuming job. The family loses not only the unity that comes from quantity time spent together, but the lessons of contentment in all material circumstances, and the overarching truth that we are here on earth to seek first God and His Kingdom and not the passing things of the world.
The choices our children would have to make in order to sustain a lifestyle of “keeping up appearances” to twenty-first century standards strike at my heart. Will my daughter put her children in day care in order to keep the job that allows her to buy a new car every five years? Will my son choose a corporate promotion over a ministry he feels called to do so that he can move to the neighborhood with the HGTV-worthy homes? These are not small things. The virtues of simplicity and poverty set the stage for how we live much of our actual day-to-day lives.
So I will continue to have my kids help me fill my trunk with seldom-used items to donate. I will explain that we don’t need a new (refrigerator, car, set of dishes) as the old ones are working just fine. I will pass by the tempting clearance rack. I will keep using that 4S until Apple stops letting me. I will do these little things and others to hopefully be a tiny witness against that tidal wave of materialism our children are up against. Perhaps, just perhaps, they will one day ponder whether the trade-offs are worth it, and realize much of what glitters is just a waste of time, talent, treasure and precious peace in their lives.
Come on Over, the Light Is On
As we unpacked boxes on this end of our family’s move, we ended up doing an additional, deeper purge of unneeded items. It took lugging those boxes and boxes and BOXES from one end of town to another for my body to inform my spirit that although I thought we were living spare, we really were not.
The end result of all this purging and simplifying is that I now have more time and energy to live my vocation as God desires me to. Freedom from clutter is freedom to do God’s will in God’s timing. Instead of trying to perfect our new home, I am seeing how perfectly beautiful it already is because God is here. In the worn wood and the fresh paint, I see a corner of God’s world set apart for Him first. His will can be done here because we have made room for Him. I can live my vocation because, by His grace, I am seeking Him first and trusting Him for all else. Our little Brewster light can shine for anyone He sends to us, because He has given us the eyes to see the spiritual realities this home actually houses.
I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:14)
Paring down and simplifying is an ongoing battle. Even as we heave stuff out the door, a new home requires the acquisition of various new things. We are trying to live within the simple rule that whenever something comes in, an equal amount of something has to go out. I may never have a home worthy of a spread in the imaginary “Simplicity” magazine, but the more I practice “less” the easier it will be to pursue the work God sent me to earth to do, and the easier it will be to pursue the God who sent me to do it.
Blessed Mother, Queen of our little home, you lived the simplicity and poverty of the home in Nazareth. From this humble nest, you and Joseph, together with Jesus, lived a life that put God first and all else in an ordered, beautiful and simple way after. Please guide us and help us to do the same for God’s glory, the salvation of souls and our family’s own good.