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Of minimalism, decluttering and Making Room for God
By Katie Warner, EWTN News, 3/27/19
Jenny Uebbing, a Catholic blogger and mother of five, became interested in minimalism while living in Italy early in her family life. “We sold or gave away almost everything we’d accrued in four years of marriage and kept a box of wedding china at my parent’s house,” she recalled. “When we returned after a year, we basically had to start over from scratch. We’d lived so simply in Rome, and I realized that I didn’t have to accrue the normal amount of clothing, bedding, toys, dishes — everything the world tells us we ‘need’ to serve the needs of young kids.”
The Uebbings learned from experience that their children played better with fewer toys and that limiting wardrobes meant less laundry, so they decided to continue some of these new minimalist habits as they settled back into their U.S. home. “I started to be more careful about what I bought, what I accepted from friends, and what I held on to ‘just in case,’ and it removed a lot of stress from my domestic duties,” she observed.
An Invitation to Gratitude
Uebbing noticed the contentment this new lifestyle brought and wanted to share it with other moms. She began writing about minimalism on her Catholic News Agency blog, “Mama Needs Coffee,” and recently discussed traps Catholics should avoid falling into when trying out minimalism for themselves.
“I think minimalism for the sake of minimalism is just as silly as consumerism for the sake of consumerism and can lead to making judgments against other people — conscious or unconscious — that their lifestyle is somehow inferior to our own because they own x number of plates and we only have 12. Minimalism can certainly aid us in pursuing the moral life as we seek to express gratitude and contentment for what we have, to make conscientious buying decisions, and to teach our kids the joy of ‘just right’ and resist the conveyor belt of the next hot thing. But minimalism itself is not a religion. It’s morally neutral.”
To combat the 21st-century culture of instant gratification, Uebbing thinks Catholics can use minimalist habits as tools to “build in friction” to help bring our families back toward a disposition of gratitude for what we already have. “I think we should build in some artificial friction to help show our kids reality,” she explained. “We don’t hop online and buy something just because we want it. We don’t need a second remote-control car; we already have one — things like that. It feels silly to even call that friction, but in this culture, it really is!”
This approach is especially applicable to Lent, Uebbing said.
“While you probably won’t end up with a master bedroom that looks like a monastic cell, it is helpful to both body and soul to bring order and simplicity to our homes during this season of prayer, fasting and almsgiving,” said Uebbing. “And perhaps with that extra time you won’t be spending cleaning and organizing an overstuffed house, you’ll find time to pray and do acts of charity more easily than in Lents past.”
For Uebbing, living a more minimalist lifestyle was a natural progression, but for Mary Sperry, author of the book Making Room for God: Decluttering and the Spiritual Life, decluttering became a necessity when her pack-rat tendencies got the better of her and her home. “I became interested in the topic [organization, minimalism] when I couldn’t stand the clutter in my house. I could no longer brush my hair in the bedroom because there was too much stuff piled on the dresser!” Sperry admitted. “As I worked to declutter my own home, I began to think about how my faith could inform the process.”
Sperry discovered that decluttering allowed her to confront sin and failure in her life and from there seek God’s mercy and grace. “It’s literally stacked in front of us — the greed, the envy, the acquisitiveness, the lack of trust in God’s providence. Facing that sin, seeking God’s mercy and grace, and amending our lives to change our relationship with things is profoundly spiritual,” she found. As Sperry donated her possessions, she also noticed herself focusing less on missing the object or clothing item and more on how good these items would make the recipient feel, increasing virtues in her — such as charity, hospitality and gratitude — as she continued to make decluttering a part of her life.
“The key word in Catholic thinking is detachment,” Sperry noted when asked about how Catholics should view “stuff” and how they should look for God in their possessions. “We hold things, but not so tightly that we can’t let them go when they are no longer needed or when someone else needs them more.”
In her book, Sperry gives practical guidance for getting rid of excess or not acquiring these “extra things” in the first place, but she also acknowledges the importance of seeing what we do have as gifts from God.
“We are a sacramental Church,” she said in an interview.
“We understand that God can use the physical objects of the world to mediate his power and grace. We understand the power and sanctity of memories. Part of the Eucharistic Prayer is the anamnesis: the not-forgetting. So I do think we should hold on to those items that honor powerful memories. The idea is to get rid of all the extra stuff that keeps us from giving those memories the respect that they deserve.”
Sanctity vs. ‘Stuff’
Sharing the same passion for “honoring what God has given and not to be so attached to things that you lose sight of your relationship with God,” Sterling Jaquith, Catholic author and administrator of the popular “Catholic Minimalism Challenge” Facebook group, wanted to find a way to practice minimalism in community with other Catholics and encourage them in their own organization and decluttering.
“I run two challenges, a ‘40-Day Challenge’ and an ‘8-Week Challenge.’ Both are completely free and encourage Catholics to go through their entire house, touching every item that they own and deciding if they want to keep that item intentionally,” Jaquith elaborated. “We ask questions about how each item helps us serve God and the mission he has given us. I explain that minimalism is a process. But it’s wonderful to go through this process with other Catholics because we pray for each other throughout the challenge.”
Jaquith involves her husband — who, as she did, had grandparents who were clinical hoarders. This shared experience motivated the Jacquiths to be more intentional about the things they acquired when they married. Jaquith also involved her children in the family’s home organization, and it’s become “who they are as a family.” Some of the great fruits of their effort include less anxiety, more time for prayer (which comes from less time spent managing “stuff”) and more gratitude.
“While minimalism isn’t uniquely Catholic, I believe all Catholics are called to be intentional about what they own and what they choose to spend their time on,” Jaquith observed. “Sainthood should be our aim, and we can’t let ‘big-box stores’ get in the way of that.”
Katie Warner writes from Georgia. Her website is KatieWarner.com.