Guest Post: Decluttering and the Spiritual Life

I’m excited to welcome a guest post on the blog today from author Mary Elizabeth Sperry. Mary has worked for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops since 1994, and is the author of five books. Mary’s brand new book, Making Room for God: Decluttering and the Spiritual Life, was just released two weeks ago. Anyone who knows me knows that I can get quite excited about *decluttering*. 🙂 I appreciate Mary’s perspective on the topic, and I’m happy to have her on the blog talking about decluttering in our spiritual lives. Enjoy!


There’s no question that clutter is a real problem for a significant number of Americans – whether they need to rent a storage space, pay late fees on the bill, lost in the pile of unopened mail, or leave the car out in the weather because there’s no room in the garage. Decluttering has become a social trend. (For once in my life I’m part of a trend! Who knew?) Books about tidying up and Swedish death cleaning (!) sit on the best-sellers chart. With the beginning of Lent, my newsfeed is full of people taking the challenge to give away forty things in forty days. Some go even further – seeking to remove forty bags of possession from their homes during the Lenten season.

But using Lent as a reason to declutter doesn’t make decluttering a spiritual practice. People of any faith – or no faith at all – can decide to deal with the stuff that they trip over every time they need to do laundry. Does decluttering have a spiritual side? Does the state of our closets have anything to say about the state of our souls? Does God really care that we’re storing half-finished craft projects in the dining room?

Of course, he does! The God who has counted every hair on our heads and who knows when a sparrow falls cares deeply about the things that matter to us and that shape our daily lives. The most fundamental claim of Christianity is the Incarnation, that in Jesus, the all-powerful God who is the source of all beauty and goodness became a human being – just like us, except for sin. Jesus entered into the messiness of everyday life, preparing and eating food, learning a trade, and doing the chores necessary to keep a house running. Because of that, even the humblest task has meaning in the eyes of God.

Being a person of faith isn’t something you can keep in a box, taking it out for an hour or so on Sunday mornings, when it’s time to say grace before meals, and on the occasional holiday. The relationship with God that is at the heart of the Christian faith has to expand so that it reaches every aspect of our lives, even what we keep in our closets and what we give away. It’s more than saying a quick prayer before we begin decluttering or praying for the strength to finish (and to get the box of unused toys out of the house before the kids decide they are favorites – despite the fact that they haven’t been outside the toybox in eight months).

Decluttering as a person of faith means setting the reset button on our relationship with our possessions. We have to look honestly at what we’ve accumulated and humbly recognize the sinful tendencies (envy, greed, etc.) that lead us to acquire more than we need. We need to nurture gratitude for the things we have, regarding them as a gift of God that we can share generously with those in need.

Changing our relationship with our possessions will change the way we interact with other people as well. When we break the pattern of acquiring more than we need and tossing things away when they are no longer useful, how much easier will it be to recognize that people aren’t disposable and that they always take precedence over things? Freed from the race to acquire more and to protect what we have, we can take more time to be with others, to listen, and even to be silent. And as we learn to be more generous with what we have been given, we learn to trust that God will provide for all our needs.


 

Copyright 2018 Jessica Ptomey

Fasting 101

As we begin the season of Lent there can be a lot of chatter about fasting, and we want to guard our hearts against missing the point entirely. It’s good to give up the things in our lives to which we tend to become attached. It’s not a bad thing that we give up social media, television, desserts, shopping, etc. We can all agree that in the course of a year we have probably packed a great deal of *stuff* into our lives that needs cleaned out. But if we mentally check a “fasting” box and move on, then we are going to miss the point of our fasting — to miss God’s idea of fasting — this Lent.

The point of fasting and prayer is to be able to hear God’s voice and do his will. It is good to fast from things that we are attached to so that we will be attached to God instead. It is also good to fast from things that take our time so that we have more time to spend with God. But it can be easy to get caught up in the spiritual practice of fasting and miss the point of it, which is to hear God’s voice…AND then do His will. What is God’s will? What kind of direction should we look for from Him when we fast? What is He going to say to us?

One of the readings in the Liturgy of The Hours for Ash Wednesday is from Isaiah 58. In this passage, God pretty explicitly lays out what His idea of fasting is and what kind of result it should have in our lives. Look at verses 6-7:

“This rather is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking free every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.”

Pretty clear, right? But let’s break it down a step further. If we are fasting with ears listening and hands ready for the Lord’s work, then we are going to personally hear God tell us: Continue reading “Fasting 101”

Enduring to Perfection

I was recently having a conversation with my six-year-old son about sin. We were reading the Gospel account when Jesus called the Apostle Matthew from his life as a tax collector to follow him. Upon hearing the Pharisees’ murmuring against him associating with sinners, Jesus responded:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt. 9:12-13)

As we were discussing the passage, my son said,  “But we aren’t supposed to hang out with sinners.” I responded, “Well, Jesus’ point was that we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy.” My thoughtful and emotive young son was visibly disturbed by this. “I’m not a sinner!” he exclaimed with a furrowed brown and tight lips. “Yes you are,” I said. “We all are. We are all sinners, and our sin has separated us from God. That is why Jesus came — to restore us to the Father by his grace. We are sinners who have been saved by God’s grace, but we have to actually acknowledge what we are without him.”

My son’s displeasure at the thought of identifying himself as a sinner is typical of our human condition, especially in the modern world. You and I struggle with the same thing. We don’t like thinking of ourselves as “sinners” or our sins as, well, sins — do we? We want to think of them as “challenges,” “less than ideal” traits, or “shortcomings.” Sin seems so…evil. Exactly. It is.

Being selfish or angry, lying, being puffed up with pride, gossiping about others, always wanting more — these things are evil. And our lives are actually inundated with them in many daily ways — great or small. But one reason that we don’t want to name them as they are is that we would then have to acknowledge that our temptation toward them is always present; and in many Christian environments we aren’t comfortable with that being the case.

We are more comfortable with the idea that Christ saving us from sin is in the past…all done. We want to live in a present Christian life that is all positive and all about our goodness in Christ. Therefore, there is a tendency to think of sinful struggles as something that we can overcome for good and be done with, moving from the “sinners” group to the “non-sinners” group.

If we are honest, we know that this isn’t theologically correct. We know that through the salvation and sanctification processes we are not removed from this fallen world or immune to sinful tendencies (that’s in heaven); but we don’t like being reminded that our sin, when committed, is still sin. We, like the Pharisees, want to call the tax collectors wrong behavior “sin,” but not our own.

Offering an alternative perspective, is wisdom from St. Francis de Sales:

“The discipline of purification can and must cease only with our life, therefore be not discouraged by infirmities; our perfection consists in struggling against them, which we cannot do unless we perceive them, neither can we conquer unless we come into collison with them. Victory does not lie in ignoring our infirmities, but in resisting them” (An Introduction to the Devout Life, Pt. 1, Ch. 5).

One reason that we are attracted to the “us” and “them” mindset is that it separates us from evil; and when we are separated from evil we don’t have to think about our own sin as sin. St. Francis highlights the danger in separating ourselves from our “infirmities” — we can’t move toward goodness, toward perfection, if we do so. We have to name that evil in us for what it is, and every time it rears its ugly head we have to call it ugly. If we don’t, we will forget it is there and never conquer it.

As we move toward heaven, we all have the potential for incredible goodness, but we will never realize it without persevering against our potential for terrible evil. In the words of Flannery O’Conner, we need to understand that “evil is not simply a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.”¹ We must endure until perfected.


¹ O’Conner, Flannery. Mystery and Manners (1970). Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: NY, p.209.

 

Copyright 2017 Jessica Ptomey