Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The art of detachment

The Apotheosis of St Francis de Sales

Confession: I used to be a bit of a packrat.  I liked buying stuff and having it, even if I wasn't really using it regularly--because just knowing I owned those cute candle holders or that pretty area rug made me happy.  And finding pants on clearance (whether or not I already owned two pair just like them) was cause for excitement.  This is probably part of why I love thrifting so much, because it's an inexpensive way to buy things that maybe I'll use some day.  While I was never much of a consumer in the sense that I didn't feel the need to have the newest or best products, I still liked stuff, in general.

But the problem is that I also value an orderly home--and detest clutter.  And it turns out that when nine people share a living space, there is the constant tendency for the toys and clothes and stuff to take over, making for a rather uphill battle to achieve that orderly, clutter-free home.  Who knew?

So a couple of years ago I did what turned out to be one of the best things I've ever done: I scheduled a pick-up from our local thrift store.  I assumed I would give away some old clothes that no longer fit, and some toys my kids no longer loved.  Easy peasy.  But the thing was that they called me again the next month!  Asking if I had any donations, and offering to come and get them.  I cautiously said yes, and discovered that I was able to cull even more things from my home.  And this pattern has continued.  Every month they call, and every month I say yes, whether I have something in mind or not.  My record for one month is probably 15 large trash bags' worth.  This month I only had two.  But no matter what, it has completely revolutionized my ability to maintain sanity and peace in my home.  It has freed up my mental and even physical energies.  It has enabled me to buy things that are actually truly useful and beneficial for our family.  It has lifted a huge burden I didn't even know I had--namely that of simply having much-too-much to manage.

And not only has this helped tremendously in my capacity for keeping things tidy and organized, it has borne some major spiritual benefits too.  I find that my thinking has shifted in terms of how I view possessions and wealth, in that I now see material goods as gifts from God to be used as needed, instead of as things to accumulate, prize and collect.  I find myself regularly practicing detachment, which enables me to acknowledge and embrace that the truly important things in life are those concerning eternal souls--relationships, virtue, God, and vocation. 

This of course doesn't mean that I never buy things.  I do.  But now before I make a purchase, I evaluate if it is something I will actually use, that will help me to better accomplish my duties as wife and mother and homemaker, or that will enhance our home.  And the funny thing is that I actually care less about the price-tag than I used to!  When my small food processor recently gave out on me after years of use, for example, I went to the store and bought a new, much bigger one--while more expensive, it is much better for our family.  I don't on the other hand go thrifting every weekend anymore, and when I do go, I stick to the areas of the store where there is something I need (the book section to find some readers for my sons, or the kids' shoe aisle if my daughter needs new church shoes.)  And when something is too broken-down or old to use, I get rid of it and find an affordable new (or new-to-me) replacement. 

Can I just tell you how amazing it is to not be storing up junk or using my small closets as overflowing museums?  I'm no longer buying sheets or high-heels or trinkets just because they're a good value, or simply because I like them.  There will always be sales, and there will always be lovely things on the shelves begging to be taken home.  I now literally only buy something if I need it, or if I know precisely where in my home it will go.  We are only capable of using so many of this or that during any given time period anyhow, so why pay money to store unused things?

Saint Francis De Sales writes this in Introduction to the Devout Life: 

So also you can possess riches without being poisoned by them if you merely keep them in your home and purse and not in your heart.  To be rich in effect and poor in affection is a great happiness for a Christian.

I admit that I simultaneously love and am challenged by those words.  We all sense we must live this way to some degree, but it is an entirely other thing to actually live it--in our minds, hearts and deeds.  But I'm trying.  In viewing material possessions as temporal tools and gifts, I am learning to rightly order my priorities, and to value the unseen more deeply.  And I am learning that there is more mental and spiritual capacity for communing with God and with loved ones.

It follows then that a healthy detachment from worldly goods is something I hope to cultivate in my children, as well.  We have conversations about how something may be nice or fun, but that doesn't mean we have to own it.  My kids are actually fairly good about this in general--because they are homeschooled and because we don't spend hours browsing the toy aisle at Target, they remain fairly sheltered from the latest-and-greatest gizmos.  There are certainly things they occasionally see or hear about and want, but on a typical day, they're busy with schooling and playing together.  None of them spend a ton of time holed up somewhere with a toy.  Instead, they love to play big, inclusive games of pretend.  They love to dig through the dress-up box.  They love to draw and color and craft.  My girls love playing dolls and my boys enjoy riding bikes.  A couple of nights ago, I found them all huddled in a circle on the floor, playing a game of Numbers Bingo.

Ultimately I believe I am thinking more about the actual purpose of goods, and how that relates to the tasks God has given me.  How will this or that item better serve my family?  Or enhance our lives?  Or help us to love Jesus?

And, as always, even the things we do own I try to hold loosely.  A challenge to be sure--just yesterday one of my children was sweeping, and accidentally broke the small nativity scene that Kevin and I bought on our trip to Rome.  Ouch.  I admit that I did not respond very well, and even in the midst of my angry outburst I could hear Saint Francis' words ringing in my ears.  Which was convicting and, quite frankly, kind of annoying (oh how I wanted to be mad about the loss of my sweet little statue with sentimental value!), but also good.  Really, really good.  Because I was able to, later, really think through how I am still not as detached from the world as I ought to be.  I was able to resolve to do better and rely more on God, and to reaffirm my commmitment to keep material goods in their proper, less-valuable-than-people place.

And all of this is not to say that we shouldn't care for the things we do have.  It is not to say that we should regard with disdain or callous indifference the gifts God gives us, or that we are all meant to take a vow of hard physical poverty.  It is not to say that we should never buy things that bring us or our children joy.  God loves beauty and feasting and celebration--just look at the beautiful cathedrals of France, or the Sistine Chapel and major basilicas in Rome.  There is stunning, unparalleled beauty and reverence in these incredible works of art.  Which I would argue that our world quite desperately needs.

But it is to say that detachment from material wealth is an objective good.  It's not necessarily easy, but it is rather simple.  And I confess that I am more than a little thrilled to be discovering the many spiritual and practical (which are always related) benefits of pursuing this detachment in my life. 


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