Carl McColman: The Kenosis of Clutter


True confession time: I'm a clutter bug. I always have been, with books, CDs, and other forms of media being my worst offenses when it comes to acquiring stuff that I never use or under-use. Recently I got library privileges at my local seminary, which has helped some, but I still have the addiction.

"Hi, my name is Carl, and I'm a bookaholic." Everyone in unison now: "Hi, Carl!"

What's fascinating about all the books strewn (yes, no other verb will do) all about my house is that they function as a kind of metaphor for the biggest challenge facing those who commit to a practice of silent prayer. Too many books are kind of like too many thoughts (distractions) in a mind that refuses to settle into the silence of God's presence. "Be still and know that I am God" - sometimes we grind to a halt at the world "still."

Whatever practice or technique that someone might use to set aside distractions during prayer - whether reciting a prayer word, scripture verse, using the Rosary or Chotki, focussing on an ikon or candle, or simply returning to the breath - setting aside distracting thoughts is a way of de-cluttering the heart, mind, soul. We de-clutter our homes to create more physical space in our lives; and so when we pray, we seek to engage in a similar process on the inside.

With all this in mind, I found Susan V. Vogt's new book on "stuff management,"Blessed by Less: Clearing Your Life of Clutter by Living Lightly, to be a spiritual delight. Her focus is on the big picture, looking at the how lightening our material load offers spiritual as well as practical benefits. So this isn't really a book that offers a step-by-step approach to reducing the surfeit of belongings that fill up your space. Rather, Vogt offers a set of five principles and ten "rules of thumb for living lightly" to guide anyone who seeks to live lightly over the long haul (clutter is not acquired in a day, so it takes time to let go of it). She zeroes in on the tricky moral questions of living with abundance in a world where so many experience lack, and her fundamental response is wonderfully simple: give it away. Indeed, her journey of de-cluttering began with a Lenten practice of giving away something each day of Lent; she found it so meaningful and liberating that she extended the commitment for an entire year.

But the corollary to giving away our excess stuff is being mindful of waste (for another Lent, Vogt went to heroic extremes to minimize the amount of trash she generates). So just as losing weight is as much about portion control as about exercise, Vogt zeroes in on how important it is to learn new habits of consuming less as a way preemptively to starve the clutter beast.

Perhaps what I found most truly inspiring in this slender book is the author's recognition that most of us have plenty of internal clutter to dispose of - from useless feelings of guilt or self-righteousness, to energy-sapping worries and fears that do little to enrich our lives but plenty to keep us distracted. So any program of de-cluttering needs to go after the inner junk as well (and not just during prayer time). Finally, she notes that in addition to giving away all our no-longer-need stuff, we need to consider giving away at least a portion of two of our most precious possessions: time and money.

It's an inspiring book and I think anyone who wants a taste of the spiritual blessings embodied in lightening one's load will find the book a delight. And while Vogt never explicitly makes this connection, I see Blessed By Less as a meditation on kenosis, the concept of "self-emptying" that St. Paul so beautifully applies to Christ in Philippians 2:7. Christ emptied himself by divesting himself of the fullness of his divinity to embrace the humble life of a human being, but in so doing he made manifest God's love on earth. So now, when we empty our lives - externally through de-cluttering, or internally through our contemplative practice of letting go of distractions and other "mental clutter" - perhaps we can discern the hidden presence of Christ in our own humble acts of kenosis. After all, nature abhors a vacuum. If we get all the extraneous stuff out of our homes and the worries and fears and smugness out of our hearts, Christ eagerly awaits to fill all that space with love.

Taken with permission from Carl's blog.