Minimalism as an exercise in spiritual discipline.
Throughout my life I have experienced sparse moments of incredible clarity. Seeing as how I am, generally, in everyday life, a complete ditz, these moments of clarity are not homegrown. I recognize them because they come as fully formed in my brain and seem, even to me, who has the attention span of a three year-old, to be (I like this phrase a lot) moral imperatives.
Even very very young, this sensation of a thought being bigger than me drove me to do things I, selfish, self-centered and self-enamored as I was, that would not have been natural to me. I’ll save those anecdotes for another day, because they aren’t the purpose of this missive (but they can be fun to talk about!)
The purpose is that I recognized that kind of fully formed though that woke me up saying, “Take nothing with you.” It was a thought that meant to be obeyed. I might have ignored it, had it not been followed up later in the day with the verse in Luke, “Take nothing with you for the journey.”
This little phrase meant two things: 1) the move we were contemplating to France was something we needed to take seriously, in fact, it was going to be a reality and 2) we needed to started dealing with our debt problem and our stuff problem.
The burden of knowing
As I mentioned, this kind of clear direction is something I have experienced often throughout my life. I am not a particularly intelligent person, nor wise. I’m a creative type, just on the cusp of being normal.
I have one secret weapon, though, that has been mine since I was very very small as well: my internal radio is tuned to the Holy Spirit. It is a grace I do not deserve. It is not something I ever remember choosing or ever even having the opportunity to want. It has just always been part of who I am.
Even in the midst of extraordinarily questionable decisions I have made in my life, I have gone through them with the absolute confidence and assurance that the Holy Spirit is with me and would not leave me or forsake me.
This sixth sense I have the grace of bearing is something that others often rather vocally admire. “I wish God talked to me like that!” is probably up there with “I would let my hair go gray if it would look like yours!” as the things people say most often to me.
But here’s the catch: once I hear something so simple as “Take nothing with you” or “Quit coffee” or “See those two strangers in the park? Go pray for them” there is a responsibility.
I can’t just pretend I didn’t hear it. If it’s going to be that clear, it means I have to act. I suddenly have the burden of knowing what God expects me to do. And the burden of knowing does not mean that it is easy to accept.
Knowing that I was supposed to give up coffee in the middle of our infertility problems seemed like an inconsequential and ineffectual step to take. But I knew that I was being told to do it and that, for some reason I will never understand, this obedience was being required of me.
Or when I was working for an investment management firm and was dressed up in my best suit and heels and happened to cross through a park on my way back from lunch and saw a father and his young son. I was running late (thus the shortcut). But the voice in my head told me to stop and pray with them. Ten minutes later, the three of us were in tears at just how much we all needed that encounter.
“Take nothing with you” was that kind of directive.
Our first gauge for a move had always been that we be debt-free. We weren’t going to be lugging around four years of Law School tuition into our new life. Mind you, this was in 2007. I worked for a financial services firm. Money was not in short supply. We had, from the beginning of his Law School career four years before, been paying as much as we could towards his tuition, but there was a nice chunk left. He would be taking the bar exam in July of 2007.
Then, literally out of nowhere, in April, I got a bonus that was almost to the penny, plus $500 what we needed to pay off his debt. You may not believe me, because I didn’t believe it either, but I been praying for this kind of thing to happen, but not for his school debt. I was praying for $500 because at our church, in the Sunday School where I served, we wanted to buy a new sound system and it would cost $500. Well. Surprise surprise. Two birds with one stone.
But what do we do with all this stuff?
It was becoming increasingly obvious that this move was something we were supposed to be doing. Small details, too insignificant at the time to really even notice were coming together. Those small details are the ones that even today take my breath away when I think about them. The big ones effected us in the short term. The little ones still effect me now.
We would have to get rid of our car, our piano, but the hassle of selling things was of zero interest to us. So we agreed that we would give our car to a family who needed it….but whom? Our piano was a love story all of its own…who could love it as much as I did?
Our couch–the one we had found on a street corner in Orlando on the very day we moved into our new apartment there in 2001–which was the centerpiece of my joy for its vintage-ness, its simplicity and unerring comfort. We would have to find a home for it.
Some things were easy to declutter. Others would require more thought. One thing was certain, we had three months to make this happen.
We made a list. We kept our lips sealed, not wanting to advertise that we were in the market to unload all this stuff. One by one, the perfect opportunity arrived to re-home our worldly possessions. It seemed unreal, uncanny, unthinkable how perfect each situation was.
The last piece was my sewing machine. It ended up boarding an airplane with me to Uganda, where I would spend some time working at an orphanage. The mission I worked with had a school which taught fashion design to young girls as a way for them to learn skills to keep them out of poverty. And lo and behold, my sewing machine, which, let’s be honest, doesn’t seem like something that you would take on a mission trip, found a new home.
Not yet minimalism
“Take nothing with you” is a high calling. Maybe our reward would have been greater should we have literally taken nothing at all with us. But we weren’t able to do that. My husband and I agreed that we would take the suitcases we owned, with our clothing and our important documents. We would take our cat.
Upon our arrival in France, while my husband started his new teaching job, we lived a month at a hotel. We had no car, no apartment. We were very, very happy.
Eventually, we found a little apartment with a rooftop terrace that was exactly the same size as the apartment. Small apartment, big terrace. We were very very happy.
We also started accumulating stuff, as people are wont to do. Once we were on the ground in France, however, the urgency of keeping our worldly possessions to a minimum did not feel as fresh. Besides. We were very very happy.
This very very happiness lasted until that very clear, unmistakable voice told me that I was going to have a baby. At which I scoffed. Because I didn’t like babies, had never wanted babies and had gone out of my way to avoid having babies.
That’s a story for another day.
The path I took to get to minimalism was an unforgettable spiritual journey. This was my path, not something I could prescribe to anyone else. But I hope that it can be an encouragement to those struggling with clutter and feeling overwhelmed by their stuff.
I have said it a million times: my stubborn heart requires rules and limits, boundaries and clear directives. I know that my stubbornness means I have to double down on being disciplined with myself. This journey has taught me also that there is a reward for this discipline: freedom and unexplainable happiness.