Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Minimalism and Large Families?

A couple of commenters mentioned that they didn't see much online about minimalism and simplicity for the large family. Most of the minimalist sites are about single people or very small families (I did find an article written by a dad of four and a blog written by a dad of six).

But anyway, that made me wonder.... dangerous, I know. And dangerous to write as I try to figure things out! I may get into hot water but here goes. Oh, and this post turns out not to have much to do with large families but I hope to get there eventually.... I have all summer... :)

I couldn't help noticing that another notable feature of minimalism in its online presence is ties with Zen, which I know little about. I gather it is a form of Buddhism -- a practice of meditation.

What is the goal of Zen practices? I went online to try to get the basics. From what I could find on the web (someone correct me if they know better) -- the goal is satori, roughly translated as "enlightenment" -- or awareness or understanding. Awareness of what? Satori is related to kensho, which means seeing one's nature or true self. So satori involves achieving awareness and understanding of what one is. But satori is a wider thing, a realization that "all things are Buddha things" and that "any separation between self and the universe is illusory." So satori is a realization that one is part of the universe. Satori is considered the first step or embarkation towards nirvana, which is a "blowing out" of the fires of greed, anger, delusion in order to achieve freedom from suffering. When one achieves nirvana there is a release from personal identity.

Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation which is good reading. He makes several statements about meditation within the Church which one can use as a template to make sure one is on the right track.

  1. It has to take place in the heart of the Church -- that is, even private prayer is intertwined with the life of the Church -- Christians are part of the Body of Christ. There is no purely individual true prayer. For one thing, God hears. For another thing, we are not islands. Our prayer life or lack of it has a ripple effect on everything around us. And a large part of prayer explicitly is, or should be, intercessory. The Lord's Prayer gives us a model for interceding for others as well as ourselves, and many of Jesus's words said that this involvement with other people is not to be just in prayer, but in everything we think and do.
  2. It has to be directed towards God. Seems not to need saying but there are some meditative techniques -- they proliferate in business productivity books, oddly enough -- that are concerned only with finding your inner truth or inner consciousness or inner power or whatever. So the goal is self-communion which is very different from communion with God. And some Eastern methods are oriented towards finding emptiness and complete detachment from everything -- NOT in order to be filled with God but for the sake of emptiness itself, or lack of suffering.
  3. It has to be personal and individual. Sounds strange and almost contradictory when I've just been talking about being filled with God and in communion with the Body of Christ, His Church, but it's important to remember that we aren't assimilated into some universal consciousness. The universe is not us. God is not the universe. We are not other people. We live in an amazingly particular universe. Each of us has a relationship with God that is astoundingly individual. Jesus loved all His disciples but each in a way in accordance with their human personalities. He treated John differently from Peter and so on. Christian mysticism is constantly aware of this.
  4. It is doctrinal -- creedal. There is a specific core of beliefs that are true. This wouldn't seem to need to be said except that some forms of meditation purport to direct you to your own "truth" or even your own "God". Everything that is not true is false. I wonder if I should add that by definition a God that is outside the universe can only be known to the extent that He chooses to reveal Himself -- by revelation or reason. So finding that God means trusting in what one has been given.... it is not a quest that one can do on one's own.
  5. It has to involve personal self-denial and ascetism. Cardinal Ratzinger points out that Jesus has said that only "the pure of heart shall see God". The reason for this, and this is very important, is that we are searching for the Beloved. When we truly love we forget ourselves. Our thoughts and hearts are wrapped up with the loved one. Just as it would be rude and almost false to say we were happy to welcome a loved one and then ignore him or her to eat and drink and go about our personal affairs, in the same way, our faith involves a sort of personal hush and awe that comes when we are with someone we truly love, and infinitely more so when the Loved One is infinitely Lovable and never disappointing.
  6. It involves materiality. Again, paradoxical because I was just talking about renunciation. But this renunciation doesn't come from thinking that material things are delusions or evils. We explicitly believe that God created the heaven and earth and pronounced them "good." They are good, but in comparison to God they are a lesser good, so they are to be used in such a way as to bring us closer to God, as St Augustine says. Excess and craving and hoarding and wrenching fear of deprival, all the things I do with compulsive overeating in fact! are signs of disorderly use. Material things are signs and wayposts to things of the spirit. Aquinas says that we are not angels but ensouled bodies and so we have to respect our physical selves and the reality of what our senses tell us. Our Lord was truly Incarnate, and the implications of this are staggering. One of them is that corporality can be holy.
  7. It's not a technique or an esoteric knowledge. It's essentially simple. Ratzinger says that to think that our journey to God is comprised of what Charlotte Mason called "systems" would be to offend against the injunction to "become like a little child". In other words, we don't multiply words or acts or systems to reach God. You can't have a recipe for ascent to God. His things are hidden to the "wise" (those who place their trust in their knowledge and skills) and revealed to the little ones. This may help, that may help, and saints have written much advice that is very valuable, but the "one needful thing" is not a technique. It is sitting at the feet of Christ and listening to Him, and everything else is added onto that.

To sum it up, here is a long but good quote from Cardinal Ratzinger:

12. With the present diffusion of eastern methods of meditation in the Christian world and in ecclesial communities, we find ourselves faced with a pointed renewal of an attempt, which is not free from dangers and errors, "to fuse Christian meditation with that which is non-Christian." Proposals in this direction are numerous and radical to a greater or lesser extent. Some use eastern methods solely as a psycho-physical preparation for a truly Christian contemplation; others go further and, using different techniques, try to generate spiritual experiences similar to those described in the writings of certain Catholic mystics.13 Still others do not hesitate to place that absolute without image or concepts, which is proper to Buddhist theory, 14 on the same level as the majesty of God revealed in Christ, which towers above finite reality. To this end, they make use of a "negative theology," which transcends every affirmation seeking to express what God is, and denies that the things of this world can offer traces of the infinity of God. Thus they propose abandoning not only meditation on the salvific works accomplished in history by the God of the Old and New Covenant, but also the very idea of the One and Triune God, who is Love, in favor of an immersion "in the indeterminate abyss of the divinity."15 These and similar proposals to harmonize Christian meditation with eastern techniques need to have their contents and methods ever subjected to a thorough-going examination so as to avoid the danger of falling into syncretism.

What does this have to do with minimalism in regard to possessions? Hmm... this got too long. I'll have to write a separate post. But for now, I think the main idea is that it's important to discern what simplicity or minimalism is/are FOR. It isn't for its own sake, unless it's just a personal preference of taste like buying chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla. If it's at all philosophical or principled, it's for some other end. This is what Ratzinger is pointing out with regard to meditative practices. It's important WHY you are doing them, WHAT you hope to achieve by doing them.


  1. Oooo, keep going! I can't wait to see how you develop these ideas. :)

    At least personally, I'm attempting increasing minimalism, because a) I find my life too chaotic and it makes my "too sensitive self" prone to sin, b) God says if we have two tunics we should give one away, and I'm sure there is a "C" but I can't think of it right now, lol. :) So at least I think I'm on the right track. It's not minimalism for its own sake or to be zen like, but to stop sinning so darn much. :-P

  2. Wow, I'm so excited to see you tackling this. I think the reason for a lack of articles on minimalism and large families is that minimalism is an outgrowth of Modernism, which is itself a rejection of tradition, history, religion and so on. But I'm interested to see where you're going with this via Ratzinger's writings, so I'll say no more. :)

  3. I'm very interested in reading about minimalism as it is practiced in a larger Catholic family. As you may know, I've been reading different minimalism blogs since last November. I find the idea of letting go of possessions fascinating. My dream of living more simply came from desires such as Amy said - sinning less, and becoming closer to God, improving the living out of my vocation, thinking less about small, unimportant matters, etc. I recently read a book about the virtue of simplicity and was disappointed to find that I may not come close to it. Even if I omit the needless material things, I am still me, with my temperment, which I think tends to mentally complicate. But I do think losing some of the visual, schedule and habit clutter could help, and since I have much of that still to do, I keep plugging along. I have felt turned off sometimes by the minimalist blogs that seem to say self-sufficiency is a goal, because that is something I'm working to get away from. Trust in God is where I want to be. I'm kind of babbling. I just want to say that I hope you keep writing about how this minimalism thing is going for you. I'm very interested.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!