Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Minimalism and Large Families II

Amy and LeeAnn, you are too kind to be looking forward to where I'm going on this minimalism thing. I am partly just feeling my way -- and I appreciate comments that help round out the picture or take the thinking in a different direction.

(Note: I still didn't really get to large families, focusing on Christian principles in general, except at the end, so skip to the end if you just want to read the summary. I think what we are talking about in regard to large families is a kind of Christian generosity that seems in tension with the Christian calls to poverty and simplicity. I'm NOT saying that large families are only or always generous -- I am saying that having more than the statistical average of children immediately prohibits simple reductionism, or minimalism as a kind of trendy superficial thing)

I've been looking for the connection between simplicity and minimalism as lifestyle practices or disciplines. They are similar in some ways. Simplicity is lack of complexity -- choosing what is closer to whole and closer to essential. Minimalism, from what I understand, as it applies to lifestyle, is avoiding needless things, and making what you have count. The two have overlaps as you can see.

It gets confusing here because as LeeAnn pointed out, minimalism is a word used for a Modern art movement, and in grammar and religion (and computer language) as well. In some of those contexts (such as in religion and language) it can have modernist connotations. For example, there is a kind of dogmatic minimalism that ignores essential differences between religious viewpoints in the name of ecumenicism.

However, minimalism as a living practice seems only incidentally related to the artistic and structural kind of minimalism. It is more to do with simple living, which seems to be a sort of reaction to the extraordinary excess and complexity of our modern times. Part of the reason even non-religious people are fascinated with St Francis of Assissi or with the Amish communities is that our culture is starved in the midst of too much. They somehow feel the way Aidan used to act when he went to the Early Intervention center -- over-stimulated and frantic, unable to sort out the input, wanting to grab and assimilate everything at once, and yet unable to be satisfied with it.

Amy said that she tries to practice simplicity both to avoid interior chaos and clutter, and to keep the poor in mind. I think these are some of the main reasons that Christians are called to live simply. When I read Dietrich von Hildebrand's chapter on True Simplicity I found that his thesis was that simplicity involves keeping our eyes, hearts and hands focused on Unum Necessarium, the One Needful Thing. When I read Father Thomas Dubay's book Happy are You Poor I found that Christians are called to live a "sparing/sharing lifestyle" which means we don't hog stuff unfairly and especially don't deprive our poorer brethren while we accumulate things and waste things.

The minimalist principle is, from what I've read online, "Omit Needless Things" -- also stated as "Make every possession count". Possessions aren't just the things that you have around your house (though that's the stage I'm at mostly right now) but what goes into your mouth and mind and heart and spirit and the time you have in the day, and even what comes out of your mouth. I suppose it could even extend to include your circle of companionship and your choice of employment. So for example you can clutter up your day's allotment of time with lots of essentially trivial "To-Do's" and you can clutter up your mind with a lot of information that doesn't make a big difference (I do this with homeschooling quite a bit). You can talk too much by speaking or typing (I have some work to do in this area!). But minimalism would be a guide away from this surplus.

So here's where I try to draw an analogy between the practices of meditation and the practices of daily living. I think it is probably OK to make a parallel because meditation and living are both ways to prepare oneself to meet God, so to speak. The New Testament reinforces many, many time that what's in our hearts and on our lips has to also be expressed by what we do. So point by point:

1. In the Heart of the Church.

We are part of a community. We are responsible for our "neighbor" which is everybody, so we should not be over-using resources or hoarding/wasting them. Read an article on Interconnectedness at Take the Poor with You.

2. Directed Towards God.

What we have and think about and do should "count" as much as possible. The way to figure this out is if it's getting us closer to God. Or is it a distraction or needless complication? I think everything good CAN bring us closer to God but as St Paul says,

"Everything is lawful for me," but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is lawful for me," but I will not let myself be dominated by anything.
This has two aspects -- the essential goodness of things as creations of God, AND the fact that not everything good is necessary in bringing me closer to God. I don't need lots of things, I only need God and what directly helps me get closer to God.

3. Personal and Individual

What's clutter in one household is useful in another. My family doesn't need a crib. Another family probably does. At one time our family needed a huge oxygen tank and lots of plastic tubing so the toddler could range around the house and still get his oxygen requirements. We don't need that anymore.

4. Doctrinal and Creedal.

Hmm, I can't quite figure out how this would apply to Catholic minimalism or simplicity except that we don't want to strip anything down to bare functionality. There are "simple" things that are yet gloriously particular and varied. A Marian altar with flowers and a candle and pictures of Our Lady with her Child is not functionally minimalist but it is simple. Plus, true doctrine points us accurately beyond materiality, beyond vague pantheism or spirituality, into the glorious Truth, Goodness and Beauty which are immensely personal.

5. Self-Denial and Ascetism

It is just a Christian fact that true Christianity involves spiritual athleticism to the level we are capable of. Not everyone is capable of the same level, and it's not necessary to do Huge Things like live on a pillar. But like I am trying to lift little 3 pound barbells 2-3 times a week with the best form I can (rather than try for 7 pounders and mess up the correct form and injure my body) we can give up little things that we are clinging to that we have made into little "hearth gods" that distract our focus. My Simple Spot linked to an article on Aspirational Clutter. I have that kind of clutter and also "wistful clutter" -- things that I hope will keep me secure or make me into a better person in some way (better homeschooler, etc)

6. Materiality

God created matter "good". Important as a checkpoint. I like the way the minimalist sites point out that it's not a race to get rid of as much as possible. Rather, they say, "everything has to count". In the Mass, the "matter" and "form" of the celebration is simple bread and wine and simple, almost domestic motions. Everything is there for a reason; everything counts.

Aquinas says that the conditions of beauty are

"integrity" or "perfection," since those things which are impaired are by the very fact ugly; due "proportion" or "harmony"; and lastly, "brightness" or "clarity," whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color.
(more explanation of these concepts here). In good art and literature everything is there for a reason -- my amateur guess at why "minimalism" in art (including architecture) and religion is related to Modernism is that it doesn't include some things that were traditionally considered important, even essential -- for example, a purely "functional" building is ugly and even in a sense heretical because it denies the importance of things of the spirit. Don't quote me on this, though -- still thinking it out!

7. Not a Power Trip

There's no "one way" to do this except out of love for God and neighbor. It's not to show off and to me this seems to imply that it's not something for just single people or rich people or people in the city. In some ways it's a process or discipline, advice and support from others may be helpful but there are no "masters" except Christ and those who followed Him in an exemplary way through history. Its essence is interior simplicity.

I just recently read a book by a member of "Overeaters Anonymous". He said that our outward trappings, the things we CHOOSE to have around us, reflect our interior dispositions and this has truth in it. Someone whose house is "cluttered" because of a child with complex medical needs or because she has welcome a bereaved father in law into her house and he brought a lot of his "stuff" with him can still have an interior heart of glorious simplicity.

On the other hand, someone could have an uncluttered "simple" lifestyle because one is selfish and proud -- one doesn't want to be bothered or wants to feel superior to the unenlightened. So again, it's not a technique or "knowledge" so much as just focusing on the things that count and over time losing the things that don't count so much.

So in case you missed it in all these words I don't see why large Catholic families can't practice simplicity, even radical simplicity, though it might "look" different than secular minimalism because it takes into account values that are less important to some secular people, like the beauty of cooperating in the creation of new eternal souls, and the community aspect of learning to deal with the small community of a family all with different needs and interests and on different stages of their "journey".

I am relieved that I got this written out and that it's still only 9:30 in the morning and the kids are all fairly happily playing on their first day of summer vacation! (though I did get up many times during the course of writing this to do various little domestic things!)


  1. Interesting ponderables, Willa. Gratitude is an essential element to Christian simplicity, I think. Somehow it helps to remember our own place in the "chain of custody" of things. They came from God, they go to God, and so do we. Y'know?

    One really helpful maxim that gets me away from an unhealthy hatred or despising of things (which are, after all, gifts from God) is the idea that nothing should remain in my house that is not EITHER "useful" OR "beautiful." In other words, beauty itself is a value - not just modern notions of pragmatic materialism, nor nonChristian notions of the evil of the material world.

    Verrry interesting ... you've got me thinking.

  2. Brilliant. Fascinating. Thank you so much.

  3. Aspirational clutter! I had never thought of it that way, but I have a ton of it. Much of it books :(.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!