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Why aren’t all these “holy things” making me holy?

CATHOLIC OBJECTS
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What it might mean when you are hoarding icons and statues but not praying.

Submit all questions to @askkatrina@aleteia.org

Dear Katrina,

Is it possible to be too materialistic about holy things? I am not a great pray-er, but I constantly find myself buying things on the internet: icons, rosaries, a statue for my back garden. My house is full of holy things but my spirit feels like it’s empty.

EEM

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Dear EEM,

The way I read your letter, your issue seems to be less about materialism and more about struggling with a spiritual life that’s empty and unfulfilling. It’s so much easier to buy spiritual stuff then it is to do spiritual stuff.  I understand completely.   

Let me share with you an anecdote from my own life.  

Whenever I start a new project the very first thing I do is figure out what I need for that project and start organizing. When I need to write for work, I overdose on office catalogs. Pens! Paperclips! Notebooks and planners, what bliss!

When I need to organize at home, it’s the same. Recently I decided to tackle the disarray of my linen closet; I spent three whole hours on Pinterest looking at “Closet Organization Ideas” and another two hours planning how to execute my new project. I made lists and spent an entire  Saturday afternoon skipping through the aisle of the Container Store like Belle in the library of the Beast.  

After all that “organizing,” my linen closet is still a dark abyss where things that get put in there are never seen again. It’s the closet where things go to die.

I said I love organizing. I never said I was actually an organized person.

It could be argued that I use planners and supplies as a pretense to having any legitimate organization in my life, or that my love of sheet dividers and containers is a true expression of my deep-seated desire to eventually become a more organized individual.

The first steps toward betterment in any area of our lives usually do start with a sort of naive yet genuinely earnest enthusiasm. We have to start somewhere, even if it’s just by surrounding ourselves with the tools we haven’t quite learned how to use yet.

The goal, though, is to actually stick with it and learn how to use those tools, not hide behind them. I can’t make my life straight by buying another ruler, and you cannot create a spiritual interior life purely through external efforts.    

There is absolutely nothing wrong with creating a spiritual oasis in your home and being surrounded by religious icons and imagery; it is the first step in cultivating an inner spiritual life. You recognize the need, and respond by buying icons and other religious items for your home. But now it’s time to move forward and use those holy things to grow in holiness.  

Don’t continue to buy things with that hope that owning them will make you a more spiritual person. Owning a hundred statues and hoarding icons isn’t going to make you a better prayer-er. No one is good pray-er without practice. Even the saints struggled with spiritual emptiness.

I love Catholic kitsch as much as the next person, but there is truth to having too much of a good thing. Too many religious items can become overwhelming. So, here is my suggestion: Try picking a few items that call out to you the most — just one or two (or three, in honor of the Holy Trinity) — and use those to make a small home altar, and store the rest away for later. Perhaps you might have a crucifix, an icon of Our Lady, and a book of Catholic prayers, or a rosary. Make a commitment to yourself to five minutes of prayer at your altar in the morning and evening. Just start there. Maybe include a candle to light before you pray and to snuff out after prayer, to give this action a true sense of ritual.

This is the way to begin.  

I must add that in my opinion, the best cure for spiritual ills is attending Mass and regular time spent in Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. Make an effort to attend a weekday Mass if one is nearby, or squeeze in some time for regular Eucharistic Adoration. A good prayer life, like faith itself, is a gift. Time spent with the Eucharistic Lord, in request of this gift, will never go unrewarded.