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Why and how to make this Lent a season of “death-cleaning”

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Mercy McNab | Aleteia
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Very few of us are so radical, but we want to be more radical than we are.

Your kids don’t want your stuff. Probably no one wants your stuff. When you’re gone, it won’t be worth much more than old newspapers or plastic CD cases — the library you carefully created over the years, that lovely Victorian table you found at the yard sale, your mother’s china that’s marked birthdays and holidays since you were little, the cross-stitched message your grandmother spent days making for your wedding with her arthritic hands.

It’s a painful thought. Such things mark our lives and keep our memories alive. I wanted my children to use my books as I’ve used them, but they’re not me and have other things to do with their lives. I’d like one of them to take my grandmother’s cross-stitch, but they barely knew her. You can’t take it with you, and that’s easy to accept, but you also can’t pass it on, and that’s harder to accept.

But here, conveniently, comes Lent. We can get something out of this loss, a Lenten discipline that nicely combines fasting and alms-giving and can easily be tied to prayer.

Death-cleaning

A few months ago, Forbes magazine described this “hard truth.” The head of something called the National Association of Senior Move Managers explained: “This is an IKEA and Target generation. They live minimally, much more so than the boomers. They don’t have the emotional connection to things that earlier generations did. And they’re more mobile. So they don’t want a lot of heavy stuff dragging down a move across country for a new opportunity.”

It’s not just younger people. I don’t want more stuff either. My sister inherited all my parents’ things and when she died, I didn’t want it. My mother’s taste in furniture isn’t mine (boy is it not mine). We don’t want bulky end-tables. We’ve got dishes and pots and beds. We took a few things we could use, like the microwave, and just a few things we wanted as memories, like some watercolors my mother liked. We took a few things that were both, like my dad’s tools.

But gosh, no, I didn’t want all that stuff to add to all the stuff we already have. I want to get rid of things. Apparently people in their fifties and sixties instinctively start de-cluttering and downsizing. We strip-down our lives. We want to travel light now. We don’t want to carry too much through the years we have left. The Swedes call this feeling dostadning or “death-cleaning.” It’s now a small industry complete with gurus and self-help books.

Think about “death-cleaning.” What is Lent but a death-cleaning? You know that you will die, that you are dust and to dust you will definitely return, and not that long from now. You strip down your life a little, work at breaking the hold the world and its things have on you. You try (with God’s and the Church’s help) to make yourself a little freer to love God and man.

We want to do — partly, at least — what Jesus asked the rich young ruler to do. “If you want to be perfect,” He said, “go home and sell all you have. Give the money to the poor so that you will have treasure in Heaven. Then come back and follow me.” Very few of us are so radical, but we want to be more radical than we are.

Something to do in Lent

As Jesus showed in the simple order he gave the earnest young man, we do that by doing it. I have a suggestion. Make Lent an intentional death-cleaning in the Swedish as well as the religious sense. Give away one thing each week. One thing you value but don’t need. One thing you want to keep. For this purpose, don’t choose things that let you think, “Oh yeah, this can go.” Choose things you don’t feel like giving away.

Most things you can just give to a thrift store or to people you know. If you have something you can sell, give the money to a charity. You fast and you give alms at the same time. There’s an appealing efficiency to that. And whatever feelings of loss you have, those can send you to pray for those who always feel that loss and for better reasons.

For me, this means books. They are my tools, as necessary for me as a carpenter’s hammers and saws are to him. But I have more tools than I need. The idea that I’m a writer and I need books has let me justify building an unnecessarily large library. I look at my shelves with the same feeling Gollum had for his precious. So off to St. Vincent de Paul and the wonderful sisters at Sacred Heart a box a week shall go.

You will have other things to give away, other ways of stripping down your lives in response to Jesus’s invitation. Make Lent the season of death-cleaning. Which is to say, make Lent the season of learning a little better how to live.

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