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What Christians can learn from minimalists


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Fr. Patrick Briscoe, OP - published on 07/10/21

In itself, the philosophy does not suffice, but it is a marvelous instrument for believers.

The German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), commonly called Mies, is widely regarded as a pioneer of modern architecture. The last director of the Staatliches Bauhaus, Mies designed buildings with minimal structural framework in order to evoke the freedom implied by unobstructed space. He was famous for using the aphorisms “God is in the details” and “less is more.”

The latter saying, “less is more,” inspired the title of a 2021 Netflix documentary, The Minimalists: Less is Now. The title conveys the urgency of the film. Today’s average Americans are drowning in the flood of consumerism. The tide must be stemmed, not someday, not in the next few years … rather we must simplify today, now.

With religious echoes, the documentary tells the story of the founders of a movement, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. Childhood friends, Millburn and Nicodemus, the two men suffered in childhood in “dysfunctional divorced families.” 

As adults, they felt trapped by the shallow promise of the American dream. They describe their discontent saying, “Nearly a decade ago, while approaching age 30, we had achieved everything that was supposed to make us happy: six-figure careers, luxury cars, oversized houses, and all the stuff to clutter every corner of our consumer-driven lives.” Nicodemus tried to quell the storms of his heart through drugs and alcohol. Millburn’s first marriage ended in divorce. Disenchanted with the promises of success and happiness proffered by corporate ladder-climbing, both men found themselves looking for more.

So what did they find? What took them out of the rat race and helped them discover meaning? Where did they discover a sense of peace and happiness in life? “Minimalism,” explains Millburn, “is the thing that gets us past the things so we can make room for life’s most important things—which actually aren’t things at all.” Jettisoning their possessions, pairing down everything they own (even getting rid of TV!), they found they were able to take back control of life, to make time for themselves and what they loved. By decluttering their homes of material things, they opened their lives for what was important to them.

“Minimalism,” explains Millburn, “is the thing that gets us past the things so we can make room for life’s most important things—which actually aren’t things at all.”

Millburn and and Nicodemus didn’t have a religious conversion. Nothing they talk about is explicitly faith-based. They declare, “Our journeys toward simplicity, however, had nothing to do with religion; instead, it was a reaction to the discontentment we experienced after being steeped in consumerism for three decades.”

And yet their claims concerning materialism have deep resonance with the Gospel. Without too much hemming or hawing, adopting the minimalist principle and putting it at the service of Christian living is a bit like the way the Medievals used Greek philosophy to sharpen their theological reflection. In itself, the philosophy does not suffice, but it is a marvelous instrument for believers.

Scripture tells us that Christ instructed the disciples “to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick— no food, no sack, no money in their belts. They were, however, to wear sandals but not a second tunic” (Mark 6:8-9). Minimalism is given as an apostolic principle, the kind of thing that makes it possible for believers to undertake the work that Christ entrusted to them.

Freedom from material things alone is not the end game, however. This is what is so powerful about the minimalists’ claim. They say, “True, removing the excess is an important part of the recipe—but it’s just one ingredient. If we’re concerned solely with the stuff, we’re missing the larger point.” The purpose of decluttering, the reason to dispossess, is to be free for the more meaningful things.

Stuff takes time and energy. Consumerism is a kind of slavery, a devotion to the curation of accurtrement. The Venerable Bede says,

For such should be the preacher’s trust in God, that, though he takes no thought for supplying his own wants in this present world, yet he should feel most certain that these will not be left unsatisfied, lest whilst his mind is taken up with temporal things, he should provide less of eternal things to others.

So often we surround ourselves with things as a kind of preventative step. We’re acting out of fear, trying to preserve, insulate, or control. And in so doing we don’t really find freedom, we tie ourselves in knots, binding our hearts to things.

What if today we were to all donate several pieces of gently used clothing to the poor? What if we were to throw out an unnecessary phone charger or to recycle the bits of paper that have their way of taking up residence in our desk drawers? What if instead of ordering out, we ate something from the back of the pantry? 

For the Christian, minimalism is not merely one path, it is the path. If we’re clinging to other things, instead of freeing ourselves for the work of Christ, we’ve not been converted at all. If we’re living by the measures of this world, then we’re ignoring the dictates, the demands of Jesus’ Gospel. 

The Church Fathers found much significance in the list of things the Lord mentions to abandon. Food signifies temporal delights and money in the purse, the hiding (neglect) of wisdom. But perhaps greater significance is to be found in the things they kept. The staff symbolizes the power of God, true authority given to the disciples. Sandals show that the Gospel cannot be hid from (as if in a shoe) nor rest upon (unlike when barefoot) worldly concerns. So too we ought to think about the things we continue to carry. What are they for? Do they weigh us down? Are they genuinely put in the service of Christ?

There is happiness indeed to be had in this life. It won’t be perfect happiness until the next, but it is true happiness. We’ll never find or embrace it though, insofar as we allow our lives to be filled with other things instead.

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