In his brilliant Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman writes eloquently of the power of the Catholic Church to assimilate non-Christian, and even heretical, beliefs into her own Tradition. He writes about the Church as being able to stand firm among various philosophies, dogmas, and cultures as one who hears, contemplates, and acts:
Claiming to herself what they said rightly, correcting their errors, supplying their defects, completing their beginnings, expanding their surmises, and thus gradually by means of them enlarging the range and refining the sense of her own teaching. So far then from her creed being of doubtful credit because it resembles foreign theologies, we even hold that one special way in which Providence has imparted divine knowledge to us has been by enabling her to draw and collect it together out of the world, and, in this sense, as in others, to “suck the milk of the Gentiles and to suck the breast of kings.”
As we strive to follow his sage advice, Catholics often struggle to strike the delicate balance necessary for true assimilation, which requires the successful navigation of a narrow way and the avoiding of the wide roads that lead to accommodation and syncretism. When evaluating secular trends and their validity for Catholics it is good to consider their advantages, as outlined by Newman, but also to be wary of their potential dangers.
Marie Kondo has become famous for her “KonMarie Method,” which urges its devotees to “keep only those things that speak to the heart, and discard items that no longer spark joy. Thank them for their service—then let them go.” Gratitude is the appropriate response of the person who has received and benefitted from good things, but gratitude is naturally oriented towards the giver, not the things themselves. We ought to be thankful for things, not towards things, as Kondo recommends. I presume that the person judging the capability of any given item to “spark joy” is only considering his or her own joy, and not the joy of others, as in the case of a woman whose mother burned a treasured box of family letters after watching an episode of “Tidying Up.” Some of Kondo’s strange tactics—such as greeting and introducing herself to houses—have prompted bloggers to discuss the Shinto belief system which she wrote about briefly in a 2015 discussion thread. While Kondo may not be a formal practitioner of Shinto, its influence can be seen in the way she speaks of inanimate objects using spiritual and personal language. While distancing herself to some degree from the historical beliefs of Japanese Shinto, she seems to admire their belief that “gods resided not only in natural phenomena such as the sea and the land but also in the cooking stove and even in each individual grain of rice” (from Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up).
Bestselling author Joshua Becker describes minimalism as “a lifestyle that is completely transferable no matter the situation. It is the same life on Friday evening as it is on Sunday morning.” This description strikes a Catholic in a particular way due to our liturgical remembrance of Holy Week: Friday is a day of penances commemorating the Passion, and Sunday is a day of celebration corresponding to the Resurrection. This sort of sameness endorsed by minimalism, at least in the way Mr. Becker describes it, prevents a person from journeying from Calvary to the empty tomb, or from the temptation in the desert to the wedding feast of Cana. A robust Catholic life necessitates a certain level of adaptability and preparedness, both mentally and materially. The foolish virgins were reprimanded for not procuring the necessary quantities of oil, and the unprepared wedding guests were cast out into the darkness because they lacked the proper garment reserved for such a special occasion. Perhaps these unlucky would-be guests had thrown out their garments because they were not everyday necessities, or because they did not “spark joy.”
Some Catholic authors have sought to capitalize on the phenomenon of minimalism by adapting it to Catholic beliefs and practices. While some common ground can be found between minimalism and Christian simplicity, there is still a great gulf separating this secular trend from tried and true Christian practices. The term “minimalism” itself raises red flags: the suffix “ism” is most often affixed to heresies and sects, not virtues. Minimalism, though operating under the guise of self-control and detachment, is itself a new brand of materialism in that it continues to overemphasize the role of possessions in our lives. The one who hoards and the one who purges are on different sides of the same spectrum: they are both obsessed with the things they have … or want to have, or want not to have, or want to organize in a different way. To be truly detached is to be indifferent to whether you have or have not. Authentic detachment orients a person exclusively to God’s will and his own role and responsibilities in carrying it out. In this sense, the detached person would be equally happy to have no possessions—if they are unnecessary to his vocational state—or to have many possessions if they are useful in the service of God and neighbor.
Other Catholic authors have pointed out problems with contemporary brands of minimalism, such as latent arrogance and an overreliance upon computer and internet-based technologies. Part of the satisfaction of getting rid of things comes from our sense of superiority and independence. We get rid of things because we can; we know that we have enough money and data coverage to get whatever we might want in the future. We don’t want to hold onto things for reuse because that would require us to carefully evaluate what we acquire, and to put up with it once it loses its luster. Our incessant recycling efforts and regular unloading of unwanted stuff to local charities makes us feel better about our pattern of throwing out and buying new, and it helps us make room on our well organized shelves for the next trend.
I fear that we often too eagerly try to create Catholic versions of secular things when we would do better to try creating secular versions of Catholic things. John Henry Newman believed in the dynamic capabilities of the Church which ought to transform culture, and knew that the truth, goodness, and beauty to be found in the Church ought never be mutated by the poorer culture which surrounded it. Perhaps some of the tactics of this new brand of “minimalism” can be practiced in good faith and may bear fruit in the lives of some Catholics, but thus far I haven’t been impressed, and nor am I altogether optimistic.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Young Nun in Her Cell” painted by Cesare Laurenti (1854-1937).