Cleaning Out the Junk

Editor’s Note: Paula Huston is one of the best contemporary writers on spirituality.  Her new book, Simplifying the Soul (Ave Maria Press) provides a daily meditation and small but significant ascetic practice for each day of Lent.  We think it will become a classic and be used for years to come.  If you are looking for a guide through Lent, this is it.  CE will be running an excerpt from the book each week during Lent.

*****Simplifying the Soul

The desert dwellers used the image of a muddy pond or dirty mirror to describe a mind cluttered by distraction. They believed that what we cling to says a lot about the state of our souls. Their beliefs were rooted in Jesus’ injunctions to stay focused on the one true thing—the pearl of great price, the treasure in the field.

Ash Wednesday: Clear Out a Junk Drawer or Closet

Abbot Pastor said: If you have a chest full of clothing, and leave it for a long time, the clothing will rot inside it. It is the same with the thoughts in our heart. If we do not carry them out by physical action, after awhile, they will spoil and turn bad.


Recently, we moved from our rambling old place to a new one in the back of our property. We call the new place Acorn House. The two living spaces, one showing its scars and the other still smelling like lumber and fresh paint, sit 317 feet apart; they are connected by a trail that meanders through the pines and—in springtime—heaps of blue lupine.

We have been on these four acres for twenty-five years. Acorn House is meant to shelter us through the next quarter century while our grandchildren, we hope, grow up as our children did: in the big battered house on the hill.

In this new little home, built for two, there are more windows than walls. A spectacular view gives us a sense of space we really don’t have. Though there’s a second bedroom and bath upstairs, we’re committed to living on the first floor only, saving the upstairs for guests or someday a caregiver.

Our goal in building the house this way was twofold: we were looking for a way to live more simply but also more contemplatively—that is, more deeply connected to God.

In this case, our connection to God was strengthened by the peaceful beauty of nature. And so our life of twenty-five years has been shrink-wrapped into 925 square feet that includes a single bedroom closet, a few cupboards and drawers in the kitchen, and a slender pantry, lined with shelves.

In a house this size, there’s no leftover space for a random junk drawer. Yet we had plenty of them in the old place—crannies stuffed with unrelated items, some of them beginnings: easily tossed but others evocative of life phases weathered and nearly forgotten. What were we to do with these stashes when it was time to move?

My husband’s initial response was to pull his favorite junk drawer from a nightstand we were leaving behind and carry it through the woods to the new house where it sat on the floor beside the bed for several weeks. Though I was sorely tempted to cart it away, I instead decided to wait for Mike to surrender to our new reality; the days of heedless squirreling were over. Everything we carried on into the future had to be essential. Eventually, he accepted this fact.

Paula Huston

Paula Huston

One day, the drawer disappeared.

The great third- and fourth-century flight made by thousands of Christians into the Egyptian and Syrian deserts stemmed in part from a similar impulse: to strip, to cull, and to give away or eliminate anything that might tie one to the past. The Desert Fathers and Mothers were on a quest for purity of heart, and they understood that physical items are never just themselves but rather symbols and reminders of the life we must, however reluctantly, be willing to relinquish if we are ever to change.

Mary Margaret Funk points out that the narrow way Jesus describes in the gospels involves a fourfold renunciation, the first of which is giving up our former way of life. We must be willing to undergo what she calls conversatio morum, or ongoing conversion.

This process necessarily involves breaking our strong emotional ties to the familiar (and comfortable) past and turning our faces, with however much trepidation, toward an unknown future.

A junk drawer is the classic repository for what we are meant to leave behind. Not only does it symbolize our histories, but it also reveals the speed at which we lived through them: how did a sunflower seed wind up among the rubber bands and old corks, and this seventy-five-year-old baptismal gown stuffed into a brown paper sack?

When we clean out a junk drawer for Lent, we are in some small way dealing with the detritus of breathless hurry and our corresponding inability to focus. We are beginning to tear through the sticky web that binds us to our past: not only to the fine and happy times, the poignant seasons of growth and change, but also to the tears we once shed, the idols we once worshipped, the myths we once believed, and the lies we once told ourselves.


On this first day of Lent, spend some time going through a favorite stash, asking yourself what these items represent. Many of them will no doubt qualify as genuine junk, things that were simply stuck away instead of being carried out to the trash. Others might be useful, except for the fact that they are never used; these are easily bequeathed to someone else. If you come across something you cannot yet bear to part with, don’t struggle with yourself too long. Instead, pack it in a box, label it, and seal it up; then store it in an beginnings:  attic or the garage rafters for a few years, remembering that, if you leave it there too long, someone else will have to deal with it. Meanwhile, pray for liberation from these ultimately ephemeral reminders of the past.

Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock (Mt 7:24).


Used by permission of Paula Huston and Ave Maria Press.  Copyright 2011.  No use of this material may be made without permission from the publisher.

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