As I was browsing my Facebook feed recently, I came across a post that struck me: it was of a close friend of mine posing with two guys called “The Minimalists.” Curious, I checked out their website and began reading some of their articles to get a better feel for their definition of minimalism. It is a concept about which I had heard through the years and is now gaining momentum among the Gen Xers and Millennials for its appeal to the “less is more” cliché.
According to pop culture, minimalism is a specific lifestyle based on the mentality of detachment from material possessions and subsequently the pursuit of personal happiness and freedom. The Minimalists claim that the goal is searching for happiness “not through things, but through life itself.”[i] Those who follow this movement assert that it isn’t so much about living with fewer things but rather the philosophy behind the lifestyle; in other words, it doesn’t mean much to just declutter or purge every now and then with a garage sale. Instead, a true minimalist must establish a type of intentionality to what s/he owns and why.
Pondering this, I wondered why this movement attracts so many people, but it occurred to me rather quickly that it’s not necessarily minimalism that many seek; it’s the virtue of simplicity and perhaps even evangelical poverty. Digging deeper into the Minimalist ethos, I realized that – much like other secular ideas and fads – it’s not so much that calling oneself a Minimalist is bad. It’s that it’s incomplete.
Of the Minimalists who blog and whom I’ve read in order to delve more deeply into this topic, I realize that their ultimate end is for personal happiness and freedom. Naturally, these are not inherently bad desires. The problem is that they are not ultimately rooted in the spiritual depth that the virtue of simplicity and, for some, evangelical poverty offers.
If I am seeking happiness, financial freedom, and detachment from any sort of oppressive bond to my “stuff,” but it all ends there, what am I truly accomplishing? Will there come a time in my life when I realize I still feel empty in the recesses of my soul? I believe my heart would still languish if my motivation behind such living was not of a higher, supernatural origin, namely God.
The virtue of simplicity, much like Minimalism, is that we endeavor towards detachment from materialism and the consumerist mindset of our culture. However, simplicity – as a virtue – would have us move beyond this reprioritizing of our things. Simplicity asks more of us. It beckons us toward charity.
If I am ridding my life of things I don’t use, need, or really even want and am simultaneously offering this to God in the form of prayer, I will necessarily have more room in my heart for the highest goal of all: love. Through Christian charity, I am asking God how I can be a witness to others, how I can go forth in my life to become more generous with the extra time, space, and money I have.
Minimalism tells me to pursue my own version of happiness, whatever that may be. Simplicity asks me to pursue God’s designs for my life rather than my own. When true detachment from worldly things becomes a significant and constant aspect of my intentional living, it does not end with me. Rather, it allows God to create more space in my heart for Him to move in and through me, to touch other people’s lives.
I think that’s why the vow of poverty in religious communities can be so attractive and yet repulsive to many people. It’s because we are drawn to those who are genuinely free within, because they do not possess material wealth and, as a result, possess God more fully. At the same time, we wonder how anyone could voluntarily relinquish their cell phones, access to the Internet, plethora of books, car, and home. Yet we see, time and again, that this renunciation is motivated by a truly generous spirit, an unabashed longing to love God.
Many women religious explain that they are able to more fully live out their other vow of obedience to their superiors because of the virtue of poverty. Without owning much more than clothing and perhaps a few books, they have the freedom to go on missions, move to a new convent or start an apostolate. They are not bound by their possessions, and because of this, they are willing to freely give everything to God.
Maybe that’s why Minimalism is so enticing: people long for more than the fleeting pleasures that possessions offer them, yet they are not quite on the cusp of recognizing that their truest, deepest thirst is for giving all to God. That’s where I see the biggest difference between secularism and virtue in this case. In the former, people erroneously believe the highest end in life is personal happiness and freedom; in the latter, people sagaciously accept the contradiction that owning less and living in a spirit of detachment draws them nearer to God so that He may be their only possession.
There is, indeed, good in many modern movements, including Minimalism, but they lack the one component necessary, the only aspect that would offer complete and lasting happiness. Their philosophies are often repackaged from ancient Stoics (in this case), yet they neglect to acknowledge the supreme aim for all should be heaven, not earth. The notion of living with less falls short when it is not coupled with the question, “What more can I do for You, God, now that I have less in my life to distract me?”
That’s why, as Catholics, our aim must always be on the “something more” rather than on earthly contentment. That something more is living for God rather than for ourselves. It is seeking His will above our own. It is asking of Him what He wants us to rid of, detach from, and in the end, replace with a greater generosity in giving of ourselves for His work in loving others.
Holiness does not always include earthly happiness, but in our emptiness offered to God with sincerity of intention to please Him, He will fill us with the greatest treasure of all: His Heart.
[i] Retrieved June 25, 2017 from http://www.theminimalists.com/minimalism/