Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures. (Laudato Sí 222)
I have never been what most would consider a “tidy” person. When the time came for household chores, there was always something more important to do. My approach to home organization was similar: save as much time as possible by throwing things wherever they could go, and then move on with life. I did, however, purchase Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up four years ago. Honestly, I think I bought it just to reach a cart minimum on Prime Now and get a fee taken off, and because I heard buzz about it. Not exactly the best reasons.
In her work, Kondo advocates for a thorough and intense tidying process called the KonMari method. Through it, you clean your home by category as you dump everything into a pile, hold each item one at a time, and decide whether or not it "sparks joy." Things that do not spark joy get a thank you for the role they played in your life, and then are sent off with a joyous celebration.
At first, I skimmed through half of the book and put it on my shelf for good after reading her description of the peace her clients feel after tidying:
"When you've finished putting your house in order, your life with change dramatically. Once you have experienced what it's like to have a truly ordered house, you'll feel your whole world brighten. Never again will you revert to clutter" (Kondo 7).
I remained unconvinced. After all, I frequently gave away stuff I didn't need (granted, after six months of toting it around in my car) and I couldn't believe that dumping all of your clothes into a pile was necessary or would make a real impact on inner peace. Also, I was lazy and felt that I didn't have enough time or energy to waste.
However, I changed my mind when I (like many others) binge-watched Tidying Up on Netflix. Actually seeing the difference on clients' faces convinced me that there must be something to this “tidying up.” Six months before watching Tidying Up, I downsized from a two-bedroom to a studio apartment and gave away over fifteen boxes of things I didn't need. How much more unnecessary stuff could I even have?
It turned out that, although I purged myself of a lot, I did not undergo the emotional confrontation required by the KonMari method. When I at last embraced KonMari, it turned out to be a profound, spiritual experience - one that resonated with the spirituality of Pope Francis as expressed in Laudato Sí.
Here are five ways that “tidying up” surprised me and improved my relationship with God:
1. It helped me live in the present moment.
"When we really delve into the reasons for why we can't let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future" (Kondo 181).
Marie Kondo doesn't ask you to throw away mementos if they still bring you joy. However, I never considered how much I held onto because I hadn't fully come to terms with relationships that ended, or good times that I would never relive. While my conscious mind thought I held onto a cute bird decoration that I guy I liked gave me just because it was cute, subconsciously it was really because part of me didn't want to acknowledge that we would never again be as close as we once were. I had to acknowledge that the relationship ending wasn't a failure, but rather that the relationship ran its natural course. Processing my things and letting them go helped me to process unresolved issues from the past that held me back.
I never considered how much I held onto because I hadn't fully come to terms with relationships that ended, or good times that I would never relive.
Similarly, I found myself confronting anxiety when I would think about the things I kept because of remote possibilities of something happening in the future. This got in the way of my ability to trust God, as I instead believed somehow that things, not God, would save me in the future.
Marie Kondo points out that when we find ourselves either stuck in the past or fearful of the future, it makes it hard to figure out what we are looking for in the present. I would go one step further and say that it makes it harder to hear what God is saying to us in the present. As Pope Francis articulates in Laudato Sí,
"A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment" (222).
Eliminating things that kept me in the past or made me fixate on the future helped me reflect on the kind of life God wants for me now, and it gave me the momentum to accomplish things that would lead to that life, with full trust that He will take care of me. The result was liberating. As Kondo tells us, "Life becomes far easier once you know that things will still work out even if you are lacking something" (187).
2. It helped me reorder my relationship to things and to God.
"People have trouble discarding what they could still use (functional value), that contain helpful information (informational value), and that have sentimental ties (emotional value). When these things are hard to obtain or replace (rarity), they become even harder to part with" (Kondo 45).
While Marie Kondo is often accused of being a minimalist, her method is more about keeping only the things that you treasure and that serve a clear purpose in your life. When I honestly asked myself why I was holding onto things and what purpose they served, I realized that I often relied on material objects more than on God for emotional fulfillment. For instance, I didn't need to hold onto a pillow handmade by my best friend in high school in order to remember the friendship that came from it. Similarly, it wasn't necessary to hold onto notes from a seminar that I knew I would never read again because they made me seem more intellectual. I also didn’t need a French press that I never used because it made me feel sophisticated.
When I honestly asked myself why I was holding onto things . . . I realized that I often relied on material objects more than on God for emotional fulfillment.
Ultimately, my happiness, identity, trust for the future, feelings of adequacy, and knowledge that I am loved must be rooted in God, not things or other people. It brought to mind a quote from Laudato Sí: “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume” (204).
3. It helped me cultivate gratitude.
"One of the homework assignments I give my clients is to appreciate their belongings. For example, I urge them to try saying, ‘Thank you for keeping me warm all day,’ when they hang up their clothes after returning home" (Kondo 168).
One aspect of the KonMari method that often strikes Americans as strange is the insistence on talking to your inanimate objects and thanking them for their service. However, it isn't a far leap from this to turning our focus to God as the Creator and Giver of all things, and thanking Him for the opportunities that allowed these things to come into our lives. This made me realize how infrequently I thank God for my relationships and successes, let alone for keeping me alive and giving me shelter and food. Each object we own provides a reason to be grateful, whether it’s for the people who made it, the materials it's made of, the money that allowed me to buy it, or the relationship with the person who gave it. This emphasis on gratitude evokes Pope Francis' exhortation to return to the custom of blessing meals:
"That moment of blessing, however brief, reminds us of our dependence on God for life; it strengthens our feeling of gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who by their labours provide us with these goods; and it reaffirms our solidarity with those in greatest need" (Laudato Sí 227).
There is much to be grateful for, include the fact that I am blessed with more than I need and that my belongings can go on to be a blessing to someone else.
4. It made me more sensitive to the workings of the Holy Spirit.
At first, the idea of holding a spatula and asking, "Does this spark joy?" seemed ridiculous. However, as I worked through my possessions and focused on what I wanted to keep, rather than what I could get rid of, I realized that I had become numb to the feeling of joy in my daily life. Dealing with traffic, errands, to-do lists, and the other necessary trappings of modern urban life had deadened me, and I started to ask myself when the last time was that I really tried to cultivate joy. I knew the fruits of the Holy Spirit, but up until now, I kind of assumed the Holy Spirit would just do His thing within me and that I could pray for those fruits if I really wanted to. But, I hadn't thought about how I could change my lifestyle in order to let those fruits flourish.
[A]s I worked through my possessions and focused on what I wanted to keep, rather than what I could get rid of, I realized that I had become numb to the feeling of joy in my daily life.
After going through my clothes, for example, I realized that I held onto articles of clothing that weren't comfortable or didn't fit well, that weren't really my style, or that would only be worn on purely theoretical occasions. When I looked at them, my first thought was, "ugh." After clearing out the "ugh" category, I instantly felt freer, less annoyed, and more joyful. I was also surprised by the enormous amount of mental peace that resulted from organized drawers and knowing exactly where everything is. The "ugh" of unwanted things and the chaos of clutter drowned out so many positive emotions because they caused the opposite of the fruits of the Spirit: anxiety, frustration, annoyance, impatience, and even sadness.
I realized that something similar happened in my life, more generally. Having a space where I felt joy no matter where my eyes landed helped me realize how much I dwell on the negatives of life, rather than work to create more positives. While I can't eliminate all of the "ugh" in life, I can choose to not focus on it so much and instead concentrate on doing the things that leave room for the Holy Spirit to work.
5. It made me more conscientious about future consumption.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, everything that I owned fit into my Kia Rio. Today, seven years and multiple purges later, I still somehow filled four car-fuls of stuff to give away. This sobering confrontation with my consumption, and the resulting eventual effects on landfills, shocked me into a deep consideration of what and how I will purchase things in the future. Being surrounded only by things I love inspires me to only purchase things that spark the same joy, which are more likely to be skillfully made by someone receiving a just wage and using high-quality materials. While I still think about buying cheap things, I now take more time to consider whether I really want or need them, and whether they are worth buying in the long term.
The “tidying up” process took me from a skeptic to a believer. Having lived in a tidy space for a few weeks, I can say without fear of overstatement that I have been profoundly changed for the better. I look forward to the peace and joy of returning home each day, and find that I do have extra time and energy for the things I once thought were tedious and superfluous. Now, I make my bed, tackle procrastination, and make more of an effort to take care of myself. Most of all, I enjoy a greater dialogue with God about who He created me to be and His will for my life, and an inner peace that enhances my ability to listen. Though painful at times, I can say that the process of tidying up was unquestionably worth it.