The Quiet Grace of Too Many Things
Minimalism is having a moment. Marie Kondo’s bestselling book and accompanying Netflix series The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Gretchen Rubin’s Outer Order, Inner Calm , and the absolute deluge of blog posts and articles about building a “capsule wardrobe” all promise that the one thing missing in our lives is, well, less. We have too much stuff, and consequently not enough time or mental and emotional energy.
There is something about this that I find appealing, and even parts that I put into practice. I purge our home of unnecessary clutter regularly. I make my husband crazy by throwing away things like cell phone chargers (how many do you really need?), instruction manuals (they’re all online), and any sort of branded promotional item (seriously, anyone who wants a beer koozie already has one). I have an allergy to any sort of knick-knack whose only function is to sit around and make me feel guilty about not dusting. One of the many things I love about being a priest is that I get to wear the same black shirt everyday—my own capsule wardrobe! And I do find that when “stuff” gets on top of me I start to feel frazzled in my own home.
But I also wonder if the internet’s minimalist militia doth protest too much. How much of the movement is really about paring down to the essentials, and how much of it is about having the right aesthetic for Instagram? What is going to happen when we’re all tired of white walls and natural wood and potted plants? Why does having a curated capsule wardrobe always seem to require more shopping? Does having fewer things really have the power to make you happier?
My friend Louis doesn’t think so. Louis is a wonderful and godly man and priest, and he is possibly the least minimalist person in existence. As a lifelong bachelor with rich tastes and a job that allowed him to travel, Louis spent the past 70 years of his life collecting, and then surrounding himself, with art, music, and other beautiful things. The first time I visited Louis—after he’d been forced to downsize by a move from a large house to a small apartment—a friend and I spent hours helping him arrange the art he’d brought with him, so that every inch of wall space (including the space above the light switches and the narrow gaps above doorways) was covered in paintings, sketches, and photographs he had collected over many years.
His tiny apartment was crammed with overlarge furniture. A beautifully carved dresser stood in the living room, where it was stuffed full of tea sets, crystal salt cellars, cocktail glasses, damask napkins, antique snuff boxes, and ceramic coasters. The top of it was littered with photographs and iconography. Visitors sitting in the squashy, wingback arm chairs in his living room found themselves so close together that their knees nearly bumped. Despite getting rid of much of his enormous collection of books he still had shelves and shelves full. Every time I’d visit him new little piles of books had appeared under end tables, stacked on the desk, and stashed behind chairs. He always said he had more to read than he could possibly get to, and he always promised to stop buying more books, but the piles kept getting bigger.
Louis is no minimalist, and yet he has possibly a less cluttered mind, and more emotional energy, than anyone else I’ve ever met. The things filling up Louis’ apartment didn’t distract or drain him, they fed him. Sitting in the oversized chairs, drinking coffee and eating Pepperidge Farm cookies, Louis could tell you every story of every piece of art in his house. He remembered where each piece had come from and why he loved it. He knew the name of every person in every photograph—where they are now and when their lives had intersected, how they had died and where they were buried. He could find a volume of R.S. Thomas’ poetry under a stack of year old magazines (it is possible that not all his clutter was created equal).
Recently, Louis’ health required him to move again, and to downsize even further. Nearly all of his belongings were boxed and taken away, either to be stored by a friend who, like me, would rather die than see Louis’ beautiful things thrown out, or given away to his friends and admirers. A handful of things, including four paintings I’ve always loved, and a box or two of books, made their way into my otherwise sparse apartment.
The last time I visited with Louis I went with him to his old apartment to box up the last of his things. As we got down to the real nitty gritty—that last 20% of stuff in every move that doesn’t seem to have a proper home—I found my self stashing away things I’d never wanted or noticed before. A fleur-de-lis coaster, four chipped demitasses and saucers, an icon of St. Gregory and St. Augustine, a ceramic tea light holder, an encyclopedia of French cheese. These were things that in any other context I would consider meaningless clutter, things to dust around and shuffle and find place for. But this clutter was suddenly the most precious thing in the world to me. I didn’t worry about how I’d get it all back to Kentucky, I didn’t worry about where I’d put it, I just needed to hang onto these tokens, because they were things that Louis loved.
A minimalist blogger might say that I am trying to cling to a memory though hoarding sentimental objects. Marie Kondo might tell me to take a picture of them, to thank them for their service, to cherish the memories with Louis and to let the items go. Maybe the minimalists are right, but maybe not. Humans, after all, need clutter. We live in skin and bones, and we put those bones into houses. We need blankets and food and toys for our children and places to put our tea. Clutter is the sign that we are alive.
The tragedy of being alive is that it doesn’t last. If we’re lucky, our bodies break down over time and we die in old age. Too many die prematurely through violence or sickness. Always we dies for the same reason, something happens to our fragile, fleshy bodies to stop heart and lung. It is true that no amount of material goods will prevent our demise. Our treasures will outlive us, and then someday they will go away too. And so, we should not store up treasure for ourselves on earth where, moth and rust destroy. Or, at least, we shouldn’t count on our stores to save us.
But here’s the thing: decluttering won’t save our lives either. The desire to free ourselves from our belongings strikes me as just a bit Gnostic as though the minimalist internet is a book of secret wisdom that, to those who are able to read and understand, will free you from the pain and mess of being a human who lives in a body.
There is a quiet sort of sacramentality in living like Louis. Louis loved his things not because of the things themselves, but because they were beautiful, and that beauty connected him to the beautiful times, places, and people that he loved. I put the things I saved from Louis’ house in my study, cluttering the tops of bookshelves which are already nearing capacity, where I will inevitably forget to dust around them. But now when I see them, I am no longer just puttering around my office, but somehow—as in a mystery—I am back in Louis’ apartment surrounded by the signs of a life that craved the beauty that spills over from the very heart of God.
And how could it be otherwise? The Son of Man may have had no place to lay his head, but even he had clutter; a towel to wipe his disciples feet, sandals to protect his own, a tunic woven in one piece, a cup of wine and a loaf of bread. He is the one who cluttered up the cosmos with beautiful things—with sun and moon and stars—until there was not an inch left of empty space. He loved the clutter of this life, of this earth, enough to die for it and to rise for it. He isn’t going to free us from the mess of this life, he is going to give it all back to us, healed, restored, and renewed.
When I thanked Louis for the paintings I told him I was glad to have them, because I don’t have a lot of art in my home. “Don’t be in too big a hurry,” he told me “You’ve a whole life to collect beautiful things.” May it be so.