Driving down the highway several years ago, I passed a huge billboard advertisement for The Container Store. In case you don’t know, The Container Store is a store dedicated entirely to organizational items for home, office, and all the minutiae therein. The billboard itself cleverly alluded to the notion that just one trip to such a store would cure all of your organizational ills! Shiny bins and color-coded containers were the answer to a cluttered home! Simplicity was just a credit card swipe away! Truly, it was an orderly haven for Type A perfectionists and a beacon of hope for rest of us Type B slobs.
I passed that billboard, and for the first time, I realized it was all just a lie. As a young mom, and fledgling adult, I had fallen into the marketing trap and believed the misconception that the key to a tidy home was having a shiny, pretty container for everything. So, canvas bins and shelving units were purchased and filled, yet the corners of my home were still crammed with junk. Clearly, my lack of organizational products was not the problem; I was the problem. Buying more stuff, even pretty shiny file folders, spice racks, and whatnot, was not what my home needed. While these things are certainly helpful in many ways, what our little home needed most was massive de-cluttering. I was the one who needed to stop shopping, period. The closets and corners of my home were piled with a mishmash of baby gear, old college stuff, new wedding gifts, and lots of bargain-hunting spoils from Goodwill. So seeing that billboard was a lightening-bolt moment, and I realized there was a whole retail market dedicated to offering empty promises and making millions off of slobs like me who really didn’t know that organization was more about hard work and restraint than it was about a cart-full of products.
Perhaps we each have our own idea of what “simplicity” means. Maybe it’s a quiet life in the country, an idyllic little homestead somewhere in the hills, off the grid? Quaint vegetable gardens, free-range chickens, and lives free of smartphones and text messages. Meanwhile, though, most of us have jobs to maintain that require living in or near cities. We have families to support, and debts to pay off. Perhaps the same principles of simplicity can be applied to our own busy urban or suburban lives. Maybe it means learning to say no to the lure of excess, and the promotions that offer more money and less time with family. It probably means forgetting about “The Joneses” and making do with what you have. Maybe it means getting out of our own heads and saying “no” to ourselves—maybe the elusive “they” is not really the cause of our stress.
We should be wary of our own desires for MORE, and the demands we make on ourselves for perfection and self-gratification. Maybe we’re just stressing our own selves out in trying to keep up with outward endeavors. I know I get a little edgy when I don’t have time to sew or knit. I’m not saying it’s not okay to have hobbies, I’m just wondering out loud if perhaps I stress my own self out with thinking I have to maintain these hobbies. Maybe—just maybe—my thoughts would be a little clearer if I worked on silencing the voices that demand such extraneous expectations.
At the tail end of 2002, I visited an Orthodox monastery for the first time. My friend, my sister, and I stayed in the guest quarters. I was amazed by the peaceful surroundings and intrigued with the simple but lovely accommodations. The nuns practice hospitality to visiting pilgrims by providing clean, warm, simple rooms and graciously offering wholesome meals. There’s nothing extravagant or overly-impressive about the furnishings. And yet, it was and is still a very lovely place to be. The rooms are clean and fully functional; it’s enough to simply be on the monastery grounds, a holy place so entirely steeped in grace and prayer.
Isn’t this how our homes, our hearts, and our lives should be? Of course, those reading here are assumedly all living in the world as individuals, unmarried or married men and women, priests, laymen alike. But if we in the world are to draw inspiration from monastics, then we can apply their sense of true, Christ-like simplicity to our lives. Simplicity is not something a store can offer. It is not something we can buy. It’s not even necessarily “out there” in the countryside, although if you can pull it off, more power to you! Simplicity is what our Lord and Savior calls us to, to whatever degree we are able. To live out simplicity, I believe, is to exercise restraint and to take care of that which we’ve been entrusted with. It means practicing alms-giving and clearing our home of excess; clothes, books, electronics, fabric (gulp!) if you’re me! It means living a life of prayer.
Right now, I’m struggling with simplicity. I’m struggling with maintaining a neat and tidy home, or even the desire to have one. Motivation is hard to drum up with four kids in the house, cooped up in this cold weather, toys strewn all over the place. These colder months with their shorter days and frigid temperatures leave me feeling tired, and I’m already overwhelmed at the prospect of the holidays. Simplicity seems to elude me as school papers of varying importance pile up and my calendar seems to rule my life. Needless to say, I’m not someone who feels like much of an expert on simplicity right now. I’d rather do like the wild animals and hibernate all winter long.
Thankfully, the Church offers a remedy for these winter doldrums. As of November 15th, we have just begun the Nativity fast, and my parish is blessed to celebrate the Sarantaleitourgon, or the Forty Liturgies. I’m hoping to participate in a few, even if it does mean waking up before 5 am. Maybe I’ll make it to ten, maybe I’ll make it to one (which, sadly, would still be an improvement compared to years past). Regardless, the fact that it’s even happening is a huge reminder to me of what this holy season is truly about! It’s not about the billion-dollar advertisements and sugar-laden holiday treats. It’s about God Incarnate, the beginning of Christ’s earthly life and the Salvation that is offered to us. This is a wonderful tool available to us to prepare our hearts, and consequently make room for Our Lord with simplified lives and homes.
My prayer is that the Nativity season is a recommitment to simplicity, for myself mostly, and for anyone else who is yearning for it, too. To pray, to fast, to de-clutter, to simplify, and choose almsgiving over self-indulgence. May we use this sacred time to rekindle our hearts towards God, to pray for our brothers and sisters, and find true peace, so that when Christmas arrives, our Lord finds us truly joyous and ready to feast, instead of stressed and burnt-out. May the Lord strengthen you and your endeavors during this blessed Nativity season!
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