As we approach Ash Wednesday, I've noticed that there are lots of people out there tying Lent into decluttering. One example is here, and the topic being discussed is a kind of meme: get rid of forty bags of stuff in forty days.
Now, on the one hand, I realize that there's a kind of danger in tying Lent too much with our personal goals. Weight loss is a prime example: how many times have you approached a season of fasting thinking "Now I'll get rid of those five (ten, fifteen, twenty) pounds for sure!" I know I have--and I also know that this is the wrong spirit to have during Lent. Lent is not about making our diet or exercise goals, tweaking our daily routines, finally getting started on those New Year's resolutions or--cleaning out our closets.
But on the other hand, it can't be denied that materialism is a national ill we Americans suffer deeply from. Too much clutter--too much stuff--really can get in the way of our relationship with God. In our country, so richly blessed that even our poor are objects of envy in other, more desperately poor nations, we often don't realize how stifled and drowning in material objects and material pursuits we can be. Approaching our excess material goods during Lent with a firm committment not only to give away quantities of still-usable goods in good condition that we simply don't need to have could be an opportunity for spiritual growth.
How can we make sure, if we embark on some decluttering during Lent, that we really are setting forth in the right spirit?
I think in some ways this is something only we ourselves can know; but I think that there are some signs we can watch out for to help us determine our motivations. For instance, obviously, if our goal is to get rid of lots of old stuff so we can replace it with new stuff (even if that new stuff is "minimalist" or "quality" stuff) then we might want to rethink things. Or if we think that immersing ourselves in decluttering activities is better than taking up a more meaningful daily prayer routine complete with spiritual reading, then perhaps we're not quite on the right page.
One way we can help ensure that we're really trying to tackle the underlying materialism in our lives is to make sure that what we're doing really fits our needs. For example, I find that focusing on the number of bags of stuff eliminated isn't going to cut it, for me--if I embark on a decluttering program it's much more important that I outline the areas that need to be cleaned out and then tackle them, one at a time; I'm good at cleaning out my clothing, for instance, and terrible at dealing with the shelf above the washer and dryer--a much more mundane sort of task, quite likely to involve spiders in the corners and sticky bottles of old detergent that somehow got overlooked on recycling day.
Another way to make sure there's a spiritual benefit to decluttering during Lent would be to tie almsgiving, which we are supposed to be doing, to the process. Perhaps, if you are doing the "so many bags" method, you could tie a donation amount to each bag; that is, in addition to donating bags of usable items you could set aside an amount of money per bag to give to a specific charity that helps the poor. A family who is struggling financially might manage a dime or quarter per bag; a family that is well off might do ten or even twenty dollars per bag--but the point would be to link the spiritual benefits of almsgiving to the decluttering efforts. This would work much the same way for "number of areas cleaned" or "number of hours spent cleaning" or whatever else might work for you.
As with all Lenten efforts, the most important thing is to make sure that a merely external sacrifice is not all that is being made. Setting aside some of our Lenten prayer and meditation time to ponder the lives of those saints who have embraced radical poverty (St. Francis of Assisi comes to mind), offering our prayers for the poor, pondering Our Lord's beatitude that blesses the poor in spirit, and otherwise contemplating the ills of rampant materialism will help us keep our decluttering from being a merely outward effort, aimed more at opening up closet space than at fostering that interior change which is the goal of all Lenten pursuits.
Have you ever decluttered during Lent, with a specific, spiritual purpose? What did you learn from the experience? Or, if you are considering doing this, what are your goals, and what do you hope to learn?