Religious have it easy … at least in some regards. Consider, for example, their vow of poverty. 

Religious brothers, sisters and priests pledge a sacred oath that shields them from basements overrun by toys, cupboards overflowing with unused wedding gifts, and closets stuffed with purses and shoes. Religious can’t own four bedroom houses, packed from basement to attic with high school yearbooks, college term papers and giant foam fingers purchased at a baseball game in 1985. And they most certainly aren’t forced to consign their dining room table to piles of paper, bills and kindergarten art projects. 

All the clutter and chaos made possible for the rest of us by cheap labor in China is impossible in the walls of their convents and monasteries. Their life is clutter-free by design — the order of their cells and common rooms a reflection of the order of their day, the simplicity of their surroundings a perpetual reminder of the simplicity God calls them to cultivate in their souls. 

Straightest path 

Laypeople, on the other hand, don’t have it that easy. When it comes to living the simple life, ours is by far the harder row to hoe. We must learn to walk the always fine line between having and having too much. We also must find the balance that allows us to appreciate what we do have without becoming inordinately attached to any of it. And we must do all that while occupying the same 1,600 square feet as junk mail, babies and sippy cups. 

But we do have to do it. 

The collective wisdom of the saints and the Bible leave little room for doubt: The simple life helps pave a smooth and direct path to heaven, a path that investment bankers, congressional staffers and home-schooling moms, as well as Jesuit priests and Carmelite nuns, are all wise to follow. 

That’s part of the reasoning behind the whole “rich man/camel/eye of a needle” warning Christ gave in Matthew 19:24. The more we have and the more attached we are to what we have, the harder it is for us to leave those things behind in pursuit of greater goods. 

That’s also what St. Vincent de Paul tells us when he ad-vises, “Simplicity ought to be held in great esteem. … It is a virtue most worthy of love, because it leads us straight to the kingdom of God.” 

Religious have long understood that. With their vow of poverty and carefully ordered spaces, their physical surroundings perpetually remind them of the detachment necessary for entering heaven and the peace they’ll find there. In a sense, their simplicity of life functions as a sacramental, an incarnational habit that serves as a channel for grace, an outward practice that leads to inner transformation. 

Practicing detachment 

But again, those who wear religious habits aren’t the only ones called to practice the habit of simplicity. Nor are they the only ones who stand to benefit from it. The simple life to which God calls religious is also the life to which he calls lay people. And the graces that come to the Dominicans and Franciscans who embrace simplicity in their monasteries are the same graces that come to accountants and PTA presidents who embrace it in their homes. 

But how do PTA presidents, not to mention the rest of us, do that? After all, it’s one thing for a convent’s living room floor to remain clear of Legos, but how does a young mother accomplish the same task? How do laypeople order their homes so that they reflect and facilitate holy simplicity? How do they embrace the simple life when they live lives that, by their very nature, require acquiring? 

It starts with attitude. 

St. Francis de Sales, the great spiritual adviser to the laity, once counseled, “Let us learn from Jesus in the manger, to hold the things of the world in such esteem as they deserve.” 

That’s detachment, the virtue which enables us to throw away the notebooks and binders from our college days and give away our favorite little black dress that hasn’t fit since our first child was born. Detachment is also the virtue that prevents us from finding our self-worth in a new sofa from Pottery Barn or a 2010 Land Rover with all the upgrades. It prevents us from conflating Christ’s idea of the good life with Madison Avenue’s idea of the good life, and it frees us to buy and keep what we know we need, while letting go of what others want us to think we need. 

Along with detachment, the simple life requires gratitude. 

“[Give] thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father,” urges St. Paul in Ephesians 5:20. And by that, he didn’t just mean saying “thank you.” He meant appreciating God’s gifts in deed as well as in word, caring for everything given and entrusted to us as wise and good stewards. 

Too much ‘stuff’ 

In cultures where material goods are scarce, where the price paid in time, labor or money for clothes, tools and toys is high, this isn’t hard to grasp. We always care more for what’s precious and rare than we do for what’s cheap and abundant. 

But in America today, almost everything is cheap and abundant. And that’s reflected in our homes, where “stuff” — inexpensive, poorly made “stuff” — piles up in cupboards and on countertops. It lies scattered about on living room floors, gets stuffed under beds, and collects dust on closet shelves. We accumulate because we can. Likewise, we neglect what we accumulate because we can. We have so much that it makes it harder, not easier, to be grateful for what we’ve been given. 

The more we recognize our obligation to cultivate gratitude, however, the more compelled we are to shed the excess, invest in quality rather than quantity, and exercise the proper care for that in which we’ve invested. Gratitude, by its very nature, acts as a check against toys stuffed under beds and closets filled with broken electronics. It also prevents us from using cashmere sweaters and iPods to fill holes that only God can fill. It reminds us of what’s really important. And it calls us to order our homes in such a way as to reflect that. 

Detachment and gratitude make simplicity possible. They lay the foundation upon which the simple life can be built. And to actually build that life, we only have to imitate, at least in terms of general design, the simple life constructed and embraced by centuries of nuns and monks. 

That life has been lived within the walls of monasteries that are solid and beautiful, but free of clutter. There is no excess of furniture, gadgets or knickknacks. They own little, but what they do own is usually of the highest quality, designed and built to last through any number of clumsy novices and overeager postulants. Everything is cared for. Everything has a purpose. Everything has a place. Memories are treasured more than memorabilia. Relationships are invested in more than gadgets and gizmos. There is peace. There is order. There is beauty. And in that peaceful, ordered, beautiful space, souls find freedom. They find God. 

Translating those habits into the lay life isn’t easy. Most of us will spend a lifetime looking for the line and finding our balance. Ridding the clutter from our homes is as constant a battle as ridding the clutter from our souls. And it’s as much a battle against our own need for security, comfort and control as it is a battle against plastic toys and piles of paper. But in the battle, as much as in the victories, the path to holy simplicity and holiness itself lies. 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

Real Simple (sidebar)

How can you cultivate simplicity amidst the chaos of modern family life? To find out, Our Sunday Visitor turned to Abby Sasscer, author of “Simplifying Your Domestic Church” (Catholic Heritage, $9.95). 

  • Set a schedule 

Make decluttering a regular event. Pick one day a week for routine decluttering and organizing. Also, plan two major decluttering extravaganzas every year. Advent and Christmas are great times to do this. 

  • Make decluttering a family affair 

Decluttering is a life skill, so teach children its importance at an early age. One way to do this is before Christmas give each one a bag and tell them to fill it with toys to give away. The knowledge that they’ll be getting new ones soon makes this easier. 

  • Buy one thing, give two away 

This rule can be applied to clothes, toys or whatever takes up too much space in your closets. Regardless, the same principle applies: Never keep more than you need. 

  • Don’t hold on to what you can’t use 

Don’t store things for future use. You may not need it right now, but someone else does. Share the wealth. 

  • Control the paper flow 

Throw junk mail away as soon as it comes in. Have a designated place for bills and papers, and don’t let a month go by without filing everything away.