Franciscan Spirit Blog

The Spirituality of Subtraction

donation box filled with clothes

The spring months are always a good time to do an inventory of needless belongings. It reminds me of when we were preparing to move from our farm years ago. A wise friend offered me this sage advice: Expect it to take a full year to get everything unpacked and organized in the new place. I remember thinking that there was no way it could possibly take that long; no way would I tolerate the chaos of moving boxes for 12 months.

We donated, recycled, sold, and pitched as much as we could. But, even so, we had to move an embarrassing amount of stuff. On farms, things tend to accumulate if they hold even the slightest promise of being useful someday, for something. Much of our junk has cluttered up our new place, as it did our farm.

We’re a few years in our new home, and I’m afraid we still don’t have our belongings fully pared down and set to rights. But we’ve tasted how much better it feels to have less instead of more, and we’ve shifted firmly into subtraction mode. Acquiring more has less allure when you have fresh memories of having to pack up your stuff and schlep it to another place, wondering all the while why you own most of it in the first place.

You save money by having fewer things, and you save the resources, energy, and pollution involved in producing, transporting, using, and disposing of them. Cutting back on consumption also helps you live in solidarity with the world’s billion-plus people who lack basic necessities, much less a 60-inch flat screen (or two or three).

I think there’s a spirituality of subtraction, too. Jesus was quick to point out that the things we own can easily become our idols and our taskmasters.

It takes spiritual energy to manage and maintain all of our stuff—or as Jesus put it, to build bigger barns to store it. Finding real equanimity amid such encumbrance can be harder than squeezing a camel through a needle’s eye.

St. Francis lived the spirituality of subtraction. He let go not only of his property, but also of his status, his pride, his ambition, his ego, and his need to be right. In emptying himself out like that, he found himself filled to overflowing with a love that knows no bounds and inspires us even centuries later.

That kind of fullness and freedom isn’t reserved just for the saints. Any one of us can get a glimpse of it, simply by looking beyond the piles of our possessions.

Let’s Cut Back

1. Try this method for subtraction: For every one thing you buy (except groceries and toiletries), get rid of two.

2. Try a one-day, one-week, or one-month fast from buying anything new.

3. Extra time commitments can clutter your life, too. Cut any activities that you’re not wholehearted about.

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