By Michelle La Rosa
“Does it spark joy?”
That question has become a rallying cry for fans of Japanese cleaning guru Marie Kondo, whose 2012 book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” has become a New York Times bestseller and sold more than 3 million copies.
Adherents of the KonMari Method, as it is known, are instructed to gather every piece of clothing in their house and put them all together in a pile. One-by-one, they take each item in their hands, asking themselves, “Does this spark joy?” as a way of determining which items to keep and which to discard or donate. The process is repeated with all of their books, papers, miscellaneous items, and sentimental belongings, in that order.
The bestselling book was recently turned into a popular Netflix reality show, in which Kondo visits the houses of people living in various situations – a family with young children whose home feels chaotic and cluttered, a recently retired couple who have spent decades collecting clothes and baseball cards, a widow who cannot bring herself to get rid of any of her late husband’s possessions. Kondo works through the process with them, showing the dramatic results that can be achieved by decluttering.
The KonMari tidying ritual bears some striking similarities to the annual purging of possessions undertaken by the Companions of Christ in Denver.
An association of diocesan priests and deacons who live a common life of prayer and fraternity, the Denver Companions of Christ emphasize the observance of poverty, chastity and obedience in their ordained ministry.
As part of this commitment, they annually purge their possessions, on or around Ash Wednesday. If they are living in a community, they purge as a household.
They begin by physically laying out all of their belongings, a practice that Kondo also promotes, as it allows people to see how much they actually own, and to recognize where they have excess in their lives.
Following a series of guiding principles, the Companions then question each item as they make decisions about what to keep and what to discard.
“It kind of pushes you to admit whether or not you really need things,” says Fr. Mike Rapp, a member of the Denver community.
In an interview with CNA, Rapp said that taking a simple approach to material goods is something that can benefit all of the faithful – not just priests.
“For the Christian, this is a way of taking away those things that nickel-and-dime our lives, so that we can really have what we need and value that, and then have the space in our life, that sort of openness, that quietness, to really follow the Lord – to hear his voice, to pay attention to God…serving other people and loving them.”
He noted that one of the instructions given by John the Baptist to prepare people for the coming of Christ was, “Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.”
“You don’t need anything excessive,” Rapp said. “If you have excess in your life, it can be a distraction. Just get rid of it.”
The Catholic Church teaches that the evangelical counsel of poverty – along with chastity and obedience – is proposed by Christ to all disciples, as a way of growing in the Christian life and cooperating with grace.
Rapp pointed to Mark 10, in which a rich young man asks Christ what he must do to inherit eternal life. In addition to following the commandments, Christ instructs him to “Go sell what you have, give to the poor…then come, follow me.” But Scripture says the young man went away sad, “for he had many possessions.”
Material possessions are not inherently evil, Rapp clarified. But when we become attached to them, they go from being necessary items that help us in life to becoming “a real detriment, a distraction from the priorities” we should have.
Members of religious orders take a vow of poverty, which is generally lived in a very radical way, while canon law suggests that diocesan priests should live a simple life and give away any excess that they have to the poor, Rapp said.
“I think that’s a pretty good general rule for everybody.”
Determining what is excess in one’s life is a matter of personal discernment, the priest said. In his community, members are guided by the principle, “Start with nothing, and keep only what you really need.”
Other guidelines include trying to limit belongings to what can be packed in a car – fitting for the life of mobility to which priests are called – and asking the question, “Have I used this within the last year?”
“If you haven’t, you might not need it. You might not use it in the next 20 years,” Rapp said.
While they are purging, the Denver Companions pray in gratitude to God. This is a key part of the process – acknowledging that everything they possess is a gift from God and asking him to help them see what they should be letting go of and detaching themselves from.
“We do the purge communally, so you show everybody what you have. There’s a certain accountability to it,” Rapp added. Their fellow priests can also challenge them on specific belongings, inviting them to reflect on whether they actually need a certain item.
“We don’t actually need what we think we need,” he said.
For lay people, especially families with children, the criteria for what to keep may look different.
“It is really difficult when you have children of various ages to keep possessions simple, because there are various needs in the home happening all at the same time!” said Alicia Hernon, a mother of 10 children and the co-director, alongside her husband, of The Messy Family project and podcast.
“It’s hard for moms to give away clothes when you know you will have a child who will wear those clothes or play with those toys in just a few years,” she told CNA. “Yes, I would love to get rid of all the extra toys and clothes, but not if I will have to replace them for the next child hitting that stage just a short time from now.”
“For us, living simply means that I had to have an effective storage system for clothes and a set time to take them out when needed. It also means that we had to do the same with certain toys.”
But while simplicity may look different for families – especially large ones – Hernon said there are still benefits to a simple lifestyle, especially because it helps family members “focus on the people around us.”
“The fewer possessions we have, the less there is to clean, maintain and manage,” she said. “The fewer possessions children have, the more they will be encouraged to play outside and play with each other.”
Catholics seeking to implement Kondo’s methods may notice that some of her practices display a sense of animism, the idea that inanimate objects have spirits. Kondo, who served for several years at a Shinto shrine in Japan, greets the houses that she enters before tidying them. She encourages people to talk to their possessions, thanking them for the role they have played in their lives. She suggests that the used items that one has discarded “will come back to you as the thing that will be of most use to who you are now.”
While Catholics should not take part in practices that do not align with the Catholic faith, this does not mean they need to reject the KonMari Method of tidying altogether, Rapp said. Catholicism has long understood how to embrace what is good in other cultures, without accepting ideas that are problematic.
Some of Kondo’s ideas can be adapted to a more Catholic worldview, the priest said. For example, rather than thanking a book or piece of clothing for its usefulness, Catholics can offer prayers of thanks to God, who is the true source of all material blessings.
“Thank you, Lord, for giving me this. It’s been very valuable for my life in these ways. I’m going to let go of it now,” he suggested as a prayer to offer while purging.
Recognizing everything as a blessing from God makes it easier to be detached, he noted. “Because God has given me all of these things, I can let go of them. I can give them away.”
Ultimately, Rapp said, simplicity in possessions is about building gratitude, detachment, and trust.
“If you want to follow Jesus’ way of simplicity, you have to accept that it’s a bit radical, and you have to be willing to detach. I think that’s the big key, this attitude of detachment.”
“You have to sort of trust that ‘I can let go of things, and my needs will be taken care of’,” he said, pointing to the passage in the Sermon on the Mount in which Christ reminds his followers of how God clothes the lilies of the field and feeds the birds of the air, instructing them to trust that God will also take care of their material needs.
“We as human beings feel a need to provide for ourselves,” Rapp said. “Letting go of things is an invitation to really trust in the Lord, and to celebrate and feel the providence of God, that God really does provide for us, that God has provided for us in remarkable ways.”
For the Denver Companions, purging physical things is a reminder to reflect on spiritual poverty, which is more important than material poverty.
Rapp said the community undergoes a similar process of seeking to identify excesses or unhealthy attachments in the spiritual life, asking themselves, “What do I cling to? My time, my energy, my friendships, my talent, my opinions?”
This helps them recognize all of these things as gifts from God, and opportunities to give thanks and practice detachment, fostering spiritual poverty, since God promises his kingdom to the “poor in spirit.”
“That’s what we’re really looking for,” Rapp said. “We don’t find our peace and happiness in things.”