The link between physical, spiritual clutter

By Julianne Stanz | Special To The Compass | March 6, 2019

In homes across America, it seems many people are on a mission to de-clutter! Even with the typical uptick in January donations, thrift stores all across the country are reporting an increased surge in donations. Fueled by the popular success of books and TV shows emphasizing de-cluttering our physical spaces, Americans are examining their relationship with material possessions and with good reason.

Based on a rigorous, nine-year project, scientists working with UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families, studied a number of families with regard to their lifestyle, possessions, stresses and trials. What they found is a cautionary tale in terms of how society has become fueled by materialism, business, over-scheduling and stress. Among their findings:

  • America has only 3.1 percent of the world’s children but 40 percent of its Little Tikes basketball hoops and other toys.
  • Big warehouse stores have fueled unprecedented levels of stockpiling of food and other items.
  • Three out of four American garages are too full to hold cars.

Researchers also identified a trend amongst families that had acquired a large number of physical possessions — it elevated levels of stress hormones in the family but particularly for mothers. Science is finally catching up to what we, the Catholic Church, have always believed — that simplicity and joy go hand-in-hand.

The concept of radical simplicity may seem like a new one, but it has been a part of our rich Catholic tradition for over 2,000 years. Indeed, Jesus confronted the rich young man in the Gospels because of his love of possessions with the words, “Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor.” He asks the rich young man to “come, follow me.” But we are told that “when the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions” (Mt 19:21-22). The rich young man was so attached to the possessions he loved, that he walked away from the source of love itself — Jesus Christ.

Is there a link between physical and spiritual clutter? Pope Francis certainly thinks so. At the canonization of Oscar Romero on Oct. 18, 2018, Pope Francis reminded us that “the problem is on our part: our having too much, our wanting too much suffocates our hearts and makes us incapable of loving.” Having material possessions is not inherently evil, unless we become too attached to them and distracted by them like the rich young man. But de-cluttering our lives can free us up to look more deeply at how we live and how we love. It helps us to discard ways of being that do not strengthen us in faith.

In his “First Principle and Foundation,” St. Ignatius speaks of “making use of those things that help to bring us closer to God and leaving aside those things that don’t.” This Lent, how about doing a spiritual de-clutter by using the “start, stop and keep doing” method? Here are some ideas:


  • Watching TV shows, reading books, listening to music and indulging in social media that debases humanity through overt and gratuitous sexuality and violence that does not give glory to God.
  • Living in the past or focusing too much on the future. Be thankful for the present moment and the person in front of you.


  • Setting aside time to pray and reading the Scriptures every day.
  • Leaving time free from noise and distractions each day so that God can speak to us in the silence of our hearts.
  • Reaching out to someone who is struggling and lend them a hand.
  • Listening more to understand rather than to respond.


  • Going to Mass, celebrating the sacraments and finding ways to make a difference for Jesus.
  • Believing the best about humanity and continue to trust in the goodness of the Lord.

St. Teresa of Calcutta often said “live simply so that others might simply live.” This Lent, rather than doing a radical cleaning of your house, how about going a bit deeper and evaluating what aspects of your faith life bring you closer to Jesus? Consider this your “Spiritual Spring Clean.” Now that is something that truly “sparks joy”!

Stanz is director of Discipleship and Leadership Development for the Diocese of Green Bay.

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