Minimalism: Living Simply and Intensely

When Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus were in their twenties, both were making six-digit salaries in high-profile corporate jobs and enjoying an indulgent lifestyle. However, despite their wealth and status, both of them they were very unhappy, in fact, they were downright depressed. No matter how many toys, vacations, or other forms of entertainment they threw at their unhappiness, they found themselves sinking more and more into a deep and overwhelming funk.

Embracing Minimalism

To make a long story short, (to read more of it, click here), both of them decided to radically simplify their lives. Joshua was the first to give it a shot, and Ryan soon followed suit. To jumpstart Ryan’s new lifestyle, they spent eight hours packing all of his belongings into boxes, and over the course of several weeks took out only the things that he needed. After this trial period, 80% of his belongings were still in boxes! He sold or donated all of these remaining items, and then moved to Montana, where he and his friend Joshua both live simpler but much more fulfilling lives.

LML_2000pxJoshua and Ryan have dedicated themselves to helping others live more simply and intensely by living minimalism, a lifestyle in which one owns the least amount of things possible, accepting only those that will truly enrich one’s life. They have written a fantastic book, The Minimalists, in which they share their story and lay out the steps to living minimally and happily. I highly recommend it.

Anyone Can be a Minimalist

Joshua and Ryan are part of a growing movement of minimalists, among whom are writers such as Colin Wright (a full-time traveler and writer) and Joshua Becker (a husband and father of two whose entire family has embraced minimalism). These and many others have realized that the life proposed by our consumeristic culture is not all that it is hyped up to be, and that happiness is actually found by living simply.

One of the things that they are quick to point out is that minimalism is lived according to each person’s situation in life and does not require living as a virtual monk. More than anything, it is a simplification of one’s own life that is done thoughtfully and calmly. A minimalist does not necessarily limit himself to the bare necessities of survival, but rather chooses to limit his possessions to those things that truly add to his quality of life.

My Christian Minimalism

imageAs  a seminarian en route to the Catholic priesthood, I have already embraced a Christian style of minimalism by committing myself to the service of others and by accepting the discipline of celibacy. Although minimalism is not connected with any particular religion, I have been highly impressed by how spiritually it actually is. It is proof that no matter one’s creed or lack thereof, the human heart still yearns for happiness that cannot be provided for with material goods.

Minimalism is highly compatible with Christianity. One need only read this paragraph from Pope Francis’ recent encyclical to see this:

Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession of consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that “less is more.” A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures. – #222, Praise be to You (emphasis added)

In this paragraph, Pope Francis touches on a theme that resonates with many people of our day, both Christian and non-Christian, who long for a life free from “the obsession of consumption.”

Give it a Shot!

Speaking from personal experience, I can say that the lifestyle that the Pope proposes (which is very similar to Joshua and Ryan’s minimalist lifestyle) brings nothing but peace. If you are looking for a way to slow down your life and live it more intensely, I highly suggest that you put these two items on your summer reading list: The Minimalists and Pope Francis’ encyclical Praise be to You#222 – 227.

Living as a minimalist does not necessarily mean selling your house and living in the woods. It just means asking yourself a simple question before every new purchase or commitment that you make: “Will this really enrich my life, or will it distract me more?”


For more thoughts on living simply and intensely, check out my post Five Steps to Peace.

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Pope Francis’ New Encyclical: He Writes about Global Warming, and That’s Okay

pope francis acquisiton picture cropped-1The Pope’s hot-off-the-press encyclical Laudato Si’ (Praise Be to You), in full continuity with his unconventional personal style, is exciting for some, but disconcerting for others.  Even before it was published, many were denouncing the Pope’s “climate encyclical” as being beyond the papal purview.

Former Senator Rick Santorum – a Catholic and presidential candidate – expressed his concern this way: “The Church has gotten it wrong a few times on science. I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re good at, which is theology and morality.” (quote from npr.org)

Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma put it even more bluntly: “The Pope ought to stay with his job, and we’ll stay with ours. I am not going to talk about the Pope. Let him run his shop, and we’ll run ours.” (quote from npr.org)

I have just finished reading the encyclical cover-to-cover, so I can say first-hand that it is an inspiring document. My sincere hope is that those who disagree with the Pope’s position on climate change will not let that prevent them from reading his letter with an open heart and mind. The encyclical is a marvelous collection of centuries of theological and moral wisdom: it would be a true shame for anyone to deprive themselves what it has to offer because of a negative disposition.

1. The encyclical speaks about much more than global warming.

The entire document is actually a theologically and philosophically based critique of postmodern culture offered from the perspective of the environmental crisis. While he does specifically mention global warming as one of several worrying environmental problems, the overriding message of the encyclical is a call for Christians and non-Christians alike to make fundamental changes to their worldview. It is a call to conversion.

St. Francis of Assisi, whose love for nature is cited in the encyclical.
St. Francis of Assisi, whose love for nature is cited in the encyclical.

Some people may be perplexed that the Pope would dedicate an entire encyclical to the environment instead of addressing other more pressing moral concerns. In my opinion, the Pope’s choice of topic shows impressive savvy. He knows that many  people shut down and clam up when the Church teaches about things like homosexuality, contraception, or abortion. So, instead of going right for those issues, he chose to begin with a theme that is near and dear to the hearts of many: the state of the environment.

A recurring theme is his appeal to re-establish a proper relationship with all creation, especially with our fellow human beings. If we are to resolve the ecological crisis, we have to do more than treat the symptoms: we have resolve the underlying illness which is the consumeristic, materialistic, self-centered, and wasteful attitude that pervades postmodern society. The same selfish attitude that leads people to abort unborn babies leads them to destroy the environment for financial profit. In paragraph 120, he specifically points out that true concern for the environment cannot coexist with the depreciation of human life.

Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? 

2. The Pope is not invading the realm of science.

In response to Rick Santorum’s worry about the Church “getting it wrong on science” again, I would say that the Pope is not claiming to pronounce scientific truth, nor is he telling scientists how to do their job. Rather, he is simply applying the principles of Catholic social doctrine to current situation of the world. He has informed his understanding of the world’s situation with scientific research, and he has just as much a right to do that as any other person. Just because he is a spiritual leader does not preclude him from enriching his spiritual teaching by looking to the scientific world. And just because the Church has “gotten it wrong” on scientific issues before does not mean that she should be paralyzed by the fear of doing it again.

Pope Francis' position on the environment is consistent with Pope Emeritus Benedict's.
Pope Francis’ position on the environment is consistent with Pope Benedict’s.

There is certainly debate on global warming, but those who do not have the possibility of studying the matter scientifically must rely on those who do. If scientists are split on the issue, the non-scientist must rely on the overall consensus. This is what Pope Francis has done in regards to global warming:

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming climatic system…It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations of the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases…released mainly as a result of human activity. (Par. 23)

Even as he accepts this consensus, he is respectful of the ongoing debate and withholds from forcing others to accept it. He acknowledges the fact that “different approaches and lines of thought have emerged regarding this situation and its possible solutions,” and he goes on to state that “on many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views.” (cfr. paragraphs 60 and 61)

3. The Pope is allowed to make informed prudential judgments and direct is teaching accordingly.

In response to Senator Inhofe’s objection that “the Pope ought to stay with his job”, I would suggest that he has a mistaken view of the Pope’s job. As leader of the Roman Catholic Church, it is the Pontiff’s responsibility to instruct on the principles of Catholic doctrine and their application to particular circumstances. Such teaching requires prudential judgment on his part, something to which he is completely entitled as the spiritual leader of more than a billion people.

St. John Paul II is frequently cited in the encyclical. (CNS photo/Grzegorz Galazka)
St. John Paul II’s teaching on conservation is frequently cited in the encyclical. (CNS photo/Grzegorz Galazka)

In this encyclical, he is applying Catholic social doctrine to the current environmental crisis. He has chosen to inform his understanding of this crisis with the scientific consensus regarding global warming, and he has every right to make such a prudential judgment.

Additionally, Sen. Inhofe should remember that Pope Francis is not American, so the global warming issue is not as heavily politicized for him as it is for Americans. He cannot be faulted for talking about an issue of common concern to the whole world that happens to have political implications in the US.

Conclusion

Laudato Si’ is a beautiful work that goes far beyond the polarizing topic of global warming, so, regardless of one’s stance on the issue, the encyclical is a treasury of theological and philosophical wisdom. It not only offers the world valuable guidelines for solving the ecological crisis, but it also offers incredibly enriching advice for each of us to live more peaceful and happy lives. It is a call for us to slow down, re-establish the proper relationship with the world, and open ourselves to God’s love.

Ultimately, the environment deserves our care because it is a gift from God and a manifestation of his love.

The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God. (Par. 84)

Instead of wasting energy on polemics, let’s focus on the wisdom that the Pope offers, and work together to heal the selfish postmodern disorders that are not only tearing people apart but also the very world that they inhabit.

Letting God Love You

Rat-raceWe live in a world that hyper-emphasizes work and personal success. It teaches us to esteem ourselves according to our personal achievements, and often we project this faulty vision on our relationships with God. All too often, we think and act as if God’s love for us were somehow conditioned by how virtuous we are and by how often and well we pray.

God’s Infinite Love

Nothing could be farther from the truth. God’s love is not proportionate to our spiritual merit; rather, His love for us is infinite. All that He wants from us is that we accept His love and receive it with grateful hearts. All He wants is that we love Him back.

Imagine a marriage in which the husband day-in and day-out strives to show his love for his wife in many different details. He always kisses her good-bye in the morning, he texts her throughout the day, he often gives her little gifts, he prepares special meals for her on the weekend, and organizes well-thought Sunday outings and vacations.

Now what if his wife never did anything to thank him or show appreciation for his thoughtfulness and love? What if she remained completely indifferent and sometimes ignored his efforts? At the very least, she would be extremely ungrateful and thoughtless.

Unfortunately, this is how we too often treat God. Day-in and day-out, He offers us little gifts and manifestations of His infinite love, yet we pay them no attention.

Most of the times, this lack of gratefulness is not a result of bad intention but simply happens because we are too focused on ourselves. We put too much focus on what we are doing to love God and not enough on how He is loving us.

Nothing too Small

Since His love for us is infinite, there is nothing that is too small forimage Him to do to show us His love. He whispers His love to us in cool breezes, beautiful sunsets, and chirping birds. He expresses His love through the love of others – the constant love of our family and friends and through the random acts of kind strangers. Sometimes He loves us through special coincidences and little miracles.

When we receive gifts from God, we often think that we are obligated to do something in return, but, again, this is far from the truth: God’s love in no way depends on us. We can do nothing to lessen His love, and we can do nothing to increase it – it is already infinite.

How awesome it is to think that we are the recipients of infinite love! I believe that our lives would be so different if we remained aware of this amazing fact.

Responding to God’s Love

Although God requires nothing from us in return, He does desire our love, and we do not have to do much to show it. Little prayers such as “I love you” or “Jesus, this is for you” mean more than we can imagine. Also, simply spending time with our Lord is another way to show our love. When we put ourselves in His presence, be it in the silence of the church or the silence of our rooms, we express our love for Him in a powerful way.

Just being with Him means so much to God. Even if we are tired and barely able to pray, all that matters is that we want to be there with the Lord.

Lucy waiting for her belly rub.
Lucy waiting for her belly rub.

Many of us have the joy of having pets. Although I do not have any pets of my own, but I always look forward to seeing my family’s Welsh Corgi whenever I visit home. Lucy is a funny little dog who loves nothing more than belly rubs and playing fetch. I enjoy doing both for her, and I have often thought how interesting it is that I love making her happy even though she can do little in return. It has occurred to me that our relationships with our pets are partially analogous to our relationship with God. Just as we love our pets in spite of their limited ability to reciprocate, so God loves us despite our own limitations.

Making It Real

imageLetting God love you is simply being aware of His love and being grateful for it. Try getting into this habit. At least one day this week, try to remember God’s love for you at least five different times, and thank Him for His love on each occasion.  I think that you will be amazed at how much the awareness of God’s love will elevate your day.