Tired of all the JUNK? Become inspired by Benedictine simplicity. Look for new ways to keep your space less cluttered.
Even though I first moved to Manhattan carrying only a few suitcases, I soon amassed more junk than I could reasonably carry as I moved from furnished sublet to furnished sublet. With each move, I would load up several trash bags filled with cheaply made items and toss them—only to purchase similar items again once I settled into my new abode.
During this time, I also started to escape the city by attending retreats at local monasteries and convents. In addition to offering gracious hospitality to all who crossed through their doors, the monks also taught me about the Benedictine practice of simplicity.
This practice asks: What does a monk really need in his cell?
During my retreats, I could answer this question with ease—toothpaste, shampoo/conditioner, body lotion, deodorant, notebook, pen, hand soap, and clothes to last for the duration. Electronics were either prohibited or discouraged. I was fed three meals a day, and I could peruse the library for any reading material. Like a monk, I didn’t need much in my room to keep me happy and content.
I never thought of applying this concept to my everyday life until I left Manhattan to attend divinity school. There I had a dorm room that closely resembled a monk’s cell. Grad school consumed my life and I lacked the time and financial resources to accumulate more junk. I had no difficulty keeping my space orderly.
But once I graduated, keeping my stuff in order again proved to be a challenge. By now I was a professional writer. I received a steady stream of review copies of magazines, books, CDs, and other media, not to mention seas of SWAG (stuff we all get). Each new hobby I pursued meant more equipment. I soon had far more stuff than my small Manhattan closet could reasonably accommodate.
When I left Manhattan to travel the country with only a rolling bag in hand,
Each new hobby I pursued meant more equipment. I soon had far more stuff than my small Manhattan closet could reasonably accommodate.
I did a deep purge of my possessions. This left me with a liberated feeling, although I needed to buy a few necessities along the way.
After a few years of being a global nomad, I finally put my roots in the Pacific Northwest and decided to reexamine my wasteful method of moving-buying-tossing. I drew upon my years of experience frequenting Benedictine monasteries by asking myself: What do I really need in my space? An ongoing, deliberate, and careful answer to that question continues to inform my daily organizing practices.
In my quest to adopt a Benedictine approach, I found comfort in chatting with my friend, the Rev. Kurt Neilson, author of Urban Iona: Celtic Hospitality in the City.
“Despite my attachment to the romance of the Celtic monks, I find I cannot emulate their fierce and extreme asceticism and have found the sanity, balance, and life-giving Benedictine approach good medicine for the long haul,” he says. But Neilson is also a fan of the new minimalists like Marie Kondo, saying her gentle approach “encouraged me to address the meaning of clutter in my life—why it is, what it is doing—and so I now wear all the clothes I own and cleared out a lot of books that actually belong to other people because they were slowly yellowing and gathering dust on my shelves.”
Neilson continues: “Clarity, room to breathe, and facing the meaning of clutter—which is usually connected to anxiety, if not trauma, inherited or otherwise—all of that is intrinsic to simplicity.”
While I came to my Benedictine practice largely on my own, I now realize I could have benefited greatly from the guidance of a book like Amanda Sullivan’s Organized Enough: The Anti- Perfectionist’s Guide to Getting—and Staying—Organized. Sullivan runs a professional organizing business called The Perfect Daughter.
Sullivan takes a holistic perspective to the art of organizing by first addressing how her clients got so disorganized. “The speed we live at is kind of the opposite of mindfulness,” she observes. “We’re rushing to pack for this trip or rushing to do this or that.” When operating at such a hectic pace, people often find it easier to buy a replacement object rather than look for an item they need but can’t find. Just by knowing where all of their possessions are located, her clients take a step toward not adding any more junk to the ever-growing landfills.
To help her clients organize their lives, Sullivan adopts the concept of flow. “What goes in must go out. Just like your body, if you have lots of stuff coming in but nothing going out, then you have a problem,” Sullivan says.
Flow also functions as an acronym that defines her work. The first step is Forgive Yourself. Sullivan states, “If it was useful to beat yourself up, I’d give people sticks. But it’s not useful. So, first you need to just forgive yourself” if you have accumulated a lot of stuff.
Second, Let Stuff Go. Instead of going to a place like The Container Store and purchasing bins to help organize your stuff better, Sullivan suggests just getting rid of it if possible. This doesn’t mean not being prepared for emergencies. She recommends that her clients keep their food pantry stocked by loading up on basic building blocks that can be used to make a variety of dishes. However, no one needs 50 bottles of hand sanitizer, even during a pandemic.
Next, Organize What’s Left. Curating and archiving your possessions can be an empowering act, as it allows you to gain control over your space. For instance, in lieu of holding onto every childhood artifact, curate a select collection. This enables you to savor memories without having to wade through boxes and boxes of items.
Finally, Weed Constantly. Set up a routine and stick to it. Think of decluttering the same way you would any other sort of regimen, such as running. “You run not because you enjoy putting on sneakers and getting up at 6 a.m. but because you like how it makes you feel,” Sullivan says. She makes the same argument for cleaning your house. “It’s not fun to dust or file, but it’s a good feeling to have no papers on the top of your desk and to have everything be in order.”
Everyone’s system will be different depending on their particular sore spots. If your issue is paper, Sullivan says you will need to develop a way to address every piece of paper as it comes into your house. If your issue is clothing, make sure you do laundry weekly so you are aware of those items of clothing you actually own and have them easily accessible. If you have an overcrowded pantry, make a list before grocery shopping so that you are buying only what you need. Be mindful that every time you buy something new, something has to go.
“I strongly believe in the notion that whatever material possessions we own, they should bring contentment and happiness to our lives. Importantly, our possessions serve a purpose and support our life’s passions,” says Mark Nedleman of Graceful Space Organizing Services. When he helps clients release those things that no longer matter in their lives, he finds they delight in either selling these items or donating them to charitable organizations.
To avoid collecting junk in the first place, Nedleman advises his clients to consider paying more upfront. Quality merchandise will provide years of service, whether it’s clothing, appliances, tech equipment, or something else.
Nedleman, Sullivan, and the Benedictine monks I first encountered back in New York City all share a similar message. They all strive to help us get rid of the junk that holds us back.
The more I can let go of all that no longer serves me, the more free I am to obtain what I really need.