In recent years, the word “minimalism” has become a part of mainstream vocabulary, taking on many, often overlapping meanings. It’s a commitment to curtailing the excesses of consumerism in one’s life; a movement that eschews material goods in order to seek greater spiritual and personal authenticity; an interior design aesthetic; a simple lifestyle; a clutter-free home.
This concept of simple living has exploded in the past decade. Blogs and articles on the subject proliferated, along with books with titles like The Joy of Less, The More of Less, or The Year of Less—each (ironically?) with long subtitles indicating that a minimalist lifestyle could yield happiness and fulfillment.
The most famous of these, and arguably the one that cemented the modern obsession with minimalism in North American minds, is Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Published in English in 2014, the book sold over five million copies worldwide and spent more than eighty-six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Kondo’s minimalist method became eponymously known as Konmari, and Time magazine named her one of the world’s one hundred most influential people in 2015. In the years following her book’s publication, entrepreneurs built entire businesses helping people reduce their possessions.
Yet minimalism, so defined as living with less, is hardly a new phenomenon. It’s been around for centuries under various names, generally linked to the monastic traditions of Christianity, Buddhism, and other religions. You could describe John the Baptist, with his simple cloak of camel’s hair and diet of honey and locusts, as a minimalist. But no doubt you would shudder to hear John the Baptist casually grouped together with those who take pictures of their sparsely decorated living rooms and post them on Instagram (#minimalism, of course). There’s a large gap between the de-cluttering followers of Marie Kondo and this desert-dwelling disciple of Jesus.
Contemporary minimalism has two defining features that ultimately negate the religious function of living with fewer possessions. The movement is permeated by the self-help ethos so characteristic of our modern, secular age, and its proponents have taken to Instagram and Facebook to place their de-cluttered lives on display. Both of these trends would have confounded early Christian “minimalists.”
The Ancient Path
In Christianity, some of the first models of the ascetic life were the desert fathers and mothers, whose legacy Rowan Williams explores in an accessible series of lectures published as Where God Happens. These early monks followed the example of Anthony the Great, also known as Abba Anthony. Born in third-century Egypt to wealthy parents who died when he was eighteen, young Anthony inherited their riches. However, instead of enjoying a life of leisure and luxury, he remembered what Jesus had told the rich young ruler: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (NIV). Anthony did so, selling his land and all of his possessions and giving the money to the poor. He then retreated to a life of solitude and worship in the desert, wanting to devote his life to God without distraction.
The story of Anthony’s voluntary asceticism and his devotion to God spread. Partly to seek his counsel, and partly to escape growing persecution in Egypt, many Christians fled from the fertile Nile region to the desert where Anthony lived. Yet even when the persecution ended, they stayed, forming communities within which to practice their faith and encourage one another in devotion. The barren landscape of the desert was a fitting backdrop for their ascetic lifestyle, where very little—not the bustling distraction of city life nor the temptation of material comforts—could distract them from their worship of God. Their number grew to the tens of thousands over two centuries.
These desert fathers and mothers were not self-flagellating extremists who tried to earn their way into heaven through the outward actions of asceticism, as some have understood. Rather, as Williams points out, they desired to follow the will of God and seek unity with him, and they knew that earthly pleasures, such as material goods, might distract them from this aim. So they renounced these things.
This renouncement was not without balance. They took care to emphasize that any asceticism that was not rightly ordered was as much a grave danger in one’s spiritual life as an excess of materialism. Anthony exemplified this gentle approach. When a hunter in the desert encountered Abba Anthony and some of the other monks enjoying themselves, he was shocked at their apparent lack of severity. Abba Anthony asked the young hunter to put an arrow in his bow and shoot it. He did. The old man asked him to shoot another, so the hunter shot the bow a second time. When Abba Anthony asked him to shoot a third arrow, the hunter replied, “If I bend my bow so much I will break it.” The old man replied, “It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break.”
Likewise, St. Jerome, a fourth-century ascetic known for his Latin Old Testament translation, the Vulgate, cautioned a young follower, “Be on your guard when you begin to mortify your body by abstinence and fasting, lest you imagine yourself to be perfect and a saint; for perfection does not consist in this virtue. It is only a help; a disposition; a means though a fitting one, for the attainment of true perfection.”
John Cassian, a contemporary of Jerome, spent time among these desert fathers before founding two monasteries in France. He took with him the teaching that he had received in the desert on spiritual matters, writing about those monastic practices. Half a century later, Cassian’s writings influenced St. Benedict, whose written instructions were so widely adopted by monastic communities that he is considered the father of Western monasticism.
The Rule of St. Benedict showed the same gentleness and moderation that guided the most prominent of the desert fathers. Benedict instructed that monks should receive precisely what was necessary according to each person, with compassion for those who are weaker, warning that otherwise the monks might come to rely on material goods rather than on God. One thinks of the prayer of Proverbs 30:8–9: “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’” (NIV). So monastic life flourished for centuries on the foundation laid by the desert fathers, with other orders such as the one established by St. Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century continuing to renounce worldly possessions.
The Modern Divergence
Fast-forward to the twenty-first century. After the industrial and financial revolutions, we’ve amassed more wealth now than ever before in human history, and we have vastly more stuff to spend it on. We feel the same spiritual longings that drove the ancient monks out to the desert—only now, advertising continually seduces us with its siren song, telling us that all of this money and merchandise will satisfy those yearnings. Surely if you just had that pair of shoes, you would be more confident and successful. Worried about a lack of sex appeal? Just buy this perfume. (Or this car, or this handbag.)
Yet as middle-class people look out at their suburban homes, with garages so full to the rafters with stuff that they can’t even park their cars inside, they feel a familiar gnawing discontent, not the promised happiness. It’s only natural that many have begun to question the promises on offer from our consumer-driven society.
Enter the minimalists. With their suspicion of retail therapy and rejection of over-consumption, theirs seems like a message that Anthony, Cassian, and Benedict could get behind. Your abundant possessions are distracting you from true joy and fulfillment, so get rid of them. This message is only growing in popularity. The Fraser Valley Regional Library, my public library, has thirty-four copies of Marie Kondo’s book in active circulation; they are nearly always checked out. The Joy of Less, by Francine Jay, currently has sixty-one people waiting for their turn to read it, while other minimalist titles (and there are many) boast line-ups of their own.
Like the asceticism of the early desert fathers, the minimalist movement is spiritual at heart. Despite what Kondo’s use of the word “tidying” conjures up, minimalism isn’t simply about having a simple, organized home—though of course that’s a nice fringe benefit. “Tidying is not the purpose of life,” Kondo writes. “Putting your house in order will help you find the mission that speaks to your heart. Life truly begins after you have put your house in order.”
Kondo’s vagueness highlights where modern minimalism has diverged from its ascetic ancestor. Whereas the desert fathers practiced asceticism in order to achieve closer spiritual union with God, minimalists have varied goals: greater personal creativity, respite from the rush of the rat race, increased focus on relationships, or inner calm and enlightenment. Never prescribing a specific spiritual object, the minimalist movement suggests that reducing your possessions can help you achieve broad spiritual fulfillment or joy, whatever that might look like for you individually. The goal is no longer spiritual fulfillment outside of the self, but self-fulfillment. “Find a style of minimalism that works for you,” Joshua Becker counsels on his blog Becoming Minimalist, which has a million followers. “One that is not cumbersome, but freeing based on your values, desires, passions, and rational thinking.”
If this sounds alarm bells for you, you’re not alone. In Where God Happens, Williams warns, “We have to be careful about modernizing the desert tradition in a shallow way: it sounds wonderful when we are told that the path of silence and asceticism is all about self-discovery, because we are most of us deeply in love with the idea of self-expression—and discovering the ‘true self’ so as to express it more fully. That is the burden of hundreds of self-help books. But,” he continues, “for the desert fathers and mothers, the quest for truth can be frightening, and they know how many strategies we devise to keep ourselves away from the real thing.” The early monastics were no stranger to individual variances—Benedict made repeated concessions for weaker members of the community in his Rule—but these variances were based on need rather than preference and personal desire. The desert monks knew that their personal desires often led them away from God, rather than toward him, and their renunciation of material goods was designed to help them pursue God’s will with ever-greater zeal, instead of their own.
There is no doubt that many of the intentions of the minimalists are admirable. Some, like Becker, are Christians who write about seeking a minimalist lifestyle in part to be “more in-tune with the life that Jesus would live.” Others speak frankly of the environmental toll of over-consumption or the disregard that consumerism shows for the people forced into cheap and unsafe labour. They are sincere in their desire to spend more time with family and friends. Yet while they recognize that owning stuff won’t make us happy, they don’t seem to fully grasp what will. The most common thread of their teachings, no matter how diverse their language or methods, is that misguided focus on self-discovery and self-expression.
“The things with which we choose to surround ourselves tell our story,” Jay writes in The Joy of Less, suggesting that we should choose our possessions carefully. Becker echoes Jay, noting that minimalism is “the intentional promotion of the things I value most.” He tells a reproachful parable about his friend, who owned a single small bookcase that still managed to contain more than eighty items: numerous books, along with photos, souvenirs, figurines, flowers, vases, candles, and more. As he stood in front of her bookcase, his eyes scanning the objects, he realized that he couldn’t tell from looking at her possessions what she valued most in life, and this concerned him. He asks his readers to consider this question carefully in their minimalist practice: “If a total stranger walked in [to your living room], what would they identify is most important?” The unacknowledged goal is to pare down one’s life into a digestible narrative for others to consume, and our material possessions are meant to be the medium of that narrative—an ironic focus, given the minimalists’ stated disavowal of materialism.
An entire industry exists to help people create these narratives through minimalist practices. Professional de-clutterers write unironically on their websites that they will help you “edit” or “curate” your life. These words traditionally relate to publishing literature or exhibiting art—endeavours aimed at public consumption and recognition—yet now they are applied to our very identities. It’s a dramatic shift from the desert fathers’ focus on God’s approval and their desire to eradicate their own ego.
This shift is a sign of the self-actualizing spirit of the times, and the relatively recent addition of social media to our technological landscape has enabled it further. Whether one has just a few Facebook friends or thousands of followers on Instagram, the pervasive presence of an audience for our daily life means that every photo and tweet has a performative aspect. When people turn to these digital spaces to share photos of their de-cluttered homes or update followers on the number of items they have donated, sharing their curated narrative, they are placing their minimalist practices on display.
Such exhibition profoundly conflicts with the early ascetics’ goal of denying their own egos in order to conform as wholly as possible to God’s will. When third-century tourists travelled out to the desert to gawk at the increasingly famous monks, the monks retreated even deeper into the desert, for they feared the sin of pride above all. As Jerome told the young ascetic, they knew that this renowned self-denial was merely a help toward their true goal, and they were careful not to take pride in the practice of asceticism itself.
Our Ancient Future Practice
The ubiquity of self-help books and social media sites doesn’t need to determine how we practice this ancient asceticism, as a movement within contemporary Christianity known as “New Monasticism” demonstrates. The name of the movement acknowledges its ancient roots, with proponent Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove noting that it’s “a vision so old it looks new.” These New Monastics are heading to the concrete cores of North American cities like Philadelphia and Toronto, seeing these “abandoned places” of poverty and homelessness as the desert of our age. While not formally connected, groups within the movement have much in common. They pool material resources together for the flourishing of the community. They strive to serve the people they encounter with gentleness. And they see this lifestyle as supporting the faithful pursuit of God’s will.
The New Monastics have websites and Instagram feeds and Twitter profiles, but these platforms aren’t focused on any one person and their deeds—except, perhaps, those of Jesus Christ. In their hands, the platforms become a digital pulpit, from which they can proclaim their treasure in heaven.
It can be tempting for us to think that the desert fathers and mothers were a different sort of people from a different time, somehow uniquely suited to the task of self-denial. But they were not so different from us. Anthony could have lived out his days amid the comfortable society of other landowners, secure in his fortune. Cassian was the son of wealthy parents with every opportunity to establish an affluent life for himself in the world. They chose not to, recognizing that greater fulfillment would be found in God’s grace.
We don’t need to flee to the desert to follow their example. We don’t even need to live in impoverished urban neighbourhoods. As Desmond Tutu writes in his foreword to Williams’s lectures, “We can have our deserts in the crowded places where we live and work.” The desert is really just the abandonment of our ego and anything else that might give us a false sense of security, surrendered for the sake of faithful service to God.
Like all human beings, the popular minimalists of today feel a genuine hunger for the spiritual, and instead of ignoring that hunger, they are looking for ways to sate it. But their search has been compromised from the start by the prevailing cultural narrative of self-actualization. It whispers to them, and to us all, that true joy and fulfillment is found in finding yourself, curating your identity, and telling your story—when the real answer is to head for the figurative desert and leave your ego behind. When we do that, reducing our possessions just might be a spiritual practice that brings us ever closer to the real thing.