For the first 10 years or so of married life, my husband and I hauled around at least three huge boxes of textbooks. Every time we moved, we’d pack them up and take them to the next house, and there they would sit in our attic or storage room…until the next move. I finally somehow convinced my husband that he could part with his beloved textbooks, that he wouldn’t need them anytime soon to further his career or expand his skill set. But there was a lot of conversation before this actually took place.
Oh, the things we carry around with us – literally, and figuratively – and thus, the great need to purge every now and then. How did we go from being hunter-gatherers to hoarders? I’d like to say it’s a result of our fallen, sinful nature — and that would be partially right. Sin does turn things upside down; it disorders our passions.1 Yet, interestingly, we don’t see this inordinate desire for material things in every culture.
One of the challenges of living in a ‘land of plenty’ is keeping things in their proper place. We accumulate so much because it’s thoroughly ingrained in our North American culture, tied to our ideas of “progress” and “success.” Yet sadly, we take it too far; we become attached to our possessions and even begin to put our trust and security in them rather than in God. The very things that are meant to lead us to God, to know and experience His goodness, become our focus.
At some level, our constant searching and desire for more reveals something very telling about us. How often do we acquire something only to discover that it doesn’t satisfy? The truth is, we can never be satisfied with possessions, for material objects – no matter how good or nice – are only a shadow of what our heart truly desires: to be possessed and loved by God, treasured as His little child. The Catechism says that we desire “the absent good” and that, whether we realize it or not, love compels us to seek out this good.2
Jesus understood our human weaknesses, our tendency to rely on ourselves and on our material possessions. It was one of the reasons He told His disciples to take nothing with them when He sent them out. It’s also why priests are expected to live simply, some even taking vows of poverty. We don’t have to go to such extremes, but we could all benefit from living more simply. “Not being controlled by possessions is a step to spiritual freedom, the kind of freedom that most people say they want.”3
But what about the other things we carry around – the things we can’t see? The need to purge goes much deeper than just cleaning out closets. Many times, we hold onto hurts, anger and resentment, to unhealthy habits and ideas, and to unholy desires. It’s just as important that we learn to let go of these things, for they can weigh us down as surely as a box of heavy books. We must deal with them or they will slowly eat away at our peace and steal our joy. Like the rich young man from the Gospel, we must discover that “one needful thing” that is standing in the way of holiness, that is keeping us from growing closer to God and one another.4
Before going to bed at night, you probably walk around your house to check that everything is in order and that the doors are locked. The ‘house’ of our hearts needs this same kind of attention. At the end of each day, we must take a moment to review how things have gone, to purge our minds of all that troubles us and give it to God. We take this time to thank Him for what went well – and even for the things that didn’t go so well, the not so good moments. For, seen in the light of faith and in view of God’s mercy, they are a gift of grace, an invitation to be forgiven and begin again.
And that’s where confession comes in. By God’s wonderful design each day is new, but we can’t simply wake up and forget what we’ve done – the times we’ve turned away from His love or hurt one another. We must cleanse our hearts, make up for our sins, and actively take steps to change.
Even purgatory, that long misunderstood and sometimes forgotten teaching of the Church, is a way by which we are purified. Rather than a punishment, it’s an act of God’s mercy. Our belief in purgatory acknowledges the fact that most of us aren’t holy enough to go straight to heaven. Although our sins have been forgiven, we may still need to be cleansed from any attachment to them. God, in His mercy, wants none of us to be lost and gives us every opportunity to repent, to make amends, and be healed.
Many people don’t look forward to Lent because of all the things they think they have to “give up.” But it’s also a beautiful opportunity to be filled by God. If we want to grow closer to Him, it’s important that we make room in our hearts and lives. And that just might mean you have to do a little purging!
– Kelley Holy
1 Cf. CCC, 1768.
2 Ibid., 1765.
3 James Martin, S.J., The Jesuit Guide to (Almost)Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), 178.
4 Cf. Matt 19:16-30.