“In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance before all created gifts insofar as we a choice and are not bound by some responsibility. We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a more loving response to our life forever with God.” (from “The Foundation: Fact and Practice” of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.)
I’m reading Organized Simplicity and contemplating for our family and our home what we really value. See, I think there’s a difference between saying we don’t have much money to spend while filling our lives with an endless supply of the poorly made—gadgets we don’t really need that take over our cupboards (guilty), way too many sweatshop-expressed Old Navy tops that we don’t even like that much (guilty)—and choosing to keep purchases minimal but full of quality, conviction and beauty. I’m trying to figure out what that means.
When I was 18, I went on a life-changing trip to the Amazon. You know the argument that the Western Church’s mission trips are really just for the American-types who go, not for those being “ministered to”? Well, consider me the face on that poster.
I doubt my presence did much for the locals I met living along the banks of the Rio Negro, but I know that those 10 days shaped my life in countless ways. It was the first time I recognized poverty and my complacency in it.
I returned home committed to stop buying clothes because I didn’t need them. And then, I went to college, wanted a new t-shirt for every sorority activity I participated in, and struggled constantly with what it meant to know that I, in my middle class luxury, had more than most people on the planet. Should I give away everything but the bare essentials? Should I reject trends and dress like a nun? Should I forget about style?
I ended up going the route of Old Navy and Target: cheap finds that started breaking down the minute they touched oxygen, and judging those who might dare to spend more. Then I spent plenty of brain stress guilting over whether I should want a cowboy hat (this was 1999 in Abilene…they were so cool!) for pure vanity when so many women had no hats, their faces scorched in the sun.
So what did he have in mind? What does it mean for us to hold all created gifts in balance?
We just bought a couch. It’s our dream couch. Modern with a look of vintage. Beautifully designed. It’s the first couch we’ve ever bought new. (Read, former couches in former homes: gift, hand-me-down, Craigslist then resold.) And we struggled over whether or not we should get a couch we didn’t love but was cheaper and generic.
But it came back to Art for us. Someone took time to design this couch. It wasn’t mass-produced in factories. It was made with hands. We want to honor those who are making things with thought and valuing beauty. And we had the chance to.
What does it mean to value beauty? Especially when it’s a luxury to even pose such a question?
You know what I can’t forget? Standing on that boat in the middle of a river so large I felt at sea, staring out at night into the stars of the Southern hemisphere, my 18-year-old self begging God: Show me what it means that you love us.
All is gift. My children, my health, my friendships, my place, my city.
Friday my “stuff” will arrive. I’ll decorate my home, a middle class indulgence. I’ll place plates and glasses in the cabinets. Somewhere, in a village, tomorrow morning, a mother will untie the eight hammocks swinging in her one-room home. She will give her children drink from the river, so clouded with sediment it is called “River Black.” She will wear the same clothes as the day before. Her children will go to school and in the afternoon they will play soccer in the middle of town.
All is gift for her as well.
Can I love beautiful clothes? Can I decorate my boy’s room with rockets and a solar system mobile? Can I buy less things but better quality, made responsibly? Where is the balance? Where is the line?
The more I believe that all is grace, the more I believe that Jesus loves me, the more I can claim that this is key:
Let us “hold ourselves in balance before all created things.” Not wealth or poverty. Not pleasure or work. Not opulence or hunger. Somewhere in the middle of those extremes that long to snag our lives and unwind our beautifully spun selves, there is a God who is offering a place to rest our insides. A place where we hold lightly to our things, to our ease or our ache, and believe (really believe!) that what is in the middle is greater than all the false certainty money can buy.
Only in gratefulness can “everything [have] the potential of calling forth in us a more loving response to our life forever with God.”