“When new clothing is issued, the old should be immediately returned to be put in store for distribution to the poor. Two tunics and two cowls should be enough for each member of the community to provide for night-wear and for laundering. Anything more than that would be excessive and this must be avoided…
There is one saying, however, from the Acts of the Apostles which the superior must always bear in mind, namely that proper provision was made according to the needs of each. (The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 55)
I went shopping on Monday. I bought a yellow skirt, gray shorts, an orange sundress, and a new pair of jeans. I felt like these purchases were necessary. I rarely wore shorts and skirts during our two years in San Francisco. And it’s at least 80 degrees for five to six months of the year in Austin. It felt necessary to update the bare-leg collection around here. Of course, St. Benedict would probably say my purchases were excessive. He would say that a yellow skirt, gray shorts and an orange sundress ought to be avoided (for more reasons that one!). Part of me agrees…
I’ve been in a state of anxiety over my closet for almost fourteen years. 1997 was the year I first encountered poverty. It was shocking to my soul. It snapped me into an awareness of the world, a calling toward compassion, a longing to know how my culture (American, middle class, evangelical) fit into the world I’d been ignoring those seventeen years prior.
I came home sickened by the thought of my Old Navy shorts and piles of t-shirts and–well, I’m not sure what else I wore back then…shorts and t-shirts…oh, yeah! pajama pants! I came home sickened by what I owned, what I threw around, what I valued and my new knowledge of the desperation of so much of the world. I prayed, “Lord, please don’t let me forget.” Then I made a minor vow to my brain that I wouldn’t buy any more clothes. I broke that vow the next month. So then I made a new vow with my head: I’d only buy cheap clothes.
That’s how my struggle with clothing has been ever since. I dress like most middle class women in their early 30s. I keep up with trends. I like clothes. I like shopping. And, at the same time, I agonize about what I have. I pray about simplicity. I struggle with what it means that I have outfits and a style and Going Out Shoes. Then, I make myself feel better by thinking about how much bigger other people’s closets are. Or I consider that my concern shouldn’t be how many tops I own but the condition of my heart. And, after I hear those whispers in my brain, I see faces. I see the faces of children in the slums of Nairobi. I see the faces of the women I met along the Rio Negro in Brazil. I see the homeless I drive past in Austin.
One of my New Year’s resolutions was to practice the spiritual discipline of simplicity in my closet. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that my 17-year-old plan of “only buying cheap clothes” was not necessarily better for those living in poverty. First of all, cheap clothing is usually poorly made, which means it gets worn out faster. I’m less likely to be able to give that top from Target away in three years, which means it will sit in a landfill instead of being worn by someone who could use it. Secondly, cheaper clothes are more likely to have been made in sweatshops. That means those who made them may have been mistreated, paid unfairly, and they may have even been children. (I know it’s possible that more expensive clothing has been made in a sweatshop as well. It’s just that cheaper clothes are often more likely to have been made with cheap labor)
My husband appreciates fashion. Does that shock you? He is the best dressed man I know. I like to describe him as “smooth.” And he has slowly eased me toward the world of quality rather than cheapness, of a small closet filled with a few good pieces rather than a large closet full of every option available. The same part of me that finds God’s joy in the beauty of a good book or grasps the deep value of visual art, is also drawn to beautiful clothes. Maybe there is room for beauty as long as it is balanced by simplicity?
I’m learning simplicity. For New Year’s I loaded up two-thirds of my closet and I listened to Benedict’s instructions that they should be given away to the poor. I gave away clothes I wasn’t in love with or that were rarely worn, and kept a small number of tops I loved, three pairs of jeans that worked. I’m relearning how to shop. When I shop, I’m doing it with a purpose, with intention. I’m shopping for the long-term. I’m ignoring cute things that I don’t need, even when they’re on sale. And I’m shopping with a prayerful heart.
I’ve been learning to ask God about what my possible purchase means to him. What does it say about the state of my heart that I think I need this skirt? Then, if my heart is right, what do I know about where this skirt comes from? Will this skirt hurt or help the world?
I don’t know what the answer is. I wish that God was clearer, firmer with me about what clothes should mean to me. I wish clothes came labeled: “Made unfairly by child labor” so I wouldn’t have to do so much detective work. But, following Jesus is never simple. Neither is practicing justice and simplicity. Sometimes I think God simply loves for us to engage with these questions, to live and make choices with intentionality and reverence for God’s creation.
So, here is an instance when applying St. Benedict’s rule literally may not work in my daily life. But I’m learning how to apply it to my heart because I’m grasping more and more fully what the Lord requires of me: “To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). I really believe justice, mercy and humility should be my standards when I shop.