Pray, Fast, Give: My Decision to Part with a Possession Each Day of Lent

Young man sitting on orange couch opening a cardbox boxOne of my favorite little moments from J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece “The Lord of the Rings” is when the ranger Aragorn returns to Pippin a treasured brooch that the hobbit had cast by the wayside as a clue after he and his cousin Merry were captured by the evil orcs. “It was a wrench to let it go,” said Pippin, “but what else could I do?” Indeed, if Pippin had not had the good sense to drop the brooch, his friends might never have known that the two young hobbits were still alive at all. Aragorn confirms that Pippin made the right choice, saying that “one who cannot cast away a treasure at need is in fetters.”

I find this exchange so powerful because it often reflects my own experience. Parting with possessions, even those that I no longer need or use, can be a truly wrenching task. There are times when I feel like my possessions really possess me. Yet when I ask God for the strength to let them go, I know at once that I’m doing the right thing.

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It’s true that, as a Catholic layperson, I have no obligation to take a vow of poverty like a professed religious brother. And yet, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I am called to live simply and modestly, prioritizing people over possessions. More often than I would like, I find myself emulating the rich young man who encounters Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. When Jesus invites him to sell all he has and become a disciple, the youth “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22). Like that poor soul, I time and again find myself a prisoner of my possessions.

Thank God that the Church gives us the season of Lent! Lent can be a powerful, intentional time of conversion, a time to reorient my spiritual life and sacrifice those things that have become obstacles and stumbling blocks on my personal walk with God, holding me back from pursuing a more authentic path of discipleship.

As Ash Wednesday approached this year, I realized that I could make my process of decluttering into a Lenten blessing, an opportunity to examine what my spiritual priorities truly are, as well as an opportunity to practice almsgiving and help the less fortunate through the corporal works of mercy.

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When I was out on a walk around my neighborhood thinking over all these things, I had a flash of inspiration: I would collect 40 of my unused or lightly used items and donate them to charity — 40 items for the 40 days of Lent! Of course, this is hardly an original idea (honestly, I can’t remember where I first heard about it) but I believe that it is what God is calling me to do this Lent. I didn’t even wait for Ash Wednesday to begin putting my plan into practice!

About half of the items I’ve collected for donation so far are clothing. On a recent episode of the “Word on Fire Show”, Bishop Robert Barron said that cleaning out the closet can be a very good way to make an examination of conscience.

Admittedly, I felt a bit defensive when I heard that. “Well,” I thought, “maybe that’s true for other people, but I certainly don’t have that many unused clothes.” But when I searched through my bedroom closet a few weeks ago, I got a sobering reality check: I found many items of clothing that I wasn’t wearing because they no longer fit, and more than a few pieces that I had bought on impulse and had simply never worn at all. I put all these aside into a big bag to donate to my parish’s Lenten clothing drive.

Besides clothing, the bulk of the items I’ve chosen to give away are books. I’ve written before about my struggle to downsize my enormous book collection. When I’m being brutally honest with myself, I know that many, if not most, of the books I own are titles that I’ll never read again. I either hang onto them for sentimental reasons or because I fool myself into thinking that I will need them for some vague “writing project” that I may (or may not) do in the future. The time had come to seriously cull my book collection. So far, I’ve managed to almost fill up three banker’s boxes with books to donate to my local library’s charity book drop! But this was not an easy accomplishment.

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At one point, I was just stuck; I couldn’t seem to part with any of my books no matter how hard I tried. I kept putting them back on the shelf. Then I remembered one of my favorite Catholic podcasters, the Dutch priest Fr. Roderick Vonhöge, who often shares insights into his own decluttering process on his podcast “The Walk.” So I started listening to an episode where Fr. Roderick revealed how he’s been incorporating prayer into his efforts at decluttering. He found that praying over each unwanted object, and specifically giving thanks to God for its former usefulness, made it easier for him to let go of things cluttering up his workspace. 

This insight changed my whole perspective on parting with my books, and I adapted Fr. Roderick’s practice into my own three-part prayer: As I took each book off the shelf, I first thanked God for sending that book into my life when he needed it. Second, I asked God to bless the person who would receive this book now that it was no longer useful to me. And third, I made an act of trust that God will provide for all my future needs. This was a liberating experience that allowed me to donate far more books than I thought possible before!

There are still several more weeks of Lent to go, and I know I’m just beginning this journey of conversion. I’m just starting to form a better relationship with my possessions that reflects my primary calling as a child of God and a disciple of Jesus Christ. With the help of prayer and trust in God’s grace during this holy season, I’m certain I’ll make progress.