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Everyday Ignatian: The Question of Materialism and How Much is too Much

Everyday Ignatian is a monthly series by Shannon K. Evans, a writer and mother of five living in Iowa who is chronicling moments of grace in the midst of her chaotic daily life through the lens of Ignatian spirituality.

By Shannon K. Evans

May 27, 2020 — I sit in the enclosed patio that overlooks our front yard and the quiet street ahead. If anything good has come from sheltering-in-place during a global pandemic, it’s the fact that we finally broke down and converted this space from a junky toy storage to a life-giving haven. I breathe in the quiet, relishing the moment alone before a fight inevitably breaks out among my kids in the next room. Solitude is as hard to come by as untarnished beauty when you live with five young children, and this new patio offers both.

I close my eyes and can still see the lush green plants that surround me, breathing life into my spiritually starved bones. And then, unbidden and unwelcome, comes that familiar pang of guilt. Should we have spent so much money on this patio? Should we have given that money to the local food banks instead? Was my desire to beautify my home un-Christlike?

All my adult life I have wrestled with the question of how much is too much? In light of the clear concern for the poor in the Gospels, I want to orient my lifestyle around justice and radical giving. Since our wedding my spouse and I have sought to live simply and in solidarity with those suffering economically. We have lived in a 500-square-foot apartment, in a house next to a drug dealer (who was very nice), in a home without hot water in Indonesia, in a Catholic Worker house, and now in a 100-year-old home located next to a government subsidized apartment complex.

On paper, perhaps it looks like I’ve got this solidarity thing figured out. In reality, I continue to struggle to discern how and when to spend money and time on non-necessities. As I age I become more convinced that having a beautiful home is a holy thing to desire; after all, comfort and beauty can recharge us, refilling our cups so we can work and love extravagantly for a better world. But I also fear losing sight of the poor and my passion for justice in the process of making my own dwelling place more comfortable for our family of seven.

How do I know when I’ve become too materialistic? How much stuff am I “allowed” to have without feeling guilty? In his book “The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times,” Jesuit priest Dean Brackley, SJ, says I’m asking the wrong questions. Here, he says, are the right ones: Do I feel at home among the poor? Do they feel comfortable in my home? Or do my furnishings and possessions make them feel like unimportant people?

Brackley recenters the narrative away from rules and back to relationships. “We will feel uncomfortable with excess when poor friends lack essentials. Attachment to them will detach us from luxuries.” Attachment to them. I am freed from my disordered attachment to physical things when I experience attachment to the poor; not as a concept, but as real, live, individuals who I know and love.

This is the only way to truly free my heart to enjoy comfortable and beautiful surroundings without making an idol of them. There is no rule book to follow that can tell me exactly how much time and money to spend on things without succumbing to materialism. That’s because it is not about rules, it is about relationships. When I am in a real relationship with those who have less, I want them to experience both acceptance and refuge when in my home.

So as I sit on a plush chair cushion on our new patio, I give that feeling of guilt some attention and fair thought. Is my desire to create a comfortable and beautiful home birthing materialism in my heart? Is it pulling me away from relationships with the poor, away from solidarity?

Out the window, neighbors walk by on their way to the bus stop. I call out to them by name and we exchange friendly waves. The kids go to school with my oldest boys and, in pre-pandemic times, have spent many afternoons running amok through our house. The first time their single mother came into our living room she smiled, eyes soft, and declared it cozy. Now I find myself imagining sitting with her on this new patio when the quarantine is over, laughing as we watch our sons play in the yard. I miss having them in our lives.

Watching them disappear out of sight, I realized that my questions have been answered. As long as those on the margins feel welcome in my home, as long as I am still living a life in which they are invited into my home, I think I am right where Jesus would have me be — and the swiveling patio chair can come or go.

More by Shannon Evans on

On Being Black and Catholic in 2020

How Spiritual Freedom Has Saved My Sanity During Quarantine

Discerning the Greater Glory of God in My Response to the Coronavirus

Small Acts of Solidarity

Imitating Mary’s Motherhood Calls Me to a Life of Justice

Savor Grace This Christmas

Prayer Showed Me My Anger — And That’s a Good Thing

My Prayer for Detachment when Family Dinner with Five Kids is Chaos

How St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises Saved My Faith

Shannon K. Evans is the author of "Embracing Weakness: The Unlikely Secret to Changing the World." Her writing has been featured in America and Saint Anthony Messenger magazines, as well as online at Ruminate, Verily, Huffington Post, Grotto Network and others. Shannon, her husband and their five children make their home in central Iowa.

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