40 Bags for 40 Days…For Whom?

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This year’s inspiration started out innocently enough. (Don’t all our best intentions?)

Come Lent, I would tackle the challenge and purge our home of unnecessary clutter. We’d fill the famed 40 bags throughout these 40 days, and off they’d go to Goodwill to bless someone else with what we no longer needed.

Sounds good, right?

Almsgiving and altruism. An all-around perfect practice for Lent.

So I tackled the toy box. I weeded through closets. I dumped out junk drawers. I dared to venture into the basement. I even eyed the bookshelves.

I proudly watched the pile of bags grow.

But as 40 days started to fly by and the bags began to fill, I started to get a sneaking, suspicious sort of feeling.

Who was I filling these 40 bags for in the first place?

40 Bags for 40 Days for Whom

Lent is supposed to be about disciplining desires and drawing closer to God. Preparing for Easter and paring down the noise in our lives to listen for the still, small voice of God.

But was I de-cluttering for Christ, or for myself?

I looked again at the bags I’d gathered. Every last one contained the extras, the excess, the unused and the unwanted. It certainly wasn’t the best I had to offer someone in need. All those prettier clothes were still hanging in closets. All those nicer plates and pans were still stacked in kitchen cabinets. All those well-made toys were still saved for my kids to enjoy.

Was my 40-day challenge really about giving to the least among us? Or about saving the best for me?

Truth be told, this isn’t the first time I’ve had to do a double-take on my Lenten practices. Like fasting for all the wrong reasons: vanity, competition, dieting. Or committing to prayer out of guilt rather than a genuine desire to meet God. Was this latest effort simply an extreme-sport of a 40-day challenge or the pure pleasure of a tidier house?

I started to wonder whether I should kick the 40 bags to the curb. Or maybe just call it what it seemed to be: spring cleaning masquerading as spiritual practice.

But then I remembered that temptations to quit can be anti-Lent, too. Maybe I just needed to step back and reconsider before I recommitted myself. Because, the truth is, what I’d gathered to give thus far was still something – even if I could do more or do it more prayerfully.

If we hope to move ahead on our spiritual journey, we have to start somewhere and start small. We have to rid ourselves of the excess before we can work on the heart. We have to trim the fat before we can tone the muscle.

So maybe I have to clear out the junk before I can start to ask myself how much my family really needs. Because excess distracts us from the truth of the Gospel, which is generosity, compassion, and care for the poor.

Perhaps it’s a perennial paradox of the Christian life: how to live within the tension of wanting to do all, be all, give all for Christ, and yet realizing that our human nature will fail us more times than not. Or maybe it’s the perpetual battle between comfort for ourselves and concern for others.

Either way it makes me squirm as much as the Gospel about the rich young man. The one Jesus invites to give what he has to the poor, to follow more freely and faithfully. The one who turns away sad and discouraged.

What if he had tried to start somewhere small, rather than being discouraged by the enormity of the challenge? Might he have been changed little by little and found himself becoming more generous, less materialistic, and more Christ-like, gradually and over time?

This Lent is too young and fresh to give up yet. We’re still weeks from Easter. I can’t let the overwhelming thought of trying to do everything immobilize me from the first step of trying to do something.

So I’m still stuffing those bags, day by day. But I’m starting to ask myself about how I choose to fill them. Will I only give away what we don’t want? Or will I open myself up to the thornier questions about how much our family truly needs?

I justify plenty of excess in my life. Which invites me all the more deeply into Lent: a time for leaning on less, to let go into God.

Does anything need to be reexamined in your Lenten practices? Where might God be calling you to dig deeper?

Copyright 2014, Laura Kelly Fanucci

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11 Comments

  1. What an excellent post! Way to lead us right to the heart of the matter…I’ve got some serious pondering to do. Thank you!

  2. “I justify plenty of excess in my life.” Your post made me think. As a mom of nine, people are very generous to me and my family. My children’s drawers are full to overflowing with what we call “hand-me-ups”! I justify having too many clothes because 1. they were given to us, and 2. one of the other children will be able to wear them next year. Even if it is my youngest that has outgrown the clothes, I still hold onto some “just in case.” Your post hit me that what I have is a lack of faith that God’s generosity through these people will continue. I can share the goodness with others, too.

    • Kelly, your perspective was a great one for me to hear. I too tend to save everything “just in case,” and yet other people always seem to come through for us as well. And I tend to forget that what I’m holding on to, other people aren’t able to use in the interim! So it’s a good reminder for me to have a looser grip on the things in my life. Thank you.

  3. I really appreciate this! I wondered the same things for myself when I considered doing 40 bags! (And then I didn’t commit to it completely because my new baby is demanding enough on her own, haha!)

    One of the things I considered was doing it as alms giving for my family. There was no doubt in my mind that I would be doing it as spring cleaning, but my family desperately needs a cleaner, less cluttered home! I’m working on a few ways to do that this Lent, but I think that principle could still apply to 40 bags. Maybe you’re not giving the best to others, and that’s something to strongly consider, but are you trying to give your best to your family by getting a cleaner, more organized house?

    I feel like on paper (or screen) that still sounds really selfish, but as someone who personally struggles with always giving my best to others and leaving the rest for my husband and baby, it was something I definitely needed to consider!

    • I hear you, Brittany – I definitely haven’t committed to the full 40 bags because life is too demanding already! 🙂 I appreciate your perspective about seeing this effort as giving towards my family. It definitely has given me opportunities to talk to my kids about how we’re giving away clothes/toys/etc that we’re no longer using in order to share them with people who might need them, because Jesus always shared with people in need. But secretly, I have to admit that I am definitely the one who loves and longs for the cleaner house. My husband and kids are perfectly happy with a state of mess that I can’t stand, lol!

      • Haha! Well that’s sort of good that they’re comfortable with messy, right?

        It’s totally the opposite in my home, No, I take it back, my 6-month old is very comfortable with a mess, but I feel like I have to draw the line when she’s licking the dirty laundry that is, yes, on the living room floor and has been there for three days because our excess of clothing made us have to do a laundry marathon of epic proportions.

        Hm, having to write that out loud (?) I’m going to have to stop here and go start filling up bags now…

  4. It’s good to question and get deeper within your motivations, but part of me also wants to say, don’t be too hard on yourself! Even if part of the benefit is for you, there is certainly still a benefit for those who receive your stuff. One person’s junk is still another person’s treasure. It’s still an act of goodwill in some way, if the stuff you are giving away is usable – at least you are not throwing it away in trash bags.

    I am not doing the 40 bags for Lent, but if I were doing this for Lent the most frustrating part for me would be the 40 bags themselves, since that does sound like a lot of clutter. I would probably just pile everything into a few garbage bags, then take it to Goodwill all at once.

    • Lea, I had to laugh when I read your comment tonight, because indeed, these bags are piling up in every room and I have to get them to Goodwill or we’ll all be buried soon! Certainly I think there’s a balance between the comfort and the challenge of this effort…yes I’m glad that others will be able to use what we’re giving away, but I am also learning that there’s much more we are called to do beyond what feels comfortable. I think much of the Christian life is like that – eek! So I’m welcoming Lent as a time to pray and consider what that might mean for us.

  5. This is an excellent reflection. I read it over the weekend and yesterday spent some time seriously going through a basement closet filled with all those clothes that “might” fit me again “someday.” The coat closet is next. I agree that hanging onto all this stuff is a sign that I need to trust more and hoard less. Thanks for the motivation! And I don’t think that all of this is a sign of failure. A mid-Lent reevaluation just shows that you have grown as a result of your Lenten practices.

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