A Tidy Life: Ignatian Discernment and Thomistic Anthropology

“Does it spark joy?” This is the central question of Marie Kondo’s KonMari method of tidying up. As I go through my possessions I need to hold them in my hands and ask this question: does it spark joy? If the answer is “yes,” then I should keep it. If the answer is “no,” then I should get rid of it. Marie Kondo is now a best-selling author with a Netflix original series, so there must be many people who find this method helpful. As such, there is undoubtedly some kernel of truth in it that can be found and appropriated in other ways. This element of truth, if we can discover it, will likely stay with us long after the fad has passed. Saints Ignatius of Loyola and Thomas Aquinas can help us sift out that nugget of truth.

After having been injured by a cannonball, St. Ignatius spent a lengthy period of time recuperating. Looking for a way to pass the time, he asked for some books to read. He had been hoping for grand stories of knights on adventures, but instead was given lives of various saints and of Christ. Having no other choice, he read the pious books. Paradoxically, he found that while he did not enjoy the books nearly as much while he was reading them as he did the tales of knights, he continued to have a kind of peace and joy that remained with him after he had finished the books. The enjoyment he received from the stories of chivalry faded, but the joy he received from reading about the saints and Christ remained. This realization formed the seed of what later became known as Ignatian discernment. Abiding joy reveals that a thing is of God rather than of the world.

Turning to St. Thomas, we can answer the question of what exactly joy is. Drawing from the teachings of Aristotle, St. Thomas expanded upon human anthropology in light of God’s revelation. On a purely natural level, joy is an emotion resulting from the possession of the good. When St. Ignatius read the chivalric tales, he saw in them some good and so had joy while reading them. Unfortunately, there was little good in them that he managed to hold onto after he was done reading, and so his joy quickly faded. On the other hand, reading about the saints and about Christ produced a good in him that remained, thereby causing his joy also to remain. Ultimately, we desire a joy that will never fade but remain with us forever. Such everlasting joy, however, can only be had by possessing an everlasting good, and the only everlasting good is God. This is the joy we will have in heaven.

Looking again at the KonMari method, we can consider the various joys that we experience before arriving in heaven. Lent is precisely a time of tidying as opposed to cleaning. The KonMari method recognizes that our lives are too cluttered and that we need to reduce that clutter. In “tidying up,” we aren’t throwing away trash and cleaning away grime. Instead we are making more room by getting rid of unnecessary good things. During Lent we do not give up sins—sins should be given up at all times of the year. Instead, we give up things that might give us only an ephemeral joy in order to have more room in our lives for the things that produce a lasting joy. The key to deciding what to give up in KonMari is to hold in our hands the item we are deciding to keep or discard and to ask if it gives us joy. To this important step, I might add that we ask the question again after we have set the item aside. “Has this thing given me lasting joy?” Many things seem good while we possess them but bring little joy after. By giving up those things which produce only ephemeral joy, we make more room for the divine things that give us lasting joy.

Image: Johan Zoffany, Tribuna of the Uffizi

From Dominicana Journal