09 Nov Make your hearts glad as you are able
Advent is looming: time, in the words of one of my favourite Advent carols (‘People, Look East’) to ‘trim the hearth and set the table’. This ‘trimming’ and ‘setting’ started two months ago for me when I finally accepted that I could no longer keep all the books I have so enjoyed collecting for most of my life. There are many piles of papers and files to deal with, too. So, I am de-cluttering and letting in more light.
My knowing and feeling that I want to do this is a vocation rather than a chore. Books are an important part of my life, and the call on me significantly to reduce the number I have arises from me trying to live more like a Benedictine. I’ve just been reading his chapters about excommunication in the monastery in which he emphasizes his vision of growth for all who try to follow Christ. ‘The purpose of excommunication’, writes Joan Chittister in response to Chapter 27 of Benedict’s Rule, ‘is to enable a person to get life in perspective and to start over again with a new heart.’ For a while now I have looked onto my excess of books and papers and felt as though I have a new heart living in contradiction to my environment.
So, I prayed about how best to get rid of many of my books. My prayer was answered four-fold: ‘Keep only those you truly love’; ‘Only keep those you have not read if you are likely to read them’; ‘If in doubt, give it away’; and ‘Any decision you make will be the right decision.’ This is Godly advice because it is gentle and encouraging, but also surprising. And it is achievable (with enough love, care, and dedication): the kind of advice that leads to growth.
But it is difficult to give away books. Each one I pick up and hold has its own claims for attention from me. If I’ve read it, I immediately remember something about it, why I’ve kept it, who gave it to me, or where I bought it, and why. My objective was not simply to get rid of all of my books, but significantly to reduce them in number. This was always going to be a process, rather than an event – like spiritual growth. Selling my books was not something I was interested in, nor would I have time for it. Instead, I have given 750 books to Oxfam. They will turn them into bread and feed people. I have given away my books in order for them to become the bread of life. They will feed people, and I am fed by the act of giving.
I have since received an email from Oxfam letting me know that so far my donations (with Gift Aid) have already raised enough for a farmer in Rwanda to buy two pregnant pigs. The piglets might be passed on to benefit more people in the community, and dried pig waste provides an easier and more efficient source of fuel than going out to collect firewood.
But it’s not just about books. I am now going through all of my cupboards, emptying my storage spaces, weeding my filing cabinets, drawers, pictures, wardrobe, CDs, DVDs, and furniture. The joy of seeing a bookcase that is not overflowing (and even has a few gaps), or those spare coat-hangers on the wardrobe rail, or a newly exposed stretch of skirting-board, far outweighs the satisfaction of being attached to the things that used to be there. With all this comes a fuller understanding that nothing I have is of any intrinsic value. My books and papers and objects are of the earth, and reminders of my own earthiness. The more I realise this, the more excited and happy I feel. And fewer books I have, the more I appreciate them.
The space and environment around me are becoming wiser; my rough places are being made plain. It is like watching light break in – gradually.
Paul Edmondson is Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 2011 and is a long-standing friend of SSMV.