The Spirituality of Shredding
I’ve been doing a lot of shredding lately. I’m cleaning out some of my storage boxes. I don’t want to leave all this “stuff” for someone else to have to deal with once I’m gone.
Most of my boxes are related to my years as a writer. I sold my first article on September 4, 1974. A writer remembers particulars like that. Other boxes are related to my retreat work and to those many talks I’ve given over the past four decades. I already pitched most of my teaching materials. One day (about 15 years ago) I realized I would never be teaching “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or the history of the English language again. So swoosh! I threw out my notes.
So what is in my boxes that I am shredding now? Here’s a sampling:
1) acceptance letters for articles I’ve sold.
2) rejection letters for articles I didn’t sell. (I used to have hundreds of them. Early in my writing career I would post my rejection letters all over my office. They were of varying sizes, shapes, and colors. When a visitor would ask what they were, I’d say, “Rejection letters.” Then I’d add, “Notice how diverse they are. Yet, they all say the same thing: NO!” (I always remembered that Dr. Suess’s first book was rejected by 26 editors before the 27th one bought it.)
3) correspondence with editors (over the years I’ve had many wonderful, talented, and helpful editors.)
4) duplicate copies of my unpublished poems, short stories, and articles
The shredder we have here in our convent is a small one. I knew the volume of materials I was going to shred would demand a heavy-duty shredder. Fortunately, we have such a shredder at our provincial center. It shreds about 10-12 sheets at a time. The manual claims it can shred even staples, paper clips, and credit cards—though I’ve never tested that claim.
The shredder sits in a small windowless room in the basement. The only other things in the room are a two-drawer file cabinet (where the large plastic garbage bags are kept) and two small chairs to put your stuff on while you stand and shred. When you turn the shredder on, it makes a loud noise—like a hungry dinosaur. When you begin feeding the paper into its jaws, the noise gets even louder as it devours your pages and then spits them into the attached garbage bag. Here are a few of my thoughts while shredding…
1) Shredding is a violent act. Shredding entails a deafening racket and a brutal ferocity. The shredded paper is indecipherable. The pages are virtually gone. Of course, I’ve seen police dramas where forensic detectives glue the shredded paper back together and solve the crime. But my shreds are destined for a recycling center.
2) Shredding is a painful act. It’s not easy to shred certain materials. As I feed the machine, I glance at the pages and find myself saying, “This is my life! These pages represent years of my work and ministry. And in one instant, they’re all gone! Wow!” At times I feel as if I am being shredded. So painful is shredding, I often won’t even look at the papers I’m feeding into the machine so I can’t see what I’m shredding.
4) Shredding is a freeing act. Ironically, shredding also gives me a sense of exhilaration. Shredding is a profound act of letting go. When I shred, I find myself saying, “I don’t need this stuff anymore. That part of my life is over.” I find this extremely freeing.
5) And finally, shredding is a grateful act. As I shred, I find myself thanking God for my life that these pages represent. “Thank you God, for my editors… for my readers… for my students… for the gifts of writing and speaking… for your consistent inspiration… for my little successes… for my disappointments and failures which (I hope) have made me more humble and compassionate and trusting of You… Thank you, God, for my whole life which has led me to where I am now and who I am today. Amen.”
Have you ever used a shredder? If so, do you have any thoughts about shredding?
Have you ever had an experience where you felt God was asking you to let go? (perhaps you were downsizing… or cleaning out a deceased loved one’s belongings… or clinging to a relationship… or hanging on to the past.) What was that experience like for you? How did you feel? How long did the letting go take? What helped you to let go?
PS: I ask your prayers for two presentations. On Monday Nov. 5 I will be talking on Mary for the RCIA group at our parish, St. Mary Chardon. Then on Friday Nov. 9 I’ll be leading a retreat day for the pastoral staff of St. Noel Parish in Willoughby Hills, OH. Thank you for your prayers.
Our song today is called “Let Go,” and it’s by Matt Hammit. I think it captures well some of our fears about letting go.
Now it’s your turn! I invite you to respond to the reflection, the questions, or the song. My readers always tell me how much they look forward to reading your responses!
Good one Sr. Melannie!
When I retired last year, I felt like I was shredding my life as a teacher. I am finding news that the Holy Spirit is leading me to share my talents and time. Letting go of the routine of the past has been a challenge at times.
In my ministry at the Provincial Center Medical Benefits dept. I shred a lot of paper. We are trying to go paperless as much as we can and keep documents, invoices, letters on the computer. After the scanning and relabeling are complete we can shred the original documents. It is a cleansing process as there is so much paper that is now removed from our office and things are more streamlined and less cluttered. The shredder and I are good friends.
I don’t agree that your life is “gone” when you shred all those articles, poems and talks. It’s just the paper that is gone. Those thoughts live on in your mind and more so in the minds of all those who attended your talks or read your publications. So shred away Mel and remember only the paper is gone.
Your request for prayers for your presentation on Mary for RCIA brought to mind my experience of doing the same thing several years ago.
In the group was a man who had been brought up in the Baptist tradition, needing to see proof in black and white before embracing a belief. What a challenge for me. I asked the help of a bible scholar here in our city to help me come up with biblical proof, if you will. After presenting all I had learned plus some, he said that the story of the wedding feast at Cana proved it for him because he figured that if Jesus would listen to his mother when she beseeched him to do what he could on earth, why wouldn’t she continue to do that in heaven. Thus he came to believe that indeed Mary can intercede for us when we ask.
The song is most appropriate for the day before the midterm elections when about all that’s left to do is cast one’s ballot!
I agree wholeheartedly with Eileen! As a former student of Sr Melanie from her Regina High School days, I am someone who actually learned the Rime of the Ancient Mariner from her and benefited those notes that have been shredded. So thank you Sr Melanie… Though your notes may be gone, your work does live on in the minds and hearts of your grateful students!
Blessings and prayers for the success of your retreat today…
Kathleen, It’s also a special blessing to hear from a former student. Thank you so much for responding! Sr. Melannie
Your topic of shredding — shedding, too? — is timely, Melannie. I retired from teaching in June of 2017, was brought back in October of 2017, “retired for good!” in June of 2018, only to take on a long term sub gig (maternity leave) in Sept. of 2018. I want to retire, I want to shed the skin of my teaching past, and I want to move on. Yes, it will be liberating. And when I do throw away that part of my life, I will take your idea and bless and offer thanks for each bit of “once was.”
I so connect with your experience. When we moved a few years ago, I emptied my files filled with retreat talks, prayer services, correspondence, etc. When it became difficult to shred something, I’d say to myself “I’m getting rid of a piece of paper (or photograph, etc), but the memory is mine forever; or I’m getting rid of a photo, not the person and the impact that person had on my life.” It helped.
Love your column. Keep it going.
Hi Melanie, I use all paper shredding in my compost pile. It gives air to the wet shredded leaves, grass and wet vegetables. Just another layer to make unbelievable earth for my summer garden. Love your blog!
For me, it was not shredding, but still, emptying bags and boxes of birthday, Christmas, and other cards sent to me over more than 20 years. I hated to part with them, kept thinking of reading through all of them once again to save just the most special ones. I realized no one would go through all these cards when I leave this earth—they are only meaningful to me! So I looked at all the boxes and bags, treasured the thoughtfulness of family and many friends, and finally just “let go.” Admittedly there was a little wrench to my heart as I closed the lid of the recycle container.
Please tell the St. Noel staff hi from Kevin and I.
Shredding….letting go…………downsizing……..it’s especially hard after losing a loved one. That one takes longer to get rid of stuff. Right after is not the time, at least for me. I’m having a problem with some of my children’s old school papers, etc. Silly me! It seems that every time I put a box for donation, or clean a closet or clean out a drawer, there’s more stuff in it……magically! How does that happen?
I have a shredder at work, and as it is loud and fierce, it’s mostly patient information that I’ve already looked at and put into the electronic health record so it’s not that painful. It is a feeling of satisfaction that I’ve finally finished all I needed to do for them for the day!
Chris, Yes I will give your greetings to the staff at St. Noel’s. (Chris and her husband Kevin were very active at St. Noel’s before their move to Texas. Chris is also a former student of mine). I never realized how hard it must be for parents to get rid of their children’s old school papers–especially all those are projects! Thanks again, Chris, for writing! Sr. Melannie
I think I’ll take the kids art work and give it to them to show to their kids!!!! Then I don’t have to “throw it away”!
The topic today is so very relevant to my life now. My husband has been in the hospital for 4 1/2 months and will remain in rehab a few more months. On June 19 ,he was admitted to have angioplasty of his left leg due to peripheral artery disease which was unsuccessful.
On June 23 , he had an above knee amputation and many trips back to the OR to treat infections. Due to poor circulation in his right foot, he has had part of it amputated. I’m explaining all of this because we have to let go of our lives as we knew them which is daunting. Please pray for us.
Thank you, Sr. Melanie,
Books are tough for me to let go of, especially my “God books” as my daughter calls them. I finally succeeded with getting two boxes of books together and donated them to a nearby retreat center. I could not believe the smiles as the women were delighting in going through them. One woman thanked me four times before she left. All this time, those books were sitting untouched on my shelves – just waiting for their new friends!
Thank you, Holy Spirit!
Your theme on shredding came at a most appropiate moment. I am in the process of preparing to leave Cochabamba, Bolivia after working here for 28 years. I´m doing a lot of shredding (but by hand) and a LOT of letting go. As my health is bidding me to leave, I also am lettin go of the youth with which I came here.
At the same time I received news of a dear friend, Sr. Marilyn, who was in a bad accident and is in critical condition. So I ask for prayers for her.
I especially appreciate the song as I go through the many “letting go´s”. I am sure that I will be listening to it again.
Sr. Mary Therese
Dear Mary Therese, What a major transition you are experiencing! I’m sure my readers are praying for you and for your dear friend, Marilyn. Many blessings on your “letting go’s.” Melannie
Multiple Choice: 1, 2, 3, 4. And a fill in choice: All of the above! The choice if it had a circle would be: All of the above.
Your post just hit home in so many ways. All my teaching notes — gone!
Someone commented on bags and bags of bd and Christmas cards: I don’t have bags and bags but I did re-read them and wrote down names so that I would remember them and the good times we had. I can’t thank you enough for this post. Just makes it easier to have your thoughts about it and to see that all of us are doing some shredding. Now if I could just shred my camping tent and camping supplies! But I just can’t get rid of them yet. Its that part of letting go and I just can’t — not yet.
I tnought it was funny when i clicked on the song by Matt, the link for vipkidteacher.com. Since I still do a little home tutoring, I clicked on it. It was for teaching English on-line. Prayers and thoughts and spirit hugs for you Melannie!
You have no idea how relevant your blog and the song are for me today. I’m not shredding paper, but I need to let go of a volunteer task I have been doing for twelve years at my parish. I need to let someone else take over, and it can be so hard to let go. Thank you so very much for all your encouraging and inspiring messages.
I loved your description of the little room with two chairs and the sounds of the shredder machine!! I felt like I was there!
I also could relate to the emotions you described! It is very freeing to let go of stuff, creating space (inside and out) to respond to God’s current call in my life! He never leaves us alone.
If it’s really had to part with something, I’ll grab my phone and take a picture of it to keep and treasure the memories. Then…I’ll let it go!
May God bless your upcoming talks…and writings…
For, day by day, God is always calling us to something…something new.
On Saturday I found and shredded old medical records from my husband’s struggle through illness. We worked as a team through each new problem that he encountered. We were closer each day as the struggle became harder. After he died I started to part with ‘things’, but his heart and soul remain inside of me. I took his flannel shirts, which he loved, cut them up and made them into a quilt for my grandson. My daughter in law says that my grandson wraps himself up in it regardless of the weather. Love lives on in a new way.
Many years ago I struggled with depression and went for counseling. At that time I kept a series of journals so that I could get my thoughts, fears, dreams, etc. on paper. When I celebrated my 25th jubilee, I re-read those journals and then shredded most of them. I did keep sections that I wanted to remember as great insights. That helped me to celebrate my growth and healing and to remember how God journeyed with me during that difficult part of my life. The shredding was a way to ritualize that time of growth and to walk joyfully into the present and the future knowing I was loved by God just as I am.
We can always depend on you to help us find God in the mundane, like a shredder!
Still remember when you came to our parish in Winter Haven, Florida, over 35 years ago for a retreat. You were probably just starting out then. Blessings on you for choosing to follow God’s call.
Well, you really motivated me this morning! I have drawers full of cards and plastic containers full of children’s newspaper clippings, letters, report cards, etc. and they range in age from 41 to 61! I went directly to a bookcase and pulled out a stack of greeting cards which my husband and I went through and read and through away all but a few of some very special ones we had sent to each other. It isn’t much, but it’s a start. Thank you!
Dear Sister Melanie,
How about teaching us about the beginning of the English language? We can learn so much from you, if you have taught it.
Think about it.
Thanks, Maggie, for the recommendation. In a future blog I will write something that pertains to the history of the English language. It’s a fascinating history that sheds light on our current English language and the rapid changes it is undergoing–especially because of the media, the new technology, and greater diversity in our culture. Thanks again! Sr. Melannie
Dear Sister Melannie,
Thank you once again for an inspirational post. As I read through it, I was reminded of the closets I’ve recently cleared out and painted. I was fortunate to find new homes for most of the old treasures I found buried within, like my 1964 manual portable typewriter is now used by a dear Amish storeowner.
But it was in reading this week’s reader replies that brought me to tears…their words full of wisdom and fortitude. A community offering the grace of pain and surrender to one another. Teachers, caregivers, a missionary, health care workers, widows, and more, all in unity.
Thank you, Sister, for bringing all these amazing people together.
And yes, each is guaranteed of my prayers. God bless you all. Joanne
Dear Joanne, I too am amazed at the community of beautiful people being formed by this little blog. Thank you for highlighting that aspect for us! Sr. Melannie
Oh can I relate to this week’s post! Like many here, I, too, am approaching a new chapter of life. In my “publish or perish” profession, files of paper from years of writing and teaching abound. What to keep? What to shred? What did it all mean? As I look through all these old files, I’m reminded of the phrase, “It seemed important at the time.” I guess we have to let go of the “stuff” of one chapter in order to move freely on to the next. There is so much collective wisdom expressed in this blog. Tonight, I’m grateful for the community you’ve created here. All are in my prayers.
Dear Sr. Melanie,
A meaningful topic this week. Thank you to everyone for sharing.
I’m on the cusp of beginning to let go and get rid of, after all who is going to love my china tea set, all my religious books, some that I have not even completed reading. I guess we all have to let go at sometime. Better before someone else has to do it for us.
My wish is strength for everyone endeavouring to clear out.
Hi Sr. Melannie,
I have just finished reading your book, “Hanging onto Hope.” It reflects the meaningful, encouraging, and funny ideas you shared with us at the weekend retreat at Siena Center in Racine, WI.
I promise I will never shred it! Thanks for being here for us…
Thanks for bonding all of us together around our common experience of letting go, so aptly symbolized by our modern day experience of shredding.
This image also made me nostalgic for those pre-EPA days when we got rid of important papers and precious memorabilia by putting them in a trash barrel in the back yard or the handy trash burner in the basement: no noisy mechanics, just smoke rising up like a burnt offering and warming us on a cool day.
Personally, I think a crosscut shredder is the way to go. And it DOES shred credit cards! While I have been shredding paper for a while now, I am currently dealing with going through Mom’s things…much more painful, I am finding. I try to remember they’re just things, and her love and feisty spirit live on in me. Loved the blog–thanks!