We often think of simplicity in terms of minimizing, down-sizing, and reducing what we consume. One of the precepts that we cite regularly are the words of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: “We live simply so that others may simply live.” But simplicity means much more than this.
Simplicity is a fundamental acceptance of our human condition. It is the acknowledgment of an existence that is, to use a phrase from the Book of Common Prayer, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Simplicity is also a confrontational critique and denunciation of the idolatry of wealth. Jesus lovingly said to the wealthy young ruler: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the moneyto the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mark 10:17-27). These words inspired the Desert Fathers and Mothers and the later monastic tradition to leave everything to pursue God. By practicing simplicity we stand in the long tradition of faithful Christians who recognized the demonic potentialities of possessions and refused complicity with their lure and their lies.
Simplicity doesn’t only deconstruct wealth; it is also constructive. Simplicity aims to create beauty. We actually find the beauty of simplicity throughout society. It is the beauty of God’s ordered creation, which resonates in us when we experience health, justice, salvation and life.
While beauty is most obvious in art and literature, where the artist pursues aesthetics in symmetry, tone and coordination, it is also evident in sciences. For example, the 2012 Nobel Prize winners in economics are praised for creating something beautiful, as their work results in better patient care and education. Dorothy Wrinch’s molecular theory is called by our contemporaries a “beautiful vision” because it takes the complexities of data and gives a simple explanation. Likewise, in the domain of physics, scientists call Einstein’s theory of relativity “elegant”.
However, the aesthetic character of simplicity isn’t always easy to see. For example, I have had the opportunity to visit a particular monastery carved out of the hills in Moldova. In the bottom of a cave is a chapel, and at the entrance to the chapel sits an old monk. Most of the time, he sits alone. It is cold. He prays. His austere life looks harsh and unattractive. But it is beautiful for those with eyes to see. The beauty radiates from his wrinkled face in his love, joy and quest for God. Simplicity is seen in the singularity of his desire to seek and love God.
Simplicity is a spirituality, a way of being in the world, and, as with any healthy lifestyle, it requires discipline and cultivation. Whenever I feel like I’m making some progress in my walk with the Lord, it seems I’m always confronted with something that opens my eyes to new profundity.
This happened on a recent visit to our community in Sierra Leone. I woke up one Sunday morning hurrying to get ready for church. I said a short prayer to ask God for energy for the day and wisdom for the activities before me. Our spirituality is reflected in our prayers.
We arrived at church and began the singing, clapping and swaying. The sister leading worship shouted a prayer: “Thank you that I am not dead.” I was cut to the quick, challenged and convicted by her prayer of boisterous gratitude, her petition for life in the midst of poverty, and her joy in the immediacy of salvation. It wasn’t that my prayer was bad or wrong, but it limped in its motivation. My prayer was an option, a choice, a luxury. My Sierra Leonean sister’s prayer was a necessity. It was a real prayer for daily bread, for the Father to provide life. For if the God of Life didn’t, who would?
The challenge for me is to move from a spirituality of luxury to a spirituality of simplicity. I am invited to embrace my human condition and be grateful in dependence and need for the Father’s life-giving love and provision. Through the practice of simplicity, we unmask the false promises of wealth for power and security. With singularity of purpose, we seek to know and love God. And, in the midst of the difficult and harsh realities of the world, we practice simplicity that is recognized for its beauty. Following her example of a spirituality of simplicity, we take up the charge of Mother Teresa: “Now let’s do something beautiful for God.”