September 22, 2009


“… keep our minds free from passion and as cheerful as we can..” – St. Thomas More, 16th Century

” This I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is appropriate and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 7:35

” Certain constant characteristics appear throughout the Psalms: simplicity and spontaneity of prayer …” – The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2589

From Barb on February 11, 2009:
“Do you have any information on living the simple life? How as followers of Christ do we view our things, time, relationships etc.. How does one live a life with God at the center? Thanks. Great website!”

The song “Simple Gifts” declares it a gift to be simple and follows it closely with the “gift to be free.” Most discussions of, or exhortations to, simplicity treat it as a matter of the external, material possessions in one’s life, or rather the lack of them. For a change, let us consider inner simplicity and what manner of life follows from it. When examining some device, the discerning person may note whether it is simple or complicated. Many people understand that delicate, complicated devices often fail or require too much care. A simple pair of scissors may remain useful past fifty years or more, and computers, the most complicated device most people own, fail with viruses, liquids dropped on the keyboard, or simply become slower until they must be replaced. In the same way, the complicated person is fragile, frustrated and more often presents a problem than a solution. The ultimate human complication is pride.

The simple life, in terms of the inner life of a human being, consists in simple existence, and this is humility. Simplicity is humility. This simple life is not about the collection of material goods, indeed, but is even more a freedom from the gnawing need for conspicuous consumption, which in turn proceeds from a need to show one’s worth. Sin complicates life, and freedom from sin simplifies it. In Zen, there is dukkha and tanha, the pain of complication and the desires that cause it. These desires are not merely for physical possessions, but an insistence that we are something we were never meant to be, and the possessions are sought only as proof. Having a large library proves we are intellectuals, money proves we have worth, lovers prove we are powerful. The complicated life, like a complicated computer or car, needs more maintenance, or at least more credit. More things, more so-called friends, more memberships, more fame are needed to fire the boilers of the mad machine, a juggernaut that begins by crushing others and ends by crushing itself. In the complicated life, one must work harder and harder to hide from the true self, creating a more and more elaborate and chaotic illusion to wrap around the small, frightened child of God inside.

The simple life begins in truth and never ends. The self is accepted as a mystery known only to God, and life is accepted as a gift that needs no gilding. The simple person may be a great mathematician, physicist or doctor, and possess vast knowledge of science, history, or biology, yet remain a person without illusions, without pretense, and without a need to be any more than what they are. This implies no distaste for their own talents, or the false humility which is yet another illusion. Knowledge, skill or even great responsibility does not require illusion. Abraham Lincoln remained simple as president, even while conducting a war with terrible consequences. Quite probably, his simplicity, his simple humility, was a great asset and left him free to use his intellect and compassion to conduct a nation’s affairs with greater skill than has been seen since.

The simple life can be understood. Simple people understand each other, then can be direct with each other in simple speech, and they can trust each other. In Heaven, all are simple because all the illusions, the unnecessary parts of us that we add as an improvement on the Creator’s work, have been taken away. The passions complicate us, but overcoming them with reason and Grace quiets the storm and stills the waters. God’s forgiveness of sin is a simplification, just as the algebra student simplifies an equation, taking away all the expressions with no value, reducing it to a simpler form that expresses the truth in perfect economy. The forgiven person is completely free, and can make choices without concern for illusions or proving anything to anyone.

Considering all this, it is indeed true that that inner simplicity generally results in fewer possessions, a more relaxed life, and a kind of harmony with the universe, but these are all relative. A hermit reading Thoreau by the pond may be full of pride because of an imagined simplicity, while a harried office manager may be utterly unconcerned with his or her image, simply doing the best job possible, supporting customers and fellow workers reliably, and living within the means the job provides. The worst path to simplicity is to attempt it directly. Integrity, humility, prayer, charity, cheerfulness, honesty, and joy in knowing our littleness before God are bound to simplify. Complications, inner or material, are avoided by such a person because they distract from these beautiful things, and above all because they come between us and God, and can only make life less joyful.

For continued reading:

“The Great Divorce ,” by C.S. Lewis

“The New Man ,” by Thomas Merton

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