“What is simplicity? That can be your first blog!” my friend exclaimed. She had just asked me to pray for her because she felt called to simplify her ever-expanding homeschooling book collection.
Strangely, or providentially, enough, I had decided earlier in the day to start a blog focusing on the theory and practice of whatever it is that I do. I am not sure what to call it because some people will understand me if I say locally based, green living. Others, who would dismiss me as a left-wing nut when they hear that kind of language, would understand me if I say I am writing about the practice of evangelical poverty and asceticism and its relationship to the concept of subsidiarity. Personally, I prefer to think of myself as a part time hermit and goat-herding philosopher, thereby ensuring that everyone of whatever theological and political persuasion thinks I am a nut.
Therefore, I had already settled on simplicity as a focus when my friend made her prayer request. This started a conversation and reflection on simplicity. We hear the word all of the time; we use it all of the time; we think we know what it means; but do we? Sometimes when city people come to the farm they say things like, “How wonderful to lead such a simple life!” Others have a way of saying, “You make your own maple syrup?! Wouldn’t it be simpler to go to the supermarket and buy it?” The first group of people might mean that life is simple because it has fewer distractions or that there is a closer connection to primary goods like food without the middle men of truckers, supermarkets, etc. The second group means that making syrup involves a long process of many labor intensive steps as opposed to buying the syrup in one step. Both use the word “simple” in valid ways, but they imply radically different lifestyles. If one accepts along with the great spiritual thinkers, both Christian and non-Christian that simplicity is a virtue, what does it imply concretely for a choice of lifestyle? In order to answer that question in the particulars of our own lives, we must consider what simplicity is and why it is something to be sought.
To be simple is to be without division. It is to be whole. The starting point for simplicity is in the heart, soul, and mind. It must find its outward expression in the material surroundings, but the material surroundings are neither its origin nor its end. One may have the urge, whether of grace or of nature, to simplify but become so focused on the material that the reason for simplifying is lost. I like cleaning out my closet frequently because an over abundance of clothes distracts and burdens me. But the cleaning out of the closet can itself become a distraction and a compulsive activity. The freedom I seek in simplifying is lost because I have made a little idol out of the act of simplifying. I choose a rural lifestyle because I believe that the modern world has become so complex and so far removed from the primary world that it threatens our psychological and spiritual health, as well as the health of the Earth, our home and the home of our children. But sometimes I get so caught up in the dynamic of avoiding waste or raising food that I threaten my own psychological well being. This is not simplicity. Simplicity must have its origins in the interior life of the heart, mind and soul. It must arise from wholeness of purpose and person, otherwise it becomes just another complex ritual.
“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Mt.22:37-39). This is a singleness of purpose that encompasses all of life. This is vibrant life-giving simplicity. It may find expression at one time or in one person’s life in the act of making maple syrup; for a different time or a different person it may mean buying or giving it up all together. That might sound complex but it is not. It is simply having the strength and the wisdom to recognize and act on the understanding of ourselves and our neighbors as the image of God, called to share in the fullness of His life. The strength comes from action the wisdom from contemplation. Life lived to the full requires both. Anything that distracts and divides us from the fullness of life for which we were created takes us away from wholeness and simplicity.