In this Lenten season during this Jubilee Year of Mercy, a friar recommends focusing inward to achieve joy and balance, offering practical suggestion for achieving simplicity.
I remember at one of the Province’s fraternal days sitting at a table drinking some wine and talking about Broadway. We discussed the shows we had seen and the ones that shouldn’t be missed, and went about in great detail critiquing the actors and actresses. One friar spoke out, it seemed, with pride in his voice that he knew nothing of such things, for he was a simple friar. After about 10 seconds of silence, the entire table broke into bales of laughter. Another friar turned to him and said, “I could tell you many wonderful things about yourself, but ‘simple’ would never make the list.”
This conversation stayed with me for, to be honest, I would say that I, too, am a simple friar and I am sure that if I said these words out loud, I would cause as much laughter among my brothers. So I thought that this Lent, in the spirit of the Year of Mercy, I would try to see how a life of simplicity could take root in my soul.
The Discipline of Simplicity
St. Francis was a simple person. As I reflect on his life and writings, I think I would be safe in saying that he pursued simplicity. He simply desired to eliminate everything from his life that did not lead to and enhance his understanding and love of Jesus. How would I go about doing the same thing?
I found online an article by Richard J. Foster called “The Discipline of Simplicity.” The article is very moving and very practical. I would like to summarize its contents and encourage everyone to read the entire text. Foster begins with what is obvious to me when it is said out loud: “Simplicity is freedom … Simplicity brings joy and balance.”
Foster continues, “Simplicity begins with inward focus and unity… Experiencing this inward reality liberates us outwardly. What we say becomes truthful and honest. The desire for status and position is gone because we no longer need status and position. We cease from showy extravagance not on the grounds of being unable to afford it, but on the grounds of principle. What we have and what we are become available to others. Richard Byrd, after months alone in the barren Arctic, recorded in his journal, ‘I am learning…that a man can live profoundly without masses of things.’”
Simplicity is the only thing that sufficiently reorients our lives so that possessions can be genuinely enjoyed without destroying us. “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never fail you nor forsake you’” (Heb. 13:5). Simplicity sets possession in proper perspective. “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction” (1 Tim. 6:9).
Finding the Meaning of Simplicity Today
To experience the liberating spirit of simplicity affects us both in the core of who we are and in our actions. Here are some suggestions that attempt to flesh out the meaning for simplicity today:
Develop a habit of giving things away. If you find that you are becoming attached to some possession, consider giving it to someone who needs it. Every time I am transferred, I give away many, many things. I do this because I just don’t want to pack and move and unpack so much stuff. I do admit that it feels good walking away from so much and I wish I had the courage to let go of a little more.
We could learn to enjoy things without owning them. Owning things is an obsession in our culture. Many things in life can be enjoyed without possessing or controlling them. Share things. Enjoy public parks, libraries and museums.
We could obey Jesus’ instructions about plain, honest speech. “Let what you say be simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’; anything more that this comes from evil” (Matt. 5:37). Soren Kierkegaard writes: “If thou art absolutely obedient to God, then there is no ambiguity in thee and … thou art mere simplicity before God… One thing there is which all Satan’s cunning and all the snares of temptation cannot take by surprise, and that is simplicity.”
We could learn to shun anything that keeps us from seeking first the kingdom of God. It is so easy to lose focus in the pursuit of legitimate, even good, things. Job, position, status, family, friends, security – these and many more can all too quickly become the center of attention.
I would like to close with a quote from Henry D. Thoreau:
“What you call bareness and poverty is to me simplicity. God could not be unkind to me if he should try. I love the winter, with its imprisonment and its cold, for it compels the prisoner to try new fields and resources. I love to have the river closed up for a season and a pause put to my boating, to be obliged to get my boat in. I shall launch it again in the spring with so much more pleasure. This is an advantage in point of abstinence and moderation compared with the seaside boating, where the boat ever lies on the shore. I love best to have each thing in its season only, and enjoy doing without it at all other times. It is the greatest of all advantages to enjoy no advantage at all. I find it invariable true, the poorer I am, the richer I am. What you consider my disadvantage, I consider my advantage. While you are pleased to get knowledge and culture in many ways, I am delighted to think that I am getting rid of them. I have never gotten over my surprise that I should have been born into the most estimable place in all the world, and in the very nick of time, too.”
May God give you and me the courage, the wisdom, and the strength always to hold the kingdom of God as the number one priority of our lives. To do so is to live in simplicity.
— Fr. Joseph is stationed at St. Mary’s Parish in Pompton Lakes, N.J., where he is a parochial vicar in charge of adult faith formation and evangelization. He spent the fall of 2014 on a sabbatical in the Holy Land.
Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, current event, holy day, or other seasonal theme — are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at firstname.lastname@example.org. The newsletter’s previous seasonal reflection, by John Anglin, OFM, was about Ash Wednesday.