Simplicity

A week after the extravagance of Christmas it’s good to ask who among us has immunity from our cultural disease of “affluenza”? Hermits would tell us that, first of all, consumption is a very social phenomenon: keeping up with one’s neighbors or colleagues, a jealous and envious competition, is essentially a social and contrived behavior; and secondly, most consumption is psychological: to assuage a hurt, to relieve stress, to serve as self-reward, or to indulge a desire for pleasure or greed.

Many of the books written today on simplicity tend to focus on cutting out coupons, attending cheaper matinee movies, or hosting pot-luck instead of dinner parties which makes frugality an end in itself. These are great formulas for tightwads and eccentrics. They are not necessarily advice for someone who is seeking deeper roots to simplicity.


 

Simplicity

A week after the extravagance of Christmas it’s good to ask who among us has immunity from our cultural disease of “affluenza”? Hermits would tell us that, first of all, consumption is a very social phenomenon: keeping up with one’s neighbors or colleagues, a jealous and envious competition, is essentially a social and contrived behavior; and secondly, most consumption is psychological: to assuage a hurt, to relieve stress, to serve as self-reward, or to indulge a desire for pleasure or greed.

Many of the books written today on simplicity tend to focus on cutting out coupons, attending cheaper matinee movies, or hosting pot-luck instead of dinner parties which makes frugality an end in itself. These are great formulas for tightwads and eccentrics. They are not necessarily advice for someone who is seeking deeper roots to simplicity. And of course they are also about “voluntary simplicity” and as such they seldom rise above the level of seeking more clever ways to be consumers. The desire is to coexist, even cooperate, with our contemporary religion of commercialism. For many of us, our simple life style is merely a mild form of hedonism for those seeking slick ways of finding low cost substitutes for the pleasures enjoyed by the conspicuously wealthy and powerful which, by our more limited resources, are denied to the rest of us. Such approaches to simplicity fail to get to the core of spiritual change.

Yoga and meditation are marketed today not as religion and not to change a person’s life but to relieve the stress that makes the rat race so tiresome. That’s not to deny the benefits of stress management. Many people do achieve incremental changes that lead to a more open mind and heart. But as long as the premises of our culture go unchallenged or are only challenged as excesses and not as false premises, a person will not achieve a breakthrough in thinking or daily living.

In her book The Holy Way: Practices for the Simple Life Paula Huston, a Catholic convert from Lutheranism, includes a chapter for each of ten virtues on the path to simplicity. It’s reminiscent of the eight-fold noble path of Buddhism. It is filled with anecdotes, opinions and misgivings about very basic practices and attitudes. The simplicity Huston advocates means increased study and faith, but it fails to challenge the context of society. Huston seems to conclude, ambiguously, that the need to travel the whole path is itself a bitter gift.

You could ask whether our own Quaker tradition offers a clearer commitment to simplicity. In his A Quaker Book of Wisdom: Life Lessons in Simplicity, Service and Common Sense, the former headmaster of the notably un-simple Sidwell Friends School, Robert Lawrence Smith tells us that for Quakers, simplicity follows our form of worship. Quaker simplicity has little to do with how many things you own and everything to do with not letting your possessions own you. He advises: “Remember to pay attention to the spirit’s first command — to be good at life.” Unfortunately this is little more that the typical rationale that the “haves” use to defend not merely their possessions but luxuries!

In the 1750’s John Woolman wrote of the commerce of his day: “How lamentable is the present corruption of the world! How impure are the channels through which trade is conducted!” I don’t see where commercial economics have changed much since then. Scott Savage, a convert to a Quakerism of a notably “plain” version, has written A Plain Life and is a bit more down to earth than Smith. He says that he and his wife have gone from being dual-income-no-kids urban professionals to being Amish-like rural folk with a third of the money, a tenth of the possessions, and a household of blessed children.

Though physical circumstances conducive to simple habitat is at a premium in our world, it is presumed that simplicity comes easier, both materially and spiritually, when physical and economic circumstances reinforce these values. That would leave you to believe that those on the lesser end of the economic spectrum, living an enforced simpler life style, are more blessed than the rich and famous. The key factor to simplicity is not so much the material circumstances in which we live but rather the integrity of our spiritual pilgrimage. Being informed by a clear set of values from a religious tradition obviously helps on the path to simplicity. Seeking consistently to follow a path is the only standard, everything else is relative. Indeed, fully intentional integrity may come later than the outward signs of simplicity but the path is to start practicing, then see what happens.

As did early Quakers, the ancients counseled a reduction of ego and self first which then made it easier to reduce possessions and possessiveness. The whole of Quaker spirituality is about a stewardship of one’s self as a talent entrusted by its creator to us. The Apostle Paul in Romans 12 described his own self sacrificial spirituality. “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”

That to which Paul challenges us isn’t something that comes easily. When you page through the list of the notables of salvation history, starting as early as Abraham who is called to divest himself of homeland and family to follow God’s leading, you are confronted with innumerable stories of self sacrifice. Paul says: “present your bodies a living sacrifice” that is, make a gift to God of all that God has entrusted to you, not on your death bed but with all your vigor starting now. The sacrificial image Paul draws upon is that of being drained of the life of the world and being consumed by the Holiness of God. The devouring fire will burn away everything that is not of God.

Throughout my life to be thought a non-conformist was one of the worst things that could be said about someone. But here, to be one who refuses to conform to the values of the prevailing culture is held up as the standard for spiritual living.

Isaiah 33:14-17 brings it all home: “…Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings? He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil; He shall dwell on high: his place of defense shall be the munitions of rocks: bread shall be given him; his waters shall be sure. Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty: they shall behold the land that is very far off.” Some of those phrases almost bite. Walking righteously, speaking uprightly, despising the gain of oppressions, shaking bribes from one’s hands, refusing to contemplate bloodshed… Is this not simplicity?

Slowly, simplicity blossoms in our lives without our having to consult the well-meaning but half-hearted efforts of writers on voluntary simplicity who still think in terms of how to justify partaking of the offerings of modern culture instead of thinking in terms of spiritual integrity.

Frank Levering, son of Sam and Miriam Levering, left a Hollywood life style to move back to the family apple orchard established by his grandfather just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. His book, Simple Living: One Couple’s Search for a Better Life chronicles his and his wife Wanda Urbanska’s re-discovery of simple living. One paragraph stands out: “Many Quakers would insist that simplicity in all its aspects must come from a unified vision of the nature of God. In the life of Jesus, they would argue, are found the essential, eternal truths from which simplicity follows. Those who would simplify their lives must forge a binding relationship with God much as Jesus did. Simplicity does not engender a more spiritual life; the spiritual life engenders simplicity.”

 

 

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Pastor's Page. Bookmark the permalink.