Holy Simplicity


“I recommend to you holy simplicity.”
-St. Francis de Sales

The following is from my 1997 pilgrimage diary. It was hard for me to believe that the third sentence of the opening paragraph was written before the attacks of 9/11, before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, before the great economic collapse caused by banking maleficence. All the things that were bad in 1997 are even worse in 2013.

These are complex times. And we lead complex lives. We live in a hectic, fast-paced society that is filled with moral dilemmas, financial worries, ecological disasters, criminal violence, racial bigotry, corporate greed, decaying inner cities, global political unrest and economic instability, and deadly wars fueled by religious differences which pit neighbor against neighbor. We are stressed and anxious, as we breathlessly chase after more and more possessions. Our passion to possess blinds us to the reality that much of the world is enduring poverty and starvation on a scale unmatched in human history. I read somewhere that 400 people a day die of starvation. It seems unthinkable. But the sad truth is that millions of malnourished and aimless people are living on the edge of extinction.

What can I do? I think St. Francis of Assisi would recommend that I take a close look at the virtue of simplicity. By way of simplicity, Francis was able to enter into the deep silence of his heart.

Simplicity is hard. Attaining it will not eliminate the complexity of modern life and all its intricate personal and global problems. I think simplicity allowed Francis to live in harmony with the ordered complexity of his day. As his heart grew in simplicity, he was better able to understand the Lord and the world around him.

Francois Fenelon, in his book Christian Perfection, wrote: “It is a wise self-love, which wants to get out of the intoxication of outside things.” Before I can free myself from the lure of material things, I have to become more sensitive to the things of the spirit, which will diminish my chances of being dazzled by superficial allurements. More important than a new car or the fastest computer will be the latest revelation from God on how I can better love my neighbor while at the same time deflecting my own self-centered greed. Through simplicity we learn that self-denial paradoxically leads to true self-fulfillment. Simplicity allows us to hold the interests of others above out self-interest. Real simplicity is true freedom. The constant drumbeat of materialism will no longer be deafening. We will desire less, and be happy with less.

Simplicity is the best method of stripping away excess baggage that weighs us down, along with all the nonessential adornments that surround us. As these distractions disappear, the reality of God becomes clearer. Simplicity is a much subtler and more profound concept than voluntary poverty, which is much smaller in scope, because simplicity not only reduces material possessions it also diminishes the desire for them. Simplicity immunizes against the plague of consumerism.

Pope John XXIII said, “The older I grow, the more clearly I perceive the dignity and winning beauty of simplicity in thought, conduct, and speech: a desire to simplify all that is complicated and to treat everything with the greatest naturalness and clarity.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, “On our crowed planet there are no longer any internal affairs.” Our future depends on more and more people learning to live more simply. It has been said that the world has enough resources to meet everyone’s need, but not enough to match everyone’s greed. Americans make up six percent of the world’s population, yet we gobble up more than thirty percent of the globe’s resources. If the rest of the planet follows our greedy example it will spell disaster for humanity. Large segments of the world’s population are already living without hope, tottering on the brink of a cruel death by starvation. Simplicity is an option; it is a vital necessity. Reckless, out-of-control consumption must be curtailed before it destroys us. Unlimited growth, which fosters a throw-away culture, is a dangerous illusion. Voluntary denial is liberating. As Christians we must become advocates of the poor and the forgotten. We must become poor ourselves, living simply so others can simply live.

Jean Vanier, the remarkable found of L’Arche, said: “Simplicity is no more and no less than being ourselves, knowing that we are loved.” Francis knew, to the core of his being, that he was loved by God. Francis’ inner life was so serene, his thirst for the truth so palpable, and his freedom of attachments to material possessions was so great that he became a magnet for people wanting something deeper and more meaningful from life. From the simplicity of disentangled living Francis learned how to enter the fullness of integrated life. He possessed nothing while enjoying everything.

I’ll let St. Augustine have the last word: “All plenty which is not my God is poverty to me.”


2 Responses to “Holy Simplicity”

  1. 1 Rev. Paul McKay April 22, 2013 at 7:40 am

    We could counter a lot of the hatred toward us in this world, and a lot of terrorism, if we were as willing to live simpler and more sacrificial lives as our own ancestors did. Even during WWII the folks at home made enormous sacrifices which weren’t so hard for them because they’d always had to live simple lives that we can’t even begin to relate to in this day and age. But it doesn’t help that our political, corporate and cultural leaders urge us to go out and feed the greed machinery by shopping till we’re dropping, making more in order to buy more and have more, incurring more debt, all of which requires exploitation of resources and peoples around the world and fanning resentment if not revolution and rebellion. Consumption, like everything else, isn’t bad in and of itself. But you’re so right about this: Reckless, out-of-control consumption must be curtailed before it destroys us. Unlimited growth, which fosters a throw-away culture, is a dangerous illusion.

  1. 1 The constant drumbeat of materialism « Franciscan Quote of the Day Trackback on April 30, 2013 at 5:05 am

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