Dear Friend of Saint Francis:
May the Lord give you Peace!
The Oxford Dictionary defines joy as a “pleasurable emotion due to well-being or satisfaction.” Our faith tells us something different. It reminds us that true joy is not due to something external but rather that it is a grace held within. For that reason, joy is different from pleasure. It is also more than an emotion. Rather, it is a quiet confidence in Providence, God’s particular benevolence. Consequently, we don’t see well-being or satisfaction quite as the world understands these terms. True joy neither requires the presence of pleasure nor the absence of pain.
“Joy is a special grace of the Franciscan movement,” Carlo Maria Martini, S.J., told young priests on retreat at La Verna at the rising of the new millennium. When we look to the source of that religious tradition, our eyes settle upon an enigmatic figure that combines austerity and jubilation; poverty and possession of all the wonders of the created world; and a peculiar fidelity to a deeply flawed church that reminds us of Jesus’ loving relationship to sinners. For Saint Francis, all was joy.
Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1: 2-4)
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The question that arises is “What causes that grace to be present?” As with all graces, the answer is partly, “Nothing but God’s free will.” Grace is gift, free and unmerited in the strictest sense. It is not an automatic response to conditions met by us. But in part, it is safe to say that certain conditions do make our appropriation of that grace easier. I propose a set of three that I call a “path to joy,” that comprises three sections.
The first is simplicity. British novelist Aldous Huxley called it “the perennial philosophy.” The Franciscan writer and lecturer Richard Rohr concluded “There is no other way.” And American essayist Henri David Thoreau regarded it as the soundest advice for any situation, “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” Saint Francis clearly recognized its importance, “Hail, Wisdom Queen, may the Lord protect thee, with thy sister, pure and holy Simplicity.” (In Praise of Virtues) Indeed, simplicity exercised with wisdom enables us to find true joy because it leads to gratitude and generosity, which are key conditions for joy.
Simplicity is the best guard against falsehood, which distracts or saps our attention and energy for joy. Simplicity reduces our options, making it easier to focus on what is necessary and life-giving. It invites us to deny frivolous obsessions for prestige, power and possession. José Hobde, a Seneca Iroquois Franciscan from the US Southwest, whom I had the honour of meeting a few years ago, wrote, “Simplicity allows us to walk in the rhythm of what is, of reality.”
Reality—our own and that of the world around it—is the foundation of simplicity. Knowledge of this spares us the inclination to needlessly complicate our lives because of persistent cues coming from the illusion of need (sometimes called wants), lies (priorities set by those motivated by ulterior motives) and deception (the masks that we wear to protect against an invasive or threatening world). Instead of illusions, lies and deception, simplicity calls us to centre our lives on what is genuinely necessary to achieving the purpose for which we were created. Among the tasks related to simplification, therefore, is discerning what that purpose is. We’ll come back to that another time.
Many people intuitively sense the need to simplify their lives. Some may try for a time and then discover that the agenda, the closet and the mind gets cluttered again almost overnight and almost magically. Why is that? In part, it is because we fail to find relevant criteria by which to choose. That brings us back to the issue of discernment. In part too, it is because making choices is difficult, even painful, and may result in grieving some of the valued things that have not made the cut. So we tolerate complexity and anxiety because we cannot decide our way through the overwhelming number of choices in our modern world. We put up with stress too because we feel a void within us and stuff that space with whatever comes to mind or to hand. (This too will come back as a theme in a later reflection.) Simply put, simplicity costs too much for most of us.
We are not the first to feel that way. In a poem entitled “Little Gidding”, poet T.S. Eliot famously wrote, “…a condition of complete simplicity, costing nothing less than everything.” The price is too high for most of us. Yet, denying ourselves the gift of simplicity also is costing nothing less than everything.
So, is simplicity even more elusive than joy? Is it only practical for monks? Each person has a unique set of challenges and must deal with them one by one. To simplify our lives, we must face the reality of why complexity has been allowed to enter our lives and which systems or elements are expendable. Simplicity is a relative term; simplification is a goal and a process that requires attention, determination and perseverance. It also requires trust and confidence in God, in ourselves and in others.
Simplicity seems to go against the grain of human nature. Nothing distracts us from our appointed purpose more than fear. Fear is the silent partner to sin, whether as omission or commission. Fear causes us to hate, to hoard, to hide behind masks and to seek security in power and wealth. But in the end, masks are ineffective. Wealth and power disappoint and fragment us. We lose track of who we are, why we are and for whom we are. Fear distorts perverts and disintegrates our true, God-given desires. Fear impairs our capacity for simplicity, unity, self-control and self-transcendence.
To come to possession in all, desire the possession of nothing. (Saint John of the Cross, Ascent of Mt. Carmel , also quoted by T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets)
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We have all had our own struggles with simplicity. Each of us has felt the burden of stuffed closets, brimming agendas and lifestyles that just seem unnecessarily stressful and complex. Despite efforts to unclutter these, the opposite seems to occur. Because nature abhors a vacuum, for each action to simplify, there is a more than equal and opposite pressure to replace what we’ve eliminated with new clutter. It’s important to recognize this tendency because we can never successfully simplify our lives by elimination alone. We must dislodge clutter with what is vital to our wellbeing. This may include setting aside prescribed times of the day or week for quietness, for activities that bring us joy, and even for being spontaneously available to seemingly serendipitous grace–availability and consciousness to be surprised by joy. It may include setting a budget for clothes and electronic gadgets. Each person will have to adopt a strategy that is appropriate to their own vulnerability to allowing power, prestige and possessions to block the route to happiness. The irony is that we allow ourselves to be persuaded by advertisers that these things constitute or enable joy. Yet we know–in the sober light of quiet reflection–that their effect is destructive at least in the long run.
Despite my knowledge of the importance of simplicity and my spiritual commitment to it, I struggle like everybody else with the discipline to say “no” to enticing opportunities that seem to multiply exponentially with the passage of time. I have often culled clothes from my closet and stored items from my basement. I have steadily lessened my dependency on goods and services. And I have turned down requests to participate in activities when I have begun to feel exhausted by the pace of life. I have also looked at how I approach activities, striving to choose the simpler rather than the more developed route. Most of you have also done these things. What I have found is that the benefit of this purgation is short-lived unless I focus my mind and heart to the joy of the less complex lifestyle. To be sustainable, a simpler life must be based on options that satisfy our most fundamental human and spiritual aspirations. Essentially, the simple life must be a shortcut to a deeply desired destination.
Simplicity is not simplistic. Naivety is more likely to have us shrink from challenges or to make bad choices that will ultimately complicate our lives. Simplicity takes wisdom, and courage to act on self-awareness. There are those who would resign themselves to mediocrity rather than run the risk of dealing with stress and complexity. These will not find joy except by chance. Spiritual simplicity requires an energetic response to our true identity, giftedness and purpose. Consequently, simplicity is a strategy to avoid distractions and detours, and to become single-minded in the pursuit of what is most critical to the joyful achievement of our life’s mission.
We readily associate simplicity with the life of Saint Francis. But one can seriously question how likely he would have been to set the standard for simplicity if he had not come to an awareness of true joy. He came to understand it as being inextricably tied to his Christian identity and mission. This became patently clear to him on the Feast of St. Matthias, February 24, 1209, when he heard the Gospel of the sending of the disciples. Afterward, he remained to ask the priest to explain the meaning of the verses. Upon understanding, he rejoiced saying: “This is what I want; this is what I long for with all my heart!” The rest was a simple matter of judging all things in terms of whether they facilitated or impeded his journey to making these verses the pattern of his life. Evangelical poverty became but a tool with which he would extricate himself from stubborn distractions.
Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And preach as you go, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”…Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff. (Mt. 10:5, 9-10)
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May God grant you holy simplicity. May your awareness of God’s constant action grow gratitude in your heart. May your cup overflow with generosity and joy.
crib and cross Franciscan Ministries