October 2012

Contemplation and Prayer X©

Dear Friend of Saint Francis,

As far back as I can recall, I have valued simplicity. Fashionable clothes, sporty cars and other paraphernalia of success have never appealed to me, as my mother once reminded me, despairing as I left the house wearing uncoordinated, thread-bare clothes. Intuitively, I have always understood simplicity to be synonymous with real beauty, universal truth and deep inner peace.

The simplicity of truth and beauty is a marvel to behold, indeed to be contemplated, in its rich range of colors and palpable textures. Like poetry, art or music, it seems that meaning is strangely summarized in the economy of simple verses, strokes and notes. Complexity, on the other hand, seems often to be the enemy of truth, especially when thoughts become convoluted and the language used to express them is opaque. Complexity is the enemy of beauty when it denatures the order and grace of creation.

In these times especially, people yearn for simplicity in the midst of manipulated desires, and lives filled with toxic stress, and endless rules designed to suit an elite and not those they are intended to serve, whether in commerce or politics. They feel like unwilling passengers on a dehumanizing and meaningless expedition that promises prosperity and pleasure but actually delivers desolation at the price of meaning, peace and true joy.

Why is simplicity so desired but so elusive? Why is it so prized and yet we almost always lean away from it? I propose that contemplative prayer helps to answer such questions and, more importantly, to channel our understanding and decisions in a way that brings us closer to this holy grail, which lies—even in the very best circumstances—beyond our reach and grasp.

Poets, artists and musicians may well be the best teachers in the curriculum of simplicity. Poets know that verses are nothing but random clusters of words if they lack a simple golden thread connecting images to one cosmic idea. Artists know that each classic painting has one unifying point. Musicians would pollute our world with chords of cacophony without simple melodies.

The contemplation of nature also teaches us that behind diversity lies unity. But we only get to see that unity if we give up our usual ambition of subjugating and exploiting creation. Sister Mother Nature, as Saint Francis called her in his Canticle of Creation, only reveals her simple, sacred secrets to those who regard her respectfully with contemplative eyes. Against those who would dominate and abuse her, she puts up a shield of impenetrable complexity. To those who would rape her, she reveals—sometimes dramatically, even violently—their foolishness. Hers is the last word, truth.

The spiritualities of all great world religions teach us letting go: how to step aside.
(Richard Rohr, Simplicity: The Art of Living)

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Paradoxically, the human spirit is divided between an aspiration for freedom and an inclination for security in slavery; between genuine simplicity and the illusion of simplicity in insidious forms of complexity; and, in some cases, between liberation and the idolization of complexity. It craves for simplicity but is infatuated by complexity. As a result, simplicity is often overwhelmed by complexity. For that reason, the key to simplicity is often not in learning how to practice simplicity but in unlearning complexity.

Simplicity is difficult to achieve and harder to maintain. The truth of this statement is underscored by our own frustration. Some people reach discouragement in the fight against tyrannical complexities in their family life, community life, church life, not to mention national and world affairs. Unless simplicity is firmly held as a foundational discipline, complexity becomes rationalized and simplicity is dismissed as simplistic. Therefore, those who value simplicity must search for deeper understanding and practical solutions that address the dissonant realities of hectic lives.

Simplicity has deep biblical roots and has marked most, if not all, of the saints whose lives we honour. Among the factors that affect its practice are the need to know who we are at the core; the knowledge of fragmentation that comes from many inward selves; the need to be in perpetual communion with God, the source of life; and our capacity for gratitude.

Richard Foster, an insightful Christian author of the Quaker tradition, wrote a guide, which he recently updated, for finding harmony in a complex world by confronting “the complexity of simplicity.” He proposes a series of principles that help to put its practice into perspective. First, durable simplicity is an outcome rather than something that we construct. In fact, it is a grace given to us by God, a “disciplined grace.” Second, we will inevitably struggle to stay on course as we face doubts about the choices that we have made. Third, balance must be kept between inner simplicity and various lifestyle choices.

Inward simplicity is obedience to the hunger for God that makes us dissatisfied with anything synthetic. It is achieved by continuously going deeper into the truth of ourselves and the central purpose of our lives. Inner simplicity requires humility and detachment. Outward simplicity is to focus on the purpose of our lives rather than the rules and conventions over which we often obsess. Simplicity also urges us to unplug from our consumptive society and measure success by standards other than power, prestige or property.

Fundamentally, health and happiness rest on our capacity for simplicity. Mindfulness is the protector of simplicity. Each step, word and bite becomes an expression of a delicious desire rather than the mindful binging that used to reveal our compulsive cravings. Stillness and silence now suffice where distractions were needed to mask our inner confusion. Frugality has become abundance, not deprivation.

There are two ways to get enough: one is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.
(G. K. Chesterton)

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In recent years, I have come to understand simplicity as the fruit of prayer that seeks to discern one’s unique identity and particular vocation, and the foundation of gratitude, which leads to happiness. Simplicity is a decision, an option for what matters most.

Simplicity is not based on a resignation to our incapacity to control our inner and outer universe. It is a celebration of gratitude for the intrinsic goodness of life. This is fundamental. Despite deceit, violence and the widespread prevalence of sin, it is my deep conviction that God still says that what he created is good, and we can see that elemental reality too in the frame of simplicity and through the lens of gratitude.

The deal is that these two qualities of life are inseparable and symbiotic in relationship. There can be no genuine gratitude without simplicity. And simplicity will not endure without gratitude. Moreover, without an appreciation of who we are and what our purpose is, simplicity remains elusive, and gratitude, which is the acknowledgement of abundance in the context of simplicity, eludes us also.

That is why I often explain that there exists a chain that begins with contemplative prayer, which helps to reveal us to ourselves by focusing on the larger picture rather than on the fear-ridden ego; extends into simplicity, which connects only the necessary dots in order to make decisions that are intentional; then gratitude for everything as gifts that are needed for our unique mission; then generosity of spirit or love, which sees grace overflowing; and joy, which is the fruit of love.

The culture of appreciation helps to understand that less really is more, and with that understanding we help to gain enough for all.
(Richard Foster, Freedom of Simplicity: Finding Harmony in a Complex World)

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May simplicity replace confusion in your mind, anxiety in your heart, and stress in your life. May your trust in God’s love bring you peace. May joy overflow and fill you with gratitude, the heart of prayer.
Fraternally,
Richard Boileau

Crib and Cross
Franciscan Ministries