January 2006 – On Simplicity

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

January 2006

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

In prayer, I began the year 2006 by discerning the need to return to three foundational principles that have guided my spiritual journey in the past few years, this time with more diligence.

It will not surprise you to discover that they are rooted in Franciscan spirituality.

In the process, I revisited and revised a reflection from September 2002 and to end it by sharing a prayer that I wrote which summarizes its spirit.

There is perhaps no quality more closely associated with the life of Saint Francis of Assisi than simplicity. The word gathers within its syllables all of the meaning behind vital spiritual concepts such as humility and poverty, peace and joy, gratitude and generosity.

Alluding to what Aldous Huxley called “the perennial philosophy,” Richard Rohr, a widely read Franciscan from New Mexico, writes simply that “there is no other way.” I had the good fortune of communicating with Father Rohr during the early days of my ministry and he helped me to focus on the priorities that are guiding my life to this day. His books helped me to acknowledge the great difficulty and sacrifice associated with simplicity. It seems odd on the surface to think of simplicity as being more difficult to achieve than complexity, but it is, as anyone who has pursued this goal in earnest can attest.

Difficulties are found on various fronts. The first category of difficulty has to do with the choices we have to make. Life sometimes feels like a huge candy store with far more tantalizing offerings than we can take in, let alone digest without detriment to our health. Simplicity would have us chose only those foods that will benefit us and to choose few enough that we might savor each morsel in order to maximize our enjoyment.

But, as we know all too well, it is difficult to say no to so many mouth-watering possibilities and, in some cases, to say no to them all. It is far easier to gobble them indiscriminately in the futile hope of absorbing every bite. The truth is, if we succeeded in doing so, we would ruin our health only to discover than the pleasure associated with this mindless binge was short-lived or dulled by suffering from overindulgence.

Another order of problem with simplicity has to do with the fear with which we face life in general. We are acquisitive by nature – not in the nature that God created, but in our fallen nature – the part of us that clings to material things, illusions of security and false hopes.

José Hobday, also from New Mexico, is a Franciscan Sister with Seneca Iroquois roots. I had the pleasure of meeting her in 1997. The notes that accompany her book remind us that simplicity is a way of life, an attitude and a disposition of the heart. To choose simplicity is to choose deliberately certain priorities and to understand thoroughly that the real struggle in life is not about acquiring material things but about gaining freedom. She writes: “Simplicity is an adventure that gives life a freshness and an immediacy that enables us to go to the heart of things.”

In the opening chapter of her book, Sister José alludes to perhaps the thorniest problem of all associated with simplicity. While, simplicity demands that we make some hard choices, it also requires us to keep an open mind and heart in regards to the unexpected. It invites us to show courage by letting go of our fear-ridden obsession for control, and to ride freely on the waves of change. Her American Indian heritage taught her to understand this in the same manner that reverence for Creation taught Saint Francis to see God revealed in the natural world.

She writes, “As much as we love spring, we cannot cling to it. It is transformed into summer and impossible to hold. All that is created is in motion. All creation is cyclical. The secret of the simple person consists of letting himself be carried by the harmony and rhythm of Creation. The alternative is to be rigid or to go against the current. Simplicity allows you to walk in the rhythm of what is, of reality.”

“Hail, Wisdom Queen, may the Lord protect thee,
With thy sister, pure and holy Simplicity.”

– Saint Francis, In Praise of the Virtues

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The proof of simplicity is gratitude. If we manage to reduce our focus to the things that are most vital to our physical and spiritual well-being, their grandeur becomes manifest. We cannot help but be awed by the splendor of Creation, by the unconditional generosity and benevolence of its Creator, by the watchfulness of our heavenly Father, by the faithfulness of his Son, our brother, and by the wisdom and comfort of their Holy Spirit of Truth and Love.

Indeed, gratitude puts us on a path of authentic spirituality. It is the antidote to false piety feigned with an aspect of moroseness, for it is the highest form of genuine and joy-filled praise. Saint Paul said as much to the Ephesians: “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.”

“As I express my gratitude, I become more aware of it.
And the greater my awareness, the greater my need to express it.
What happens here is a spiraling ascent,
a process of growth in ever-expanding circles around a steady center.”

– Brother David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer

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It is precisely this “ever-expanding” gratitude that gives rise to generosity, which is really just another way of speaking of charity, or active love. Generosity is the disposition of the mind and heart that is so very foundational to Franciscan spirituality: “…it is in giving that we receive.” It agrees with Saint Paul that no faith or deed has merit “if I do not have love,” and with Saint James that “faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” But what is so wonderful about the generosity that comes from gratitude is that it is scarcely deliberate and entails little hardship because it flows spontaneously…or more to the point, it overflows through the expression of gratitude…from the cup of simplicity.

When we take the qualities of true love into careful consideration, we conclude that they cannot be achieved without a healthy disposition toward others. Generosity, in turn, cannot be conceived without a sincere sense of gratitude. We give readily once we have a sense of our own plenitude in Christ. Gratitude, for its part, is more readily realized if it is rooted in simplicity.

We cannot satisfy inordinate expectations, but we can experience fullness once we develop a wholesome appreciation of the difference between fundamental needs and insatiable wants. Simplicity requires much confidence and courage. In fact, humility – which is the heart of simplicity – is the surest sign of moral strength.

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Prayer for Simplicity, Gratitude and Generosity

In the name of God Father, Son and Holy Spirit

I pray with all my heart that despite my sinfulness I be granted these gifts of great value.

First, grant me holy Simplicity

O simple piety and pious simplicity! (Thomas of Celano)
Simplicity must be in the intention and purity in the affection. Simplicity aims at God; purity takes hold of Him and tastes Him. (Thomas A Kempis)
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God (Mt5:3)
My dearest Lord, I beg you to turn my heart, mind and soul to the simple things of life that in their purity they may serve as a mirror of your great mercy and love for me. Protect me, O God, from the temptation of paths that lead to undue complexity and goals that are self-serving.
Make me to walk in simplicity because your grace is sufficient. (2Cor12:9)
Speak to my heart, my Lord, the meaning for my own life behind your challenge to the rich man, Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. (Mk10:21)

Then, grant me joyful Gratitude

Most High, all-powerful, good Lord, Yours are the praises, the glory, and the honour, and all blessing
(St. Francis of Assisi)
We welcome this in every way and everywhere with utmost Gratitude (Acts24:3)
He that desires to retain the grace of God let him be thankful for grace when it is given (Thomas A Kempis)
Loving and most generous Lord, I give you thanks for the many ways in which you have blessed each second of my life. I thank you for the stars, the birds and the people who show me your radiant smile.
Make me ever more aware and grateful for the countless and often invisible blessings that I receive constantly from you and make me more mindful of the needs of others.
Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe (Heb12:28)

And finally, grant me loving Generosity

Just as I have loved you, you should love one another (Jn13:34)
Truly I tell you, what you did to one of the least of mine you did it to me
Though St. Francis was poorer in wealth, he was richer in generosity (Celano)
Lord, teach me to be generous, teach me to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labour and not to seek reward, save that of knowing that I do your will (St. Ignatius of Loyola)
Lord, giver of life, grant that as the grace of gratitude grows within my heart, I may come to know that my life overflows with goodness from you. I believe, O lover of all creatures, that this abundance is not for me to hold but to share. In your great goodness, you share with me the delight of giving and loving without reservation.


Wishing you a happy and holy New Year, fraternally,