September 2002 – On Simplicity

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

September 2002

Dear Friends of St. Francis:

May the good Lord give you peace.

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

It is intriguing to me to find that business writers have recently commandeered simplicity, with their insatiable appetite for gimmickry and “novel” solutions to the intractable conundrums of inhumanly sized corporations. One such book, Simplicity, The Competitive Edge, catapulted its author to the head of the “flavor-of-the-month” parade by unabashedly promoting simplicity as though it were the product of his own closet R&D, giving credit neither to notable humanists, such as Henry David Thoreau who coined the now-familiar admonition “Simplify, simplify, simplify” or to the Patron Saint of Simplicity, Francesco di Bernardone. In fact, two of my own favorite books about the spirituality of Saint Francis bear similar titles: Simplicity, The Art of Living by Richard Rohr and Simple Living, The Path of Joy and Freedom by José Hobday.

“Not known, because nor looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always –
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything).”
– T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding

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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. He has helped me to acknowledge the great difficulty and sacrifice associated with simplicity (“costing not less than everything”). 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 physical health. Simplicity would have us chose only those foods that will benefit us and to choose few enough that we might savor each morsel with reverence 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 and with reverence 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.

“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.”
– From a prayer by Saint Francis

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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 highest form of genuine and joy-filled praise. The apostle 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 may conclude that they cannot be achieved without a keen sense of generosity, and a healthy disposition toward otherness. 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…and desires. Simplicity requires confidence and courage. In fact, humility is the surest sign of strength.

Simplicity requires humility, and a proper understanding of what humility means. Humility is not the same thing as low self-esteem. Rather, humility is an honest appraisal of our capabilities and limitations. It invites us to use our many gifts in ways that build up the community, which we call the Kingdom or Family of God. Indeed, humility is such a powerful engine of spiritual development that it is key to perfect joy. In humility, our soul is one with Jesus, who taught us to be humble and to trust in the Father’s power to succeed in all things, as witnessed by His Resurrection.

“Humility, simplicity, poverty and prayer are the foundation stones on which
St. Francis built; and each was worked out on the basis of a literal obedience to the recorded sayings of Christ. It was this uncompromising challenge which drew large numbers of people to follow him into the hardships and dangers which such a way of life would inevitably contain. Scholars, explorers, poets, mystics and evangelists all found in this adventurous way of living an inspiration which nothing else could provide.
Within St. Francis’ lifetime thousands had come under the spell of holiness, some to be enrolled in the Order of Friars Minor, some to enter the Convents of Minoresses, and some to adopt a simpler rule of life as members of the Third Order of Penitents, today known as the Order of Secular Franciscans.”
– John Moorman’s A History of The Franciscan Order

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May you find simplicity in silence, in Creation and in your own soul. May it refresh you, strengthen you and guide you. May it fill you with true peace and freedom, for in simplicity is the Christ who makes all things One.