’Tis a Gift to Be Simple

Many years ago, I studied a book newly arrived at St. Meinrad the Archabbey Library that explored the beauty of Shaker furniture and architecture. What most intrigued me about the book was that the introduction was by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, an author I had read for years. Merton wrote that Shaker handicrafts and architecture gorgeously displayed its theology and spirituality. He quoted the famous Shaker hymn — “Simple Gifts” — which many Catholic churches sing in the liturgy. That book, with its impressive introduction, sparked an interest within my own monastic life. Many years later I would begin exploring Shaker villages, beginning in nearby Kentucky and then in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York. Each village displayed the simplicity of the Shaker lifestyle and spirituality beautifully.

Merton visited Pleasant Hill, a Shaker village, in the Bluegrass area of Kentucky several times. As Merton’s biographer Michael Mott stated: “Everything stressed plainness — a more than Cistercian plainness, which should have been cold, which should have left him chill[ed] with a sense of ‘the cold and cerebral,’ and which had the opposite effect. Some quality of the handworked wood and the proportions created an atmosphere that was, at the same time, warm, human — and yet visionary, clear, sane, supernatural” (The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, p. 343). Quite simply put, Merton had experienced the power of simplicity.

This brief article will ponder first of all the Catholic Christian’s call to live simply in all the aspects of his/her life and then apply this Gospel living to the life of the priest in his call to witness to God’s people.

Christian Stance in Contemporary Society

As active members of a capitalistic, consumer society, we Americans are addicted accumulators. Daily we are encouraged to be avid consumers, consistently purchasing the latest and greatly improved whatever. The ever-wise world of advertising increasingly promotes accumulation, cleverly and subtly reaching our subconscious, and convincing us that our “wants” are “needs.” As Merton well understood from the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we Christians need to simplify daily (1) our possessions, (2) our hearts, and (3) our souls.

I. Simplifying Our Possessions

One of the key virtues in our Christian lives is the most wondrous gift of discernment. As Benedictine monks, we go to our prior in the community to ask permission to acquire something. His first question is always: “Do you need this?” Inspired by the description of the first Christian community in Jerusalem (see Acts 4:32-35), St. Benedict, in his Rule, stresses that our communal life is based on needs, not wants. For most of us in current society, the ever-growing want list is endless, however the actual need list is quite limited. For one’s work or ministry, sometimes one does need more than another monk, which is fine. Benedict understands also that, psychologically, some need more than others. He states in Chapter 34: “Whoever needs less should thank God and not be distressed … in this way all members of the community will be at peace.” In our community life, we discern well the needs of each. So, in a Christian’s life, learning to discern well our actual needs is crucial.

Often we need something for a time, but may outgrow that need with new life experiences. It is then time to discern well if we need to de-clutter our life of this unnecessary item. How many clothes do we have in our closets that we haven’t worn or can’t wear due to our changing sizes on life’s journey? Do we need or wear them? If not, the St. Vincent de Paul or Goodwill store can find someone who needs them. Discern well!

As Christians, we are invited to not only give from our surplus of possessions but actually practice sacrificial giving. We need to live simply in a fixed budget and limit our debts. But we might ask ourselves sincerely, “How I can simplify my lifestyle while increasing my charitable giving?” Here we speak of not only sharing our treasure but generously spending our precious time and our God-given talents. Christian giving has many dimensions; these become more obvious to us as we attempt to simplify our lifestyle.

II. Simplifying Our Hearts

When we studiously examine the Hebrew concept of the “heart,” we realize that this word signifies the whole human person. Certainly, romantic ideas of “heart” are important, but the human reality is much greater than eros, the source of romantic love for the Greeks. So, when we speak of simplifying our hearts, let’s try to broaden our concept to consider our whole human being.

Jesus so beautifully teaches in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the clean (simple) of heart, / for they will see God” (5:8). The Desert Fathers and Mothers of early monasticism interpreted this as “undividedly single-hearted.” We can perhaps simplify this as “simple-hearted.”

“Sermon of Jesus in Duomo Nuovo” by Michelangelo Grigoletti (1801-70).

But the reality of our human existence is that most of us tend to complicate our hearts — life has an amazing way of encouraging this, especially in our relationships and our circumstances. Modern psychology, theology and spirituality teach us the complexity of our motives; rarely do we perform some action or speak something totally out of love for God and our neighbor. Our motives are often mixed due to life circumstances. Our psychological history (family of origin, present family or community, even our ministries) influences us tremendously in all we say and do. We all need the healing influence of Our Lord to help us purify (simplify) our motives, our words, our actions.

Fortunately for us, the Christian Scriptures are written in the Greek language, which offers us not one word for love, but four. All-important distinctions can be made. And so as we study and meditate on the hymn to love that Paul writes in First Corinthians 13, we realize that love, this highest of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, is agape love — the divine love that is God-given. Do we daily request from God’s Spirit this heartful love? Do we ask the healing Lord to simplify our hearts of all that can destroy this pure love?

Two of the greatest ways of dividing — complicating — our hearts are anger and withholding forgiveness. The two are often intertwined and can quickly complicate the most undivided heart. Anger is a crucial part of human life; people who never get angry are usually out of touch with their emotions. What is crucial is to analyze the source of the anger. As Christians, we should exercise justifiable anger when we confront situations of injustice or unfairness. Such anger can motivate us to work to transform such inhuman situations. But, most of us suffer a great bit of unjustified anger, especially when someone fails to appreciate us or offends us. Such anger needs to be resolved through forgiveness — daily.

Second, it is equally important to examine what we do with our anger. Have we learned to channel our anger wisely into creative ways that further God’s creation? Do we allow our anger to build walls that break down relationships and thus destroy intimacy with others? These are very important considerations for Christians as we seek to build the kingdom of God and to simplify our hearts to deepen our relationship with God and our sisters and brothers.

Withholding forgiveness is the greatest way that we can complicate our hearts. Living together often involves hurts that can divide our hearts. Learning to end our busy days with prayers of forgiveness is extremely important. The Lord’s Prayer offers us such an opportunity, if we truly pray the beautiful words meaningfully. It is always crucial that we remember that forgiveness is a process — for all of us, it takes time and much effort (many attempts) to really forgive the offender. Love does not take into account a wrong suffered (see 1 Cor 13). As we noted already, such a love is impossible, humanly, without the loving assistance of the Holy Spirit. Let us close our day every day by asking for such inspiring, forgiving love.

III. Decluttering the Soul

The recent movie Risen joyously portrays the resurrected Lord appearing a series of times to his disciples. One of my favorite parts of the movie is the scene where the risen Jesus reappears to his apostles as recounted in Chapter 21 of the Gospel of John. The apostles are again on the Lake of Galilee having spent an unsuccessful night fishing. Jesus comes and instructs them to drop the nets on the right side of the boat; this produces a huge catch. In the Gospel, after a shared breakfast seaside, Jesus addresses Peter, who three times denied him. This is a moment of healing through forgiving — love — for a very sin-cluttered soul. If we explore his beautiful encounter with our redeeming Lord and understand Peter’s denial, we can state that sin is the greatest complication in our human lives.

The Genesis story of our first parents’ fall from totally undivided hearts to sin-laden, complicated hearts teaches us much. The Camaldolese monk Father Bruno Barnhart’s study, Second Simplicity, invites us to seek this simplicity of heart through a life of constant conversion. God’s gift of first simplicity to our first parents was lost in the Fall. Jesus came to offer us a second simplicity through his gift of redemption. Certainly we are invited to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation frequently to declutter our souls and open our hearts to a second simplicity only possible through God’s work in us. Understanding well the Christian’s life of simplicity, we can now speak of the priestly call to live simply as we minister God’s sacraments of salvation to our people.

Priestly Call to Simplicity

Pope Francis powerfully and prophetically preaches and exemplifies the Gospel. If you study his teachings on pastoral priesthood, you will discover that he believes that there are seven pillars of priesthood. Many articles have already been written about these pillars. I want to focus on one, the fifth pillar: “The priest is called to a simplicity of life.”

The Great Catch of Fish mosaic in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Diocesan priests do not take a vow of poverty but do commit themselves to a simple lifestyle. The good pope has repeatedly criticized priests who give in to vanity and worldly ambition. Most Catholics know that while a cardinal in Buenos Aires he chose to live simply, dwelling in a small apartment instead of the episcopal palace, taking public transportation rather than a car with a driver, cooking for himself. He exemplified for his priests and people — in a city that knows tremendous contrasts of lifestyles and privileges — a Christ-like presence in ministry. Like the great prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, the pope not only proclaims God’s word but also truly lives it. For that reason, his words have such power in a world so consumer-driven.

As Pope Francis once stated: “Dear priests, may God the Father renew in us the Spirit of holiness with whom we have been anointed. May he renew his Spirit in our hearts so that this anointing may spread to everyone, especially to those ‘outskirts’ where our lay faithful people most look for it and most appreciate it. May our people sense that we are the Lord’s disciples; and may they receive through our words and deeds the oil of gladness which Jesus, the Anointed One, came to bring us” (Pope Francis and the Seven Pillars of Priesthood, published by the Diocese of Westminster, England).

In conclusion, Pope Francis and our consumer-driven world invite us priests to witness to Gospel values by a simple lifestyle. Like many saints in our wonderful history, today’s saints all witness to such countercultural values. Simplifying our possessions, our hearts and our souls is a lifelong process of sanctification. Let us encourage one another to live simply since ’tis a gift to be simple!

Father Noël Mueller, O.S.B., a Benedictine monk-priest of St. Meinrad Archabbey, has a Master in English Literature and a Master of Divinity. He has worked in hospital ministry, with Marriage Encounter and with youth and disabled persons.