Simplicity Not So Simple

“’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free.” This opening line from the 18th century Shaker song, “Simple Gifts,” is easier said than accomplished. Though simplicity is probably one of those things to which we aspire, it is an oxymoron that it is hard to be simple, that simplicity is complicated. Why is living a “simple” life so hard to accomplish? Why is it even difficult now to write about simplicity? I certainly do not want an article on simplicity to be cumbersome as we look at the ABCs & Ds of simplicity as an Art Burden Charism and Discipline.

The Art of Simplicity

Each of us have looked at something and said, “That looks so easy. . . ” — until we try to do it. Those who make the most complicated thing look so simple and clean are artists. I enjoy watching Olympic figure skating. These athletes make the skating look so effortless to the point I want to put on a pair of skates (which I have not done in 40 years) and do the same jumps, glides and spins. There is a lot of effort and control in the skaters’ simplicity.

The KISS acronym is a good mantra and principle — Keep It Simple, Stupid, (a.k.a. Keep it Simply Short). The KISS principle states that “most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated; therefore simplicity should be a key goal in design, and unnecessary complexity should be avoided.”

Paraphrasing the late Steve Jobs of Apple, “simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it is worth it in the end.” In a similar way most priests know that a simple homily may take longer to prepare as preaching is an art form. As the anecdotes says, “I did not take the time to prepare a shorter homily.”

The Burden of Simplicity

Olympic figure skaters make skating look so effortless, but there is a lot of effort and control in the skaters’ simplicity. Iurii Osadchi/Shutterstock photo

The burden of simplicity is really twofold, two sides of the same coin. It can be the burden we place on ourselves to make something simple or the burdens placed on us by someone else’s desire for simplicity. Did you ever notice that there are many people who see themselves as low maintenance who are anything but? These are the same people who think they are simple but are really quite complicated. It is interesting to listen and watch people who perceive themselves as rather simple in nature. They choose to live uncomplicated lives but while doing so complicate the lives of all those around them. They have made simplicity an art form but not in a positive way. There is the saying that it takes a village to raise a child. In like fashion, it takes a team of people to support the simple. Some mistake minimalism for simplicity. Unfortunately, there are priests who adopt the behavior of doing the bare minimum. They think “not doing something” is what “keeping it simple” means. Their “not doing” forces the “doing” on another. The not doing something is probably creating havoc for those around them who are left to pick up the slack. There are those who hide behind their laziness by naming it “simplicity.” Simplicity is an activity — not the lack thereof.

One unintentional burden is the consequence of one person’s choice that affects the greater whole. The recent debate regarding families who choose not to vaccinate their children is a case in point. That choice by some adds a burden to the rest of the population. When one person’s choice places a burden on the rest of society, this simple decision of one complicates the lives of the many.

With all due respect to Pope Francis, I wonder what the Swiss Guard must think of the Pope’s decision not to live in the Papal Palace. It is admirable that Pope Francis wishes to live more simply, but I would imagine that it complicates the ability of the security force to maintain his personal safety.

The Charism of Simplicity

Christ was not a simple man — rather complex, I would imagine — but he lived simply. He pared down 630 precepts into two. He spoke in parables and allegories that are quite memorable. The messages in these simple stories are so understandable on the one hand, yet at the same time we never exhaust what we can understand from them. There is probably more to harvest from that which is simple than from that which is complicated. Those who truly live simply have so much to offer.

Remember the beatitude, “Blessed are the Meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Those who are meek are the humble, gentle people who seem to gather others who are attracted to their simple ways. There is no ostentatiousness about them. The charism of simplicity points to the Gospel message that the Kingdom belongs to the childlike. Young children whose lives are protected by their parents find as much joy in the box as they do in the present that it is in the box. It is fascinating to watch children play for hours on end with a pile of wooden blocks. Through their innocence they see in the wood far more than an adult can see. Their innocence, which has not yet been lost, gives them the freedom to be simple. It takes a special person to maintain this charism of simplicity throughout life.

Some artists have the charism in their work. They take the obvious and show it to us in a deeper way. An example is Michelangelo’s Pieta. He simply took what we all know to be one of the greatest sufferings (a parent losing a child) and chiseled it into beauty for generations to ponder. The loss of a child is a human reality that repeats itself too much in life through violence, wars and natural death. Michelangelo took the reality that we don’t like to see and created a simply profound piece of art that millions come to see to contemplate life’s tragedies.

The Discipline of Simplicity

From these ABCs of simplicity it is understandable that simplicity is not simple. It takes a lot of work, practice and thought to be simple. Like anything worth having, it is worth working toward. It does not just happen. A concert pianist does not simply sit down and play an opus. It takes practice and discipline to do simplicity well. It is an activity; it is not the art of “not doing” something. Simplicity is more complex than we could imagine. Like most oxymorons, this complexity of simplicity creates a paradox that beckons us to ponder all the more.

Many of Christ’s simple teachings were the same: “we lose our life to find it”; “in giving we receive.” In the same way, simplicity does not just happen. We make it happen and, if we want it truly, we will discipline ourselves to have it, no matter how complex the discipline may be. The more we make it happen, the more we make it a priority, the more it will be part of our lives. In time we make the complicated look easy (like the concert pianist and the Olympic skater). Simplicity becomes second nature to us. The pianist and the figure skater spent long hours of practice to build up the “muscle memory” to play that opus or to perform that triple axel simply and naturally.

With dedication and perseverance, eventually simplicity becomes second nature to us. St. John XXIII wrote in his autobiography Journal of a Soul that “in simplicity, we enter the deep silences of the heart for which we were created. The older I grow, the more clearly I perceive the dignity and winning beauty of simplicity in thought, conduct and speech: a desire to simplify all that is complicated and to treat everything with the greatest naturalness and clarity” (Richard Foster, The Freedom of Simplicity, pages 5, 6).

We have completed the Lenten season and are well entrenched in the Easter season with the simple acclamation that “He is Risen.” This truth — proclaimed in three simple words — has changed the world forever.

FATHER CARRION is pastor of Holy Cross, Our Lady of Good Counsel, St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Baltimore, Md., and is director of the Deacon Formation Program for the Archdiocese.