Category Archives: Simplicity

Little Things

Thankfulness works in the Christian community as it usually does in the Christian life. Only those who give thanks for the little things receive the great things as well. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts prepared for us because we do not give thanks for daily gifts. We think that we should not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience, and love that has been given to us, and that we must constantly be seeking the great gifts. Then we complain that we lack the deep certainty, the strong faith, and the rich experiences that God has given to other Christians, and we consider these complaints to be pious. We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the small (and yet really not so small!) gifts we receive daily. How can God entrust great things to those who will not gratefully receive the little things from God’s hand?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

This is a passage that should, I think, be read and re-read by those of us who are involved in any way in the contemplative life. We are all so deeply infected, from childhood if not before, with our culture’s ideals of progress and achievement, that we find it all but impossible to accept that our “daily gifts” are enough, are really God’s good and sufficient gifts for the life of prayer into which we have been called; and we continually abandon them in favour of fantasies of a spiritual life we imagine somewhere out beyond us, on some higher level to which we should aspire.

These things are not God’s way, I feel. God calls us in the little things, in the touch of the moving air, bird-shadows on cropped grass, in the quiet places; what he may call us to may be equally unspectacular, or it may be some far more public action or communication. That is not so much a matter of our choice, but of discernment.

I sometimes dislike using the term “mystic” or “mystical” to describe the life of inner prayer. Quite apart from any woo-woo connotations, it can seem to imply someone special, a guru of sorts, set apart from ordinary people and their lives. Contemplative prayer, whether done corporately in meeting for worship or in the silence of one’s own room, is none of those things. If it is a hidden path, it is one hidden in plain sight, and those who follow it are – they are, they don’t just appear to be – profoundly ordinary people, with ordinary lives apart from their inescapable calling to the interior life.

Henri Nouwen wrote,

Hiddenness is an essential quality of the spiritual life. Solitude, silence, ordinary tasks, being with people without great agendas, sleeping, eating, working, playing … all of that without being different from others, that is the life that Jesus lived and the life he asks us to live. It is in hiddenness that we, like Jesus, can increase “in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and with people” (Luke 2.51). It is in hiddenness that we can find a true intimacy with God and a true love for people.

This ordinary hiddenness is the natural home of one called to the life of prayer: not the mountain top, not the university (unless she happens to be an academic) nor the monastery (unless he happens to be a monk) but the ordinary occasions of life among others, the quietness of simple things, the lives of the sparrows in the shrubbery, the wren in the hedge.

[Some parts of this post were first published in another form on The Mercy Blog]

Map Making

One of the things that seem to happen in the spiritual life is that “as we mature we add experience to the original ‘deposit of faith’ and it changes us – changes how we think, speak, act and pray.” (JP Williams, Seeking the God Beyond: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Apophatic Spirituality)  As we go on, a process of stripping inevitably takes place: a leaving behind of much that seemed essential to our comfort, our identity, even to our relationship with God.

A page further on in her study, Janet Williams writes, describing this stage of our spiritual journey as “an ascent”,

… it feels like an ascent because we find ourselves not simply exchanging one scene for another but – at least sometimes – acquiring a larger perspective, being able to see how the partial glimpses that seemed so different at the time are parts of a broader landscape, being able to reconcile and integrate what earlier seemed irreconcilable. In a sense, we don’t just leave a particular landscape as we ascend, we also leave ourselves behind, the versions of ourselves that were comfortable in the old places. In another sense, what we leave behind is God – a version or view of God, that is. Just as the higher up we stand, the bigger the horizon is, so too with God; as Augustine says, ‘God is always greater, no matter how much we have grown.’

…although we have to be careful not to mistake this, there is a kind of growing distance from earlier concerns: not that we cease to care about injustice or unkindness but that we are less narrow in our sympathies.

Memory, or rather, remembering, plays its part here. Thinking back over the path that led us here, we can see that, “All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?” (Proverbs 20.24)

This is often partly repentance as much as recall, even as we remember the places where we stumbled painfully among the rocks, or strayed off the way altogether for a while. But remembering allows us to see the pattern, see the way we have been led. As the author of Proverbs goes on to say, “The human spirit is the lamp of the Lord, searching every inmost part.” (20.27) Our self-awareness illuminates a map, almost, of our leading. Not only do we see God’s hand in all we have done, guiding us even when we have missed the path, but we see the way back: back to incarnation, back to the life of creation, to the pain and need of the world – the things by which we were drawn to prayer in the first place…

A Simple Thing

One of the things that has always touched me about the Jesus Prayer is its simplicity. It is not in any way a mode of prayer reserved for religious professionals, nor one that requires training or qualifications. How do you pray the Jesus Prayer? Well, you say Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Rinse. Repeat. And that, really, is all there is to it, despite the many books that have been written about the practice and theology of this ancient prayer.

Jesus once said,

I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do…

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

(Matthew 11.25-6, 28-30 NIV)

I am occasionally made anxious by some recent writers on the contemplative tradition, and the terminology with which they surround contemplative prayer – “dualistic thinking”, “non-dual consciousness” and so forth – it can come to sound as though one needs a degree in comparative religion and a master’s in psychology. I do sort of know what they are getting at, yet I yearn for the simplicity of the Jesus Prayer and its tradition. A prayer that is as appropriate for a farmer as for an academic, for a taxi driver as for a nun or a monk – now that is something I can rejoice in, as we are all carried together into the Light.

That washed vision

TS Eliot began his long poem The Waste Land,

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain…

There is something reassuring about pain, and immobility. You know where you are with things like that; and a few dried tubers, as Eliot points out, will keep something like life going a long while. New life is difficult, though. It hurts to come back in springtime.

Selfishness can be a defence against a deep lack of self-esteem, and inaction a response to what the heart perceives as just penalty – penance, or karma.

Now as a man is like this or like that,
according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be;
a man of good acts will become good, a man of bad acts, bad;
he becomes pure by pure deeds, bad by bad deeds;

And here they say that a person consists of desires,
and as is his desire, so is his will;
and as is his will, so is his deed;
and whatever deed he does, that he will reap…

(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad)

Cause and effect are not always what they seem, as CG Jung pointed out:

How are we to recognize acausal combinations of events, since it is obviously impossible to examine all chance happenings for their causality? The answer to this is that acausal events may be expected most readily where, on closer reflection, a causal connection appears to be inconceivable…

…it is impossible, with our present resources, to explain ESP, or the fact of meaningful coincidence, as a phenomenon of energy. This makes an end of the causal explanation as well, for “effect” cannot be understood as anything except a phenomenon of energy. Therefore it cannot be a question of cause and effect, but of a falling together in time, a kind of simultaneity. Because of this quality of simultaneity, I have picked on the term “synchronicity” to designate a hypothetical factor equal in rank to causality as a principle of explanation.

It may be that the planet whose life we share has a finite lifespan. In fact it would be most surprising if it did not. Yet each spring comes as a renewal – like the one before, but quite unlike, as well, never seen before:

See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.

(Isaiah 43.19)

There seems to be something like balance, or a returning equilibrium, in the affairs of the living, on however micro- or macrocosmic a scale. Once the debt is paid, the karma exhausted, the months of winter turned, spring does come again. Or it comes anew, since it is not the same as the last one, nor will next year’s be this year’s come again.

This morning’s meeting was quite silent, except that at the last moment, before we shook hands, one of our oldest members stood, and spoke to the spring, and hens with new chicks, the opening of the narcissi, and the blackbirds singing early, when it was barely dawn. It could too easily be his last spring with us, and yet his joy was as clean and fresh as the morning itself, and it had hurt him to stand after an hour’s sitting. To see, and to speak with that washed vision near the end of a long life – that must be hope, or as Wendell Berry wrote:

This is no paradisal dream. Its hardship is its possibility.

Getting out of the way of the Light…

I’ve never been much of a one for age-specific activities, any more than I was even at school for gender specific ones (football and science for boys, hockey and typing for girls). But being retired does come with certain advantages, I suppose, provided that one has enough, one way or another, to keep a roof over one’s head and food on the table.

Simplicity, though, is perhaps one of the Quaker testimonies that seem more easily to open up to us as we grow older. I don’t quite know why that should be. Simplicity is paradoxically not always as simple as it should be either to explain or to put into practice. Quaker Faith & Practice 20.27 states:

The heart of Quaker ethics is summed up in the word ‘simplicity’. Simplicity is forgetfulness of self and remembrance of our humble status as waiting servants of God. Outwardly, simplicity is shunning superfluities of dress, speech, behaviour, and possessions, which tend to obscure our vision of reality. Inwardly, simplicity is spiritual detachment from the things of this world as part of the effort to fulfil the first commandment: to love God with all of the heart and mind and strength.

The testimony of outward simplicity began as a protest against the extravagance and snobbery which marked English society in the 1600s. In whatever forms this protest is maintained today, it must still be seen as a testimony against involvement with things which tend to dilute our energies and scatter our thoughts, reducing us to lives of triviality and mediocrity.

Simplicity does not mean drabness or narrowness but is essentially positive, being the capacity for selectivity in one who holds attention on the goal. Thus simplicity is an appreciation of all that is helpful towards living as children of the Living God.

(From: Faith and practice, North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), 1983)

To me, simplicity has come to mean more a way of getting out of the way of the Light than anything else. The heart’s freedom is the true place of simplicity; the way there varies as much as the people walking it, and in fact in this life we shall perhaps never achieve more than a degree of that freedom. To be content with that imperfection is a kind of simplicity in itself, for perfection is not I think a human attribute!

Continuing to read Quaker Faith & Practice…

We must be confident that there is still more ‘life’ to be ‘lived’ and yet more heights to be scaled. The tragedy of middle age is that, so often, men and women cease to press ‘towards the goal of their high calling’. They cease learning, cease growing; they give up and resign from life. As wisdom dawns with age, we begin to measure our experiences not by what life gives to us, not by the things withheld from us, but by their power to help us to grow in spiritual wisdom.

Evelyn Sturge, 1949 – Quaker Faith & Practice 21.45

Continuing to read Quaker Faith & Practice, we came across the passage above this morning. It struck us both that we have somehow come to think of things, all but unconsciously, not only in terms of “their power to help us to grow in spiritual wisdom”, but in terms of their power to impede our growth in spiritual wisdom.

You see, not only do we live, at least in this relatively wealthy country, surrounded by the pressure to accumulate, and to build on that accumulation with yet more layers, but what we accumulate begins to assert its own, almost spiritual, pressure. We are sold stuff; having stuff, we arrange our stuff; we clean it, insure it, protect it, upgrade it, replace it… That’s bad enough, but when we, as Quakers or merely as thoughtful people, come to realise this pernicious pattern, and simplify our lives, we can too easily find we have developed a new and potentially obsessive hobby – decluttering!

If in our efforts to simplify our lives we have achieved not simplicity, but another layer of complexity, surely we are confronted with yet another barrier to our spiritual growth. It would be easy, we realised, to come unstuck here. Jennifer Kavanagh, in her little book Simplicity Made Easy, remarks that:

To live a simple life is to experience life more fully, to live with enhanced intensity and freedom. It is not a deprivation but a joy.

An enforced austerity, or actions taken for reasons of observance to some externally imposed rule, can lead to a distorted view of what simplicity means… It can also lead to a mistaken concept of plainness. Among seventeenth-century North American Puritans, the pursuit of plainness for its own sake sometimes resulted in ugliness, meanness and mediocrity. Modern minimalism can be stark, hard, lacking the warmth of human connection.

But she goes on to say that,

Our response to the extreme consumerism of Western society does not need to be equally extreme. Excess is as much a danger in the inner life as in the outer. Moderation, a balance between less and more, unmeasurable and personal in its definition, is at the heart of simplicity. The important thing is to be true to our own life’s journey, open to the promptings of our own inner voice. There is no rule to adhere to; this is not a predictable path, with a predetermined end.  Allowing ourselves to be guided, letting go of goal-centred ambition, of the need to “arrive”, will take us to unexpected places.

Once again we are at the place of Isaac Penington’s “Give over thine own willing, give over thine own running…” (QFP 26.70) We cannot achieve this delicate, unmeasurable balance by thought and will. Only in the stillness of the open heart can we “allow… ourselves to be guided”; only in interior silence can we hear.

Words fall far short…

Whenever we are driven into the depths of our own being, or seek them of our own will, we are faced by a tremendous contrast. On the one side we recognise the pathetic littleness of our ephemeral existence, with no point or meaning in itself. On the other side, in the depth, there is something eternal and infinite in which our existence, and indeed all existence, is grounded. This experience of the depths of existence fills us with a sense both of reverence and of responsibility, which gives even to our finite lives a meaning and a power which they do not possess in themselves. This, I am assured, is our human experience of God.

John Macmurray, Quaker Faith & Practice 26.11

We have realised from the beginning, in our Meetings for Worship, that words fall far short of what is true, and that that Light, that Truth, can only be found, and allowed to hold us, and known, in silence. And yet we are human, and so words haunt us. We want to do things with what we experience, and so we name things about it, and pretend we can carry out operations on it, since we can construct sentences where the verbs act on the nouns we have employed – and there are other nouns too, to name ourselves, whom we dream are the ones doing the acting.

But we only dream. It is we who are done with. We are born, we grow, and we age and die, and none of us by taking thought can change anything about that. (Luke 12.25) All we can do is wait, and listen.

Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.

Isaac Penington, 1661, in Quaker Faith and Practice 26.70