Is it possible for us to live simply? That question was easier for me to answer when I was in my early 20s – when I could fit everything I owned into my car. After college, I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Missoula, MT, a kind of domestic Peace Corps for Catholic young adults (and Episcopal sympathizers like me.) One of the core values of JVC is simple living. In their words, “simple living enables us to value relationships and reflection over an excess of activity and material possessions. It opens us to a more joyful way of life, clarifies our view of the world and of ourselves, and helps us better attend to our community, the earth, and those oppressed and living on the margins.”
It sounds like a lovely way to live, but how practical is it? I could live more lightly before I had to think about retirement, my spouse’s future, the needs of my parents as they age… Besides, part of adulthood is managing complexity – negotiating competing needs, juggling the legitimate demands on our time and budgets, recognizing that we’re never purely right or wrong. Is simplicity a virtue we outgrow over time?
I hope not. The reality is that we make our lives more complicated than they need to be sometimes. We fill our heads with more and more information, when perhaps the real need is to reflect on what we’ve already experienced. We justify our existence with “busy-ness” and mistake the urgent for the important. We put out the little fires in front of us and ignore the blazes that surround us. We comfort ourselves with material things and numb ourselves to the suffering of others (be it physical, emotional or spiritual) – a suffering that can help us see the face of Jesus if we let it.
Living simply is not about limiting our vision to what we can reasonably control or blinding ourselves to the messes around us. In fact, I think it’s about resisting blindness. The more time we allow ourselves for reflection, the fewer walls we place between ourselves and the needy, the more we recognize our common vulnerability and need for grace. By refusing to fill up every spare moment or every spare corner of our homes, we create space for God to surprise us and turn us toward opportunities we would never see otherwise – not just for generosity or compassion but for joy.
It’s hard to think about simplicity without the old Shaker dance tune coming to mind: “’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free…” It’s tempting to dismiss this as simplistic nostalgia, but looking at the lyrics again – I’m struck by their wisdom. In some sense, the season of Lent is all about turning – turning away from distractions that numb us to the point of harm and toward a deeper, fuller life where we’re no longer shamed by all that we’ve left unexamined.
May we have the grace this Lent to keep turning to the One who loves us too much to let us remain paralyzed by complexity. I’ll close with words more eloquent than mine: “When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed; to turn, turn will be our delight, till by turning, turning we come ’round right.” (Hymn 554 in The Hymnal 1982)