"Simplicity" is one of the testimonies that most Friends claim as a fundamental part of our practice. But what does "Simplicity" mean? If you peruse the internet, it seems to be about minimal attachment to material things, and plainness. The Earlham website puts it this way: “The Quaker testimony of Simplicity invites us to recognize what is central in our lives by listening to inward leadings and learning from others. That listening can give us clarity as we make choices about the responsible use of our time and resources. A life guided by the testimony of simplicity can lead us to recognize what makes us genuinely happy and to be good stewards of personal, community, and global resources. It replaces distraction, stress, and excess with clarity, focus, and a sustainable life.”
What is missing from much of this, for me, is Simplicity as a spiritual practice, something that this definition seems to dance around, but not really name. For example, the statement that "a life guided by simplicity can lead us to recognize what makes us genuinely happy" seems to be saying that when we unclutter our lives, we will see what makes us happy. A spiritual practice of Simplicity would be not so much that we recognize what makes us happy as that we can be joyful in all things. Most of us are familiar with the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts”. “Tis a gift to be simple; tis a gift to be free” is how it starts. I am finding that for me, this starts with growing in the ability to find joy in the little things – the snowy day, the winds, the commute to work; to even find joy in the moments when I am failing to find joy. But this has just been the starting point.
I have long been a follower and admirer of St. Francis of Assisi, who has challenged me to sow love where there is hatred, to sow joy where there is sadness, seek to understand rather than be understood, and to love rather than be loved. This has been a guiding prayer of Simplicity for me; if there is “that of God in All”, as we Quakers are so fond of reciting, than it has been the Prayer of St. Francis that has helped me to try and live this better (no doubt failing over and over, but I think I am getting better at it). Francis has been a model for seeing God in all the creatures on earth– the lepers, the poor, the animals.
More recently, as we have deepened our expression of this at William Penn House (in the form of “Radical Hospitality” and then having to explain what we mean), I have started to read more about the person attributed with the term, St. Benedict. As I have delved more into his theology and writing, and more recent writings of people from this monastic tradition, it has brought a deeper level of challenge and awareness to what Simplicity can mean. Benedict challenges us to not only have compassion for the poor, the weak, the elderly, but also for the wicked, the despised (even by us), the powerful, the wealthy, everyone. No wonder Radical Hospitality is challenging. However, there are some writings that have helped me to go deeper in this work. For example, Simplicity means not only letting go of attachments to material goods, but also to beliefs and judgments about others, and of how I think the world should be. One writing talks about “Simplicity of Intellect”, not as a simple-minded thing, but rather devoid of judgment so that a deeper truth can emerge, and a deeper love for our fellow humans which is really an expression of God’s love.
I have seen that when we can embrace Simplicity as an internal spiritual practice and discipline rather than an external expression or focus, I find fellow sojourners for a better world in places I did not expect, mostly because I have seen goodness in people I did not expect to see it in. Ultimately, I think we may also see more simple solutions to some of the worlds bigger problems.
Does this mean that the Simplicity as expressed by plainness and detachment of material things is wrong? Hardly. But I think it is the deeply spiritual, joy-filled Simplicity of Benedict and his monastics (as an ideal) that may be the glue to it all. It is this Simplicity that truly allows us to detach from all the external things so that we can better seek relationships and embrace more people in our daily lives. It is this Simplicity that can help us break through our fears and anger that can ultimately help us to build a stronger community with all of our neighbors - the despised as well as the needy. And out of this community, we can bring great equality and perhaps even more peace to the world.