music library in the palm of our hand. Discussions on television shows expose us to new ways of thinking about previously forbidden family constructions, and our cities and suburbs are populated with Jamaicans and Nigerians and Koreans and everyone else.
We live in an increasingly complex environment. At times we’re bewildered by moral choices that seem ever more gray and uncertain, such as those presented by stem-cell research or new definitions of gender identity. We’re faced with a fast pace of living all around us that sucks us into its vortex—running from commitment to recreation to responsibility to entertainment so quickly that we wear ourselves out. Problems that have always vexed the world—hunger, poverty, disease, war, crime, pollution—now have become so complicated and dangerous that solutions seem impossible. We are working harder, more in debt, making ourselves unhealthy, becoming ever more dependent upon mood-altering drugs, and all the while sensing that the world around us is spinning out of control.
We know that a spiritual life helps us to cope with the complexity of our lives. Meditation and prayer relieve stress, we find support for our lives through relationships in community, and many are comforted by the traditional messages of hope in scripture: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1).
But a spiritual life also promises something more radical, in the true sense of the word: that is, going to the root, the core. Spirituality offers the possibility that we can actually become free from the destructive energy of a stressed-out life. Spirituality promises a kind of simplicity in the midst of our complex world.
We long for spiritual calm in the middle of the storm, for a humble, human existence that is grounded, sane, and real. We wonder whether we will ever be able to create or return to a pace of living that is more natural. Remembering our childhood, a vacation, retreat, or even just imagining a more ideal time and place, we wonder how things ever got so crazy, and whether it is even possible to change what we have become accustomed to.
My generation tried to make this return to sanity of lifestyle in a back-to-the-land movement in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Thousands of us raised our own vegetables, baked our own bread and made our own music, shopped in thrift stores, worked part-time (if at all), and tried to become as self-sufficient as possible. We dropped out of the world of consumerism and stressful jobs. We strove to be counter-cultural, so that we might undo a pattern of living that a Navajo friend of mine described by saying, “White people have all the watches, but Indians have all the time.”
But for most of us, dropping out is not the answer. Trying to become an anti-technology Luddite in the midst of our world as it is today is not only difficult, it can be a simplistic and artificial response. For most of us the answer to our complex lives does not lie in rejecting the world and taking on a utopian lifestyle. Most of us will continue to pay a mortgage, drive a car, work with telephones and computers, and have to deal with all the difficulties and joys of modern life.
I believe that the spiritual answer to the stressful and destructive complexity of our world is more subtle, and is both internal and external. It has to do both with our consciousness and the way we live.
First, we can change our perspective from within. We can seek an inner simplicity, a way of slowing down and humbling our consciousness so that we are more integrated and awake. Through meditation, we might learn how to become more present to and happy with the simple and concrete things of life: the weather, our food, our breath, the moment at hand. This helps us to be less mentally caught up in the busyness and imagined importance of what we are doing, so that we can simply go through our day, doing what we have to do, but remaining present and simple as we do everything.
This is what Jesus intended when he called a child forward and said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Listen to what he is saying: you will never enter the divine dimension unless you change and become like a child. But what does this mean?
We know that it doesn’t mean that we become childish, that we return to innocence, where there are no problems, no responsibilities. We are to be in the world, engaged with its concerns as people of faith. St. Paul spoke of becoming spiritually mature, where he “put an end to childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Becoming like a child may mean rather that we reclaim a certain openness to the moment, a playful sense of appreciation and wonder. It certainly means that we have a humble frame of mind which seeks and finds contentment in the small things. And it means that we develop the capacity to leave behind those things that we don’t really have to carry into every moment: our responsibilities, worries, and ambitions. We don’t have to hold in the back of our mind all those little things at work we have yet to accomplish, and we can remember to look up at the sky or even down at the marvelous bubbles in the dishwater.
Meditation is perhaps the most effective way of developing this capacity. In sitting quietly, we learn how to slow down our mind and be present through our senses. We learn about those persistent habits of emotion and thought that tend to grip our consciousness, and we learn how to extricate ourselves from their control over us. For instance, our anger toward others who oppose those things we want to accomplish at work becomes evident in the “distractions” of meditation, and this awareness helps us to be free from the grip of this otherwise unconscious emotion. For those who are not inclined toward a still, contemplative practice of prayer, a simple, open heart can be developed through focused activity such as practicing a musical instrument or taking walks outdoors.
Whatever we do in order to find this inner simplicity, it has become even more necessary in our modern age than it was in Jesus’ own time. We will not, in fact, enter that quality of life Jesus called “the kingdom of heaven” without becoming more like a child: by slowing down, waking up, and experiencing life less mentally and stressfully than we normally do.
The other part of becoming simple is external. It has to do with the everyday choices we make about how to live. We can choose to be less driven by our consumer culture and less submissive to the frantic pace of life that surrounds us. We can say no to that second invitation to dinner on a weekend, decide not to take on that new volunteer commitment, or limit the number of extra-curricular activities our children sign up for. But doing so means that we will have to become counter-cultural to some extent; we’ll have to be intentionally uncooperative with the forces that push us all along.
We really don’t have to do as much as most of us do. We can politely decline some of the demands on our time, and devote more of our time to gardening or reading. We can spend less money on—and time shopping for—clothes, gadgets, decorations, and other products that seem to promise stimulation and fulfillment, but which only, in reality, deplete and diminish us. My own tendency on weekends is to seek out companionship and entertainment as a release from the work week, only to find that these pursuits sometimes just tire me out; what I really need is rest. At a deep level, saying no to these activities is really saying no to the illusion of satisfaction that will be supposedly found in activity and consumption. This helps us to look for our fulfillment in smaller and more humble things. This is truly counter-cultural, and the intentional choice for it must be made every day.
Jesus supported an intentional, counter-cultural external simplicity in many of his teachings. He told us that our servitude to money would always hinder our efforts to seek God. He pointed out the absurdity of a man who wore himself out working and saving and putting away security for himself, only to die anyway and lose it all. And in the most poignant passage of all, Jesus said:
. . . do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:25–33)
Jesus taught several important things about simplicity in this part of the Sermon on the Mount. First of all, it is the worries about food and clothing and time that consume and destroy us, not the things or the activities themselves. It is also the desire for these things that causes us to chase after them. After all, birds of the air and lilies of the field don’t crave products and experiences; they’re happy with the richness and beauty of life as it already is. What God provides for us is normally more than enough. True satisfaction is found as we learn to be content with what we have, and not, out of a chronic sense of vague dissatisfaction, constantly extend ourselves forward into what we might yet have, and what we imagine it might do for us.
Jesus said “unless you change and become like children,” not “unless you are like a child. . . .” Internal and external simplicity are things that come only through a process of change and becoming. We can’t just decide today that we will henceforth be simple, humble, and free. It is not easy to learn simplicity, for our attachments and fears and ambitions keep us enslaved. For instance, I tend to be enslaved, in a way, to a rather frenetic pace of working. And so I have to learn continually the lesson that I don’t have to work lots of extra hours to please every person who wants my attention now, that I don’t really have to get everything done exactly when I said I would. Only when we admit and release these kinds of attachments can we feel satisfied with a simpler, slower, more humble lifestyle. Only then can we feel fulfilled by just sitting still, appreciating the world as it is.
Thus the spiritual life is a process of subtraction more than addition. Rather than seeing religion only as an accumulation of various practices and virtues, it is also a matter of dropping those things that ultimately don’t satisfy, and just being open in a simple way, gambling that this vulnerability will not disappoint us. On faith we must bank on the possibility that God will provide for us all that we need, that life itself—as it is—will not only feed us, but clothe us in glory. Learning that we can trust in this possibility, we become more simple, more like children in this respect, more like birds and lilies.
Copyright ©2005 Brian C. Taylor
Permission to reprint granted by Cowley
a copy of Becoming Human.
C. Taylor lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he has been Rector
of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church since 1983. He is
also the author of
Becoming Christ: Transformation through Contemplation.