A series of articles on developing a life of simplicity
by The Rev. Canon Renée Miller
Slipping into Simplicity
"All I'm asking you to do is to set a mock 'fire' for me," I said to my friend.
"What are you talking about?" she replied.
"Well, if my house really caught on fire, I would not be able to choose what to let go of and what to keep. I would be left with whatever managed to escape the blaze. So, while I'm away this weekend, I want you to go through my clothes and pretend you are the 'fire.' Take away whatever seems right, and I will be left with what escapes your hands."
With a healthy mixture of compassion and hesitancy, my friend did as I asked, and when I returned, I could see that most of what I had owned before the weekend was gone. I didn't, however, really miss any of it. But, several months later, I had a good laugh about this 'fire' experiment. I saw my friend's husband and recognized immediately what he was wearing.
That's my L.L. Bean sweater," I exclaimed.
"Oh, yes," he replied. "It's from the fire!"
This mock 'fire' was a startling way for me to slip into simplicity, and it was a powerful prescription for helping me to begin to exercise a kind of detachment from my personal possessions. I often thought afterward that I should become an entrepreneur in the field. Rather than offering professional 'organizing' services to manage people's 'stuff,' I could become a personal fire consultant for their 'stuff!'
we first begin to think about simplicity, we leap headlong
into the pool of possessions.
We recognize the clutter of things around us and feel certain
that if we could quickly purge our spaces of all that is
unnecessary we would have a simpler life. I learned many
things from the mock 'fire,' not the least of which was coming
to the realization that simplicity goes far beyond the purging
of stuff. It applies to every aspect of life. Ridding life
of unnecessary personal possessions is a way to slip into
but it is only one small element in the bigger enterprise
of sinking into a life of significance and meaning. The hand
of simplicity must reach into all the nooks and crannies
of life; time, thoughts, information-gathering, roles, responsibilities,
emotions, even one's past. This makes simplicity easy to
talk about and difficult to do. It is not easy to be simple.
Accumulation is a constant in human experience -- it is as
easy as falling into a cool lake on a hot summer afternoon.
And that accumulation occurs even when we keep a strong check
on material acquisitiveness. The truth is that we live in
an abundant universe, we are loved and cared for by an abundant
Creator, and we are complex creatures formed with an abundance
of potential and possibility. The real goal of simplicity
is to learn to trust in the abundance yet not be attached
One might well ask, "Well, if it is so difficult, why begin at all?" There are many reasons for slipping into simplicity. Let me suggest two. First, simplicity makes it possible for life to become uncomplicated enough so that the mind can become clear, revealing what is truly important and fulfilling. It helps clarify the reality of ownership in life: what we own, who/what owns us, what duties snare us, what skills claim us, what passions possess us. Such clarity makes it possible for us to make choices for truly living rather than only half-living. One of the early desert fathers, Abba Moses, said to his disciples, "Sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything." That
is a bit austere for 21st Century America, but there is a
principle in that advice that should not be lost. Because
our lives are so filled to the brim with things, people,
responsibilities, demands, time commitments, emotions, questions,
passions, we seldom experience the luxury of seeing what
is really deep within us. When the pot of our life is continually
stirred with complexity, we move through life at a slow boiling
point. We end up feeling like a mixed-up 14-bean soup, rather
than a cool clear glass of water over ice, or a soft, smooth
slice of avocado. The desert father's advice reminds us of
the importance of 'singularity' in coming to an understanding
of what it means to be truly human, truly alive.
those who live simply live on the edge of miracle. It is actually very difficult to witness the miracles occurring with astonishing rapidity in life because so much attention is drawn away to all the busy-ness, complexity, and materialism of life. We are so pre-occupied with managing life on a daily -- even minute-to-minute -- basis that when a miracle occurs right in front of us, we face the danger of missing it altogether! On the other hand, those who live simply are being constantly surprised by the miraculous provision of God. And those provisions are based on bold faith rather than human hope and expectation. Thomas Merton recounts a story from the desert fathers that illustrates this.
One of the brothers asked an elder saying: Would it be all right if I kept two pence in my possession, in case I should get sick? The elder, seeing his thoughts, and that he wanted to keep them, said: Keep them. The brother, going back to his cell, began to wrestle with his own thoughts, saying: I wonder if the Father gave me his blessing or not? Rising up, he went back to the Father, inquiring of him and saying: In God's Name, tell me the truth, because I am all upset over these two pence. The elder said to him: Since I saw your thoughts and your desire to keep them, I told you to keep them. But it is not good to keep more than we need for our body. Now these two pence are your hope. If they should be lost, would not God take care of you? Cast your care on the Lord, then, for he will take care of us.
--The Wisdom of the Desert by Thomas Merton
When I had my friend sweep through my closet like a fire, I was asking her to remove my two pence so that I could be more aware and more open to the miraculous movement of God's provision in my life. Granted it was only my clothes I was worried about, but that was only my beginning step into simplicity. Is it scary to let go and simply trust in God's miracles? Oh, yes. But, there's nothing so breathtakingly awesome as seeing God's miraculous hand at work!
I try to live a simple life, but I continue to uncover new layers of what that means for me. I still find myself cruising through the cosmetic counters at the mall to see what new Estee Lauder products have come out. I still love clothes and spend too much money trying to get just the right 'look.' Thankfully, deciding to live a more simple life does not mean leaving everything behind to join a monastery. It means taking small steps that lead to greater freedom. It's not unlike walking. Sometimes it feels like we can walk 3 miles. At other times, we just can't get ourselves off the couch. Then, even a short walk around the block can be an exercise of empowerment and liberation. In fact, why not take a small step of slipping into simplicity by walking around the block? As you walk, reflect on the question, "What does simplicity look like in my life -- my context?"
Over the next few articles in this series we will consider how simplicity can be applied to the various aspects of life -- possessions, time, and activity. In preparation, reading Luke 12:13-21 and considering the following questions may be helpful.
· In the movie Sabrina, Sabrina says to a rich man, "More isn't always better. Sometimes it's just more." When have I experienced this truth in my life and what has been its effect on my life?
· I would define greed as
· What, other than possessions, is filling my barn?
· What would I do if my barn were empty?
O God, help me learn to let go of all that keeps me from the abundance of your love and the abundance of your life within me. Amen.
Copyright ©2002 Renée Miller.
Installment 2: "Creating a Sacred Space"