A series of articles on developing a life of simplicity
by The Rev. Canon Renée Miller
Creating a Sacred Space
There was once a very poor man who lived in a one-room dilapidated apartment. His clothes were ragged, his hair unkempt, his body bent and broken. One day he entered an old and musty antique shop that was filled with both gaudy and graceful items from years past. The proprietor of the shop watched the man carefully. She did not think the man could be trusted, and it was obvious that he had no money. As the man looked around the shop, his eyes lighted on an exquisite crystal vase etched in an intricate pattern. A slim stream of light shone through a nearby window, and the vase caught the light and threw a beautiful pattern of rays on the oriental carpet below. The man was entranced by the vase and asked the proprietor its cost. The man went away, and several months later returned to the shop to buy the vase. As she was wrapping the prized possession for the wizened old man, the proprietor ventured to ask why he was buying the vase. She simply couldn't understand how someone as poor as he would waste his money on a piece of old glass. The old man replied, "In my room I have nothing of beauty. I have been saving my money so that I may be surrounded by the beauty of this vase." He took the vase to his shabby, empty room, and when the sun's rays shot through the window and cut through the vase, the poor old man's bare life was filled with color—beautiful, beautiful color.
Beauty of Simplicity
When we begin to think of simplifying our possessions, we usually begin with drawers and closets and garages. We begin going through things and purging those that are no longer used or useful. While this is an important exercise, it often ends up being simply another form of what our grandmothers did every year when they engaged in 'spring cleaning.' It doesn't necessarily give us an experience of the wonder and beauty of simplicity. We find that we have less clutter in those spaces, but we are just wading along a tidier shore rather than sailing into the broad sea of simplicity. The courage to take that journey away from the safe shore does not come through material purges. It comes from experiencing beauty, calm, and a sense of being centered in God's presence.
Take a moment to think of the most beautiful
space you have ever been in - the space that seemed whole and
holy. Perhaps it was a lovely nook in an old inn where you once stayed. Perhaps it was a large living room decorated with scrumptious colors and fabrics. Perhaps it was an old, stone-cold chapel that breathed centuries of incense. Perhaps it was a room featured in Architectural Digest that was so beautiful you wanted to step into the page. Or perhaps your image of an exquisite space is one that is to be found in nature. Sitting by a riotous and mesmerizing ocean surf, standing in the solitude of a pine forest, walking through a landscaped labyrinth, sitting on the edge of a cliff scanning the landscape. Whatever images wend their way into your consciousness, you will notice that God's presence feels inviting and accessible in them. It is often easier to settle into the Divine Presence in those kinds of spaces than it is in your own home. This is because such spaces have a freedom from distraction. A sense of orderliness. An absence of clutter and confusion. They edge their way into the heart with a kind of truthful beauty that is both alluring and captivating. The way to enter the door of simplicity is not through deprivation but through beauty.
A Singular Space
Art and architecture are all about space. Designing space. Moving space. Enclosing space. Opening space. Expanding space. The great early 15th century architect Filippo Brunelleschi said as he began to build the famous dome of Florence's cathedral, "I can already envisage the completed vaulting." Both the artist and the architect create from the 'space' they see in their mind's eye. They begin with the end in mind. Once they have a clear vision of the end, they can take the steps necessary to get there. The Latin word for space, spatium, literally means 'that which is drawn out.'
and architects understand the role of space - they understand
that space is not there to be filled, but that space offers
something to be drawn out. In the consumerist culture of
the 20th and 21st centuries, this understanding of the
role of space has been lost. We are encouraged by advertisers
and marketers to fill space with furniture, trinkets, lamps,
potted plants, entertainment systems, posters, coasters,
magazines, pillows, throws, and anything else that will
add a sense of decoration and color to a four-walled room.
Rather than letting space itself be empty enough so that
something can be drawn out from it, we become adept at
putting stuff into it. Embracing simplicity requires a
fresh view of our notion of space.
Every major religion has some form of spiritual practice of attention or mindfulness. Whether it is meditation or simple awareness, spiritual depth occurs when there is focus and singularity. The
number of possessions that we have, the amount of
material goods that fill our lives, the clutter that
seems to gather all around our living areas, crowd
out attention and focus. Our minds, thoughts, energies are dispersed in myriad directions, and in the cacophony of competing claims on us, we cannot seem to find our center, our sense of clarity, our touch with the sacred, our experience of God. One way that I have helped people begin to reclaim that holy core that exists within us is to lead them through the process of creating a simple space within their own home where what is divine may be drawn out. You can begin the process yourself by trying the following exercise:
1. Choose an area of your home that you find particularly attractive or peaceful. It might be a room, or a corner in a room. It might be a closet or a stairwell. It might be windowless or flooded with light. The size of the space is not important.
2. Begin to clear out that space until it is completely empty of everything.
3. Bring a chair or a sitting pillow into the room and sit for several minutes, feeling the emptiness of the space.
4. Be attentive to the images and impressions that float across your mind. What do you feel is missing in the space? What does the space seem to 'want'? If you were going to meet God in this space, what would you want it to look like?
5. Record in a journal your thoughts and ideas.
6. Begin to bring items into the space one at a time. You might bring such things as a candle, a favorite rock, an icon, a cross, a vase of fresh flowers, a beautifully woven blanket, a holy book, a beautiful piece of glass, a table, etc. Avoid bringing in several items at once because it is much too easy to begin to 'fill' the space rather than 'draw out' from the space.
7. Again, sit in your space being mindful of the change in the space as each item is added. If you feel you have put in too much, take out items one by one just as you put them in. You will know when you have just enough - the space will feel hallowed.
8. When it is 'just right,' take off your shoes, enter the space, and offer it and yourself to the God who is One.
9. You will find that you do not have to force yourself to go into your sacred space. The space and the Spirit in the space will call you from the busyness of your life into that inner stillness where hope and holiness meet.
When the old man in the opening story put his focus on the beautiful vase, his life took on a measure of beauty. When we sit in a sacred space, focusing our attention on God's presence, our lives take on a measure of God's likeness. Simplicity becomes not so much something to strive after, as to relax into. Cleaning closets, drawers and garages will give you a sense of accomplishment and freedom from clutter, but sitting in a simple holy space will prepare your spirit to respond ever more deeply to the divine invitation to "be still and know that I am God."
Copyright ©2002 Renée Miller.
Installment 3: "Simplicity of Time"