Here’s a Lenten question: what is simplicity? At first glance, embracing simplicity seems rather – well, simple.
Decluttering is trending sharply in our culture. Perhaps as a reaction to the enormous amount of stuff we accumulate, books focusing on getting rid of junk are proliferating. The best-selling Japanese writer Marie Kondo explains how to remove clutter, how to examine your possessions and embrace that which gives you joy and discard the rest. Kondo’s built a cottage industry around tidying, including a hit Netflix show and that highest form of flattery, many imitators.
Meanwhile, a 2018 study reported that in the U.S., storage facilities, which are basically warehouses for personal junk, are a $38 billion industry. The U.S. boasts over 50,000 storage units where one in every 11 Americans can stash their excess stuff. That’s the clutter we keep.
Then there’s the stuff we discard, including the bags we haul to the Bishop’s Attic or Goodwill. But second-hand stores are inundated as well, particularly by clothing. In a frightening 2019 statistic, a New Yorker article on second-hand shopping said: “According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an organization promoting reuse and recycling, the equivalent of one garbage truck full of textiles is incinerated or added to a landfill every second.”
So if we think of simplicity as discarding junk, and then, much more importantly, stopping acquiring so much, that’s a good thing. Good for the earth, indeed. And who doesn’t get a good feeling after cleaning out the kitchen junk drawer or reorganizing the closet?
But as Christians, I think we are called to a more radical sense of simplicity. Often, as complacent American Christians, we forget that the call of Christ is profoundly countercultural. And as an excellent Quaker blog reminded me the other day, simplicity is a spiritual practice. It’s why Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the care of our common home, should be read by all. Francis roots environmentalism in the spiritual practice of simplicity.
But what is this practice? Christ’s life seemed rooted in simplicity. He valued community, eating and drinking with friends. He gravitated towards those on the margins and never seemed in anyway acquisitive. He repeatedly searched out time to be alone to pray. His life seemed to revolve around those simple principles: community, caring, prayer. The early desert mothers and fathers tried to emulate this, living austere lifestyles, paving the way for our great monastic traditions, like that of St. Benedict.
But how realistic is it that we, in 21st century America, will live like monks?
Enter St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, who taught us that God can be found in all things. Ignatian spirituality challenges us to be countercultural as we live in the midst of a culture that challenges Christ’s values.
In his Spiritual Exercises, which Ignatius developed for ordinary Christians, he tells us in his introductory principle and foundation: People are “created to praise, reverence and serve God.”
And then he goes on: “The other things on the face of the earth are created” to help us in working towards this end. Ignatius says it follows, then, that we use the things that help us towards this end, and rid ourselves of them to the extent that they hinder us.
That, perhaps, is a definition of simplicity, one that will challenge us for a lifetime. Simplicity begins each day’s encounters, with objects, with food, with relationships, with Twitter, purchases, jobs, phones and asks the question, “Does this lead me towards God?”
And if it’s not leading me towards God, simplicity asks, how do I rid myself of it?