Simplicity and Prayer

The interior of the Church at the Monastery of...

The Abbey Church at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. Image via Wikipedia

In the simple promises for the junior lay associates (Lay Cistercians) of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, we promise, among other things, to live “life in simplicity and prayer.” I love that juxtaposition. Prayer and simplicity go together so beautifully, it seems to me, that one of the best ways to cultivate in our hearts the space for prayer is by allowing things to be simple. I don’t mean simple in the sense of not very smart, but simple in the sense of what Taoists call wu-wei, or “going with the flow” or “acting naturally.” It’s what some Christian thinkers call “second simplicity” — not the pre-rational simplicity of a small child, but rather the trans-rational perspective of one who has recognized that life is filled with and surrounded by mystery, and allowing such mystery to just be, liberates us to focus on the important things: cultivating fearlessness, and kindness, and compassion; love of neighbors, and fostering a contemplative stance, beholding God as not just something done for a half hour each morning, but as an ongoing way of life.

We can think ourselves into knots, especially around the propositional ideas within religion: “how can an all-good God permit suffering and evil?” “why would God require belief in one particular person, i.e. Christ, in order for us to be acceptable to him?” “how can we reconcile the concept of hell with an all-loving deity?” and on and on. By the time I was in High School, questions like this burdened my faith. Looking back, I see their importance, in that wrestling with these issues  helped me to move beyond the naive simplicity of childhood into an adulthood in which I learned to discern my own conscience, to think for myself, and to take responsibility for my own actions, not just motivated by a reward/punishment system. But I also learned that questions like these are spiritual tar-babies, threatening to mire us in never-ending spirals of doubt and questioning that lead only to deeper chasms of meaninglessness. At some point, we have to say “enough”! And then everyone faces a choice: to retreat into a dogmatic position (fundamentalism, whether of the theist or atheist variety), or embrace the not-knowing, leading to an openness and willingness to marvel at the mystery. Here our choices are secular agnosticism (which, while a position I disagree with, I find much more respectable than dogmatic atheism) or what I call “holy agnosis” — a willingness to remain open to the mystery of faith, the experience of God, and the intuition that love is more than a biochemical process, but indeed is the heart not only of the universe but of the Ultimate Mystery from whom the universe comes. This willingness to enter what in the fourteenth century was christened “the cloud of unknowing” is the beginning, it seems to be, of the contemplative life. And it is also the beginning of a life lived in simplicity and prayer.

So simplicity then, is a willingness to live in mystery, chopping wood and carrying water because such things are the necessary tasks at any one moment. It’s living in the present, what de Caussade calls the “abandonment to divine providence.” It’s not sweating the small stuff, while recognizing that even the small stuff represents opportunities to live in love. Prayer is likewise very simple. It’s not merely about saying prayers, although saying prayers can be an important element of prayer. Rather, simple prayer is about orienting and calibrating our lives toward seeking, and responding to, and listening for, the love that cascades over us from the heart of the Divine Mystery. So it’s an ongoing process. As Saint Paul said, “pray without ceasing.”

I hope each of us can find time to breathe deeply today, and remember that we are held by a love that is deeper than what we can seek, or ask for, or imagine, or experience. Many blessings to you.

Emptiness and Non-Attachment
Is Mysticism Genetic?
Pentecost and Ecstasy
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • phil foster

    Said so beautifully, my friend. Peace.

  • Dan Linehan

    During a Wayne Dyer presentation on a public tv fundraiser he said Thoreau once wrote to Emerson on the subject of simplicity. He closed his letter “Simplify, simplify, simplify!”

    Emerson wrote back, saying one ‘simplify” would have been sufficient.