You Don’t Need an i_____ and Other Spiritual Truths

We’ve been downsizing, trying as much as we can to live with less.  In a month I start seminary which has meant that we’ve left our house, packed up our belongings and are moving into a small apartment in an expensive city.  I won’t be able to earn income like I have in the past.  This means that my family will have to live with more frugality than we’ve had to in a while.  We’ve always tried to live simply, but that’s always easier said than done, especially in a society that lives in complete rebellion against necessity. And yet everything in our values, ecological and spiritual seems to call us to live more simply, more basically, at a level more fundamental and free.  My wife and I are welcoming the opportunity to learn again to live a more frugal life, not as an interruption, but as a form of life that we can continue with after we no longer have to.

I’ve been slowly working through Jeremy Taylor’s Rule for Holy Living lately.  Taylor is a 17th century Anglican writer–one of the spiritual masters, or “Divines” of the Anglican tradition. Yesterday I came across a passage in the book that, thought it may be timeless advice, seemed apt for our age:

“Accustom thyself to cut off all superfluity in the provisions of thy life, for our desires will enlarge beyond the present possession so long as all the things of this world are unsatisfying: if, therefore, you suffer them to extend beyond the measures of necessity or moderated conveniency, they will still swell: but you reduce them to a little compass when you make nature to be your limit.  We must take more care that our desires should cease than that they should be satisfied.”

This names our problem and our task.  And here are the stakes.  We live in a world dominated by those ever enlarging desires.  Since Taylor’s time our powers to grow and satisfy our every want have grown with exponential speed and our continued disatisfaction from this junk food empire of empty pleasures, momentary snaps in our synapses that fade to desperation, is killing us.  I do not mean this metaphorically.  The ecological devastation, the human violence, the pathogenic food that we pretend we can enjoy with some modicum of moderation–all this is the outcome of our desires going beyond the “present possession.”

Global warming, species destruction, modern slavery, wars upon wars–these are the dark sacraments of our age–the outward and visible signs of our inward disease and disgrace.  They are ultimately, as Taylor rightly says, spiritual problems.  The answer to global warming is not clean energy technology–it is an obliteration of consumerist society.  If we would all “make nature to be [our] limit” then global warming simply wouldn’t be an issue.  But we cannot accept that limit until we stop trying to satisfy our longings with our iPads, iPhones, iDols.

When the next craving of your heart burns inside you, when there is a hunger that only some new thing, new book, new achievement seems to hold the promise of satisfaction, put it aside–go for a walk in the woods, sit in silence and listen for the God who speaks in silence; follow Taylor’s advice to “take more care that our desires should cease than that they should be satisfied.”  That we do this and invite others to learn to do this with us is our only hope.  So welcome any cut to your budget, any downsizing of car or house, anytime you have to say no to your wants and desires.  Through these no’s you will find the Yes of God’s abundant kingdom.

About Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield is a writer and Episcopal seminarian sojourning from his native Arkansas in Alexandria, Virginia. He is the author of Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us, Farming as a Spiritual Discipline and a contributor to the book Sacred Acts: How churches are working to protect the Earth’s climate. Ragan’s articles and essays have appeared in a variety of magazines including Triathlete, The Oxford American, and Books & Culture. He works to live the good life with his wife Emily and daughter Lillian.