The Challenges of Spiritual Simplicity

The Challenges of Spiritual Simplicity May 2, 2019
The Church of Thoronet Abbey in France, an example of the simplicity of medieval Cistercian architecture. Photo credit: Seb Hovaguimian/Fotolia

One of the most attractive, although challenging, qualities of the Cistercian charism is simplicity.

It’s a principle immediately apparent in Cistercian architecture: the monasteries and churches of the Cistercian order, whether built in the 12th century or the 20th, are typically remarkable for their aesthetic simplicity. There are few if any statues or other adornments, rarely even featuring stained glass, and even the most Gothic or Romanesque structures are remarkable for their elegant appearance, lack of superfluous ornamentation, and utilitarian design. Cistercian architecture is all about simplicity, because that’s the heart of Cistercian spirituality as a whole.

In his deceptively simple book What Makes a Cistercian Monk?, Fr. Anthony Delisi quotes from early Cistercian documents alongside his own reflections on the nature of monastic simplicity, and the message seems to be very much about letting go: no ostentatious clothing, no luxuries, no extravagant foods or possessions. The aesthetics of architectural simplicity are matched by an ascetic approach to the spiritual life; for after all, when contemplation in God is the “one thing necessary” (Lk. 10:42), what is the point of unnecessary or frivolous stuff?

It’s a question that may seem more relevant now than ever before, and not just for monks. I remember one weekend a few years back, at a gathering of Lay Cistercians at Holy Spirit Abbey in Georgia, a discussion on the charism of simplicity quickly morphed into a kind of group therapy session on the problems associated with American over-consumption, “affluenza” as one PBS documentary called it.

“At least I’m not bad enough to be on the Hoarders TV show!” one person exclaimed, and more than a few nodded their heads in knowing agreement. It was small comfort.

“It seems that Americans spend the first half of their lives acquiring stuff, and the latter half trying to get rid of it,” mused another. We shared with one another a variety of hints about how to actually get rid of stuff, from the obvious (have a huge yard sale, get a haul-away dumpster) to the more extreme (move into a smaller space) and even the offbeat (for every five things you touch in your home, resolve to dispose of one). More than one person mentioned how essential an industrial-strength shredder is for dealing with files full of old paperwork.

This conversation, like I said, happened several years ago — long before Marie Kondō’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up became a runaway international bestseller. Indeed, the success of that book, and its companion tv show, is just evidence of how the yearning for simplicity is something many of us share.

Speaking of books, it seemed that for us contemplative Christians, books came up as one of the biggest types of clutter-causers, which is not surprising since Lay Cistercians (like other contemplatives) tend to be educated and intellectually curious. As an author who worked many  years as a bookseller, I have profoundly mixed feelings here: my livelihood depends on people buying the things, but I have struggled in my own home to deal with the burden of having more books than can be reasonably read in a lifetime.

It seems that books, like clothes, fall in the 80/20 rule: 20 percent of the books I own will provide me with 80 percent of my reading and research. So why do I insist on holding on to all the others? Okay, there’s the Japanese notion of tsundoku — of intentionally owning more books than you can read, almost as an exercise of intellectual humility — but at what point is the loss of simplicity not worth the intellectual pleasures of, well, more books than anyone can reasonably enjoy?

Acknowledging the Spirituality of Simplicity (or the Lack Thereof)

It’s a good thing that we talk about issues like this, for obviously the entire world could not sustain the American way of over-consumption if it were adopted by people around the world. So we first-worlders need to learn to make do with less. But there seems to be something deeper going on here than merely the over-accumulation of stuff.

The American lifestyle, with its idolatry of immediate gratification, its whining insistence on convenience and comfort, and its blind insistence that bigger is better, and more is even better still, did not arise in a vacuum. Our relationship to the material world simply arises from the character of our inner worlds. In short, we lead over-consumptive, and often cluttered or hoarding lives, because we have stuffed and cluttered minds, hearts, and souls.

Many years ago, in a class on spiritual formation at the Shalem Institute in Washington, DC, I heard a man talk about “the materialism of information.” Mind you, this was long before the arrival of smart phones, tablets, and the world wide web. We over-collect books and log too many hours online for the same reason: we are greedy for ideas, thoughts, arguments, and vicarious experiences. We cram more and more “stuff” into our interior world and then we wonder why our meditation time is so distracted.

Back to the Cistercians. With their long-standing emphasis on silence, simplicity, austerity, and asceticism, the monks are simply trying to manifest in their exterior circumstances the kind of mind/soul they seek to cultivate within. Simplicity, at the end of the day, is a state of mind. It’s not the same thing as ignorance, naiveté, or the lack of education; but it has more to do with wisdom than with knowledge, with love than with intellectual prowess.

It’s about clarity of thought, which includes knowing when to let thinking go and simply be. Just as so many of us in mid-life and beyond are learning to let go of the extraneous stuff in our lives, so too we face the even more challenging task of letting go of the extraneous static within. Obviously, no yard sale, dumpster, or industrial-strength shredder will help here. As Jesus recognized when facing a particularly nasty demon (see Mk. 9:29), this is a problem that can only be solved by prayer.

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