Last night, stumblingly tired after a full day of teaching on top of a weekend away at a Quaker retreat, I turned the heat on on the wrong burner of the stove. A few minutes later, picking up a pot lid I thought was cool, I gave myself a second degree burn on the fingers of my right hand.
Burns being what burns are, the pain increased throughout the evening, and by bedtime, I could not keep my hand out of a bowl of water for more than a few minutes without the pain being too loud for me to sleep. And sleeping with my hand inside a bowl of water… that wasn’t too easy to arrange, either. By midnight, I acceded to the inevitable: a night without sleep. I got up and toyed with the computer, keeping my burn cool and quiet until, at last, around three, I was able to sleep.
At five in the morning, I called the sub dispatcher for my school, wrote up my sub plan, and emailed it in to work.
My whole job today has been to make up for a weekend of too-little sleep, and a single night essentially without sleep. My only work, in other words, has been to rest.
The singleness of purpose has been delicious.
Just now, waking up from my fourth or fifth nap of the day, I turned over on my pillow, feeling refreshed, and maybe smart enough not to burn myself in the process of cooking tonight. Not only that, I woke up with a post in mind, on what it means to live simply.
It means a lot of things, obviously. But I mean, what it means to honor the testimony of simplicity, as part of living as a Friend, a Quaker.
I should mention what I understand Quaker “testimonies” to mean.
There are a lot of forms of the traditional Quaker testimonies listed, in a lot of different places. Some are very familiar: just about anyone who knows that Quakers are not extinct knows that they are opposed to wars and violence. That’s one of the oldest of the “testimonies,” and it gets described these days as “the peace testimony.” Some liberal Quakers especially will list the most commonly understood of the things that Quakers, as a group, stand for as the “SPICE testimonies: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality.”
Other Quakers will refuse to produce a list at all; New England Yearly Meeting, for instance, in the current revision of our Faith and Practice (the how-to-do-it guide for Quakers who are members) does not have such a list, but instead has a chapter discussing where testimonies come from.
Testimonies, you see, are not rules that one follows in order to please God or grow near to God. Rather, the testimonies are the result of growing closer to the Holy Spirit. The more time we spend in communion with that Spirit of compassion, the more strongly we feel the pull to bring our lives into harmony with that Spirit’s ways. The testimonies are the flower, and the communion with the Spirit is the root.
Like the fragrance a flower sends out into the world, testimonies are the changes in how we live our lives that become visible outgrowths of our relationship with God. Like the perfume of a flower, they can carry a long way, and even attract, as flowers do bees, those who are hungry for what the fragrance promises. But the testimonies are not static things that define Quakers–they’re the natural outward development of living into the Quaker relationship with That Which Is.
In that light, I woke from my nap refreshed and wanting to say a little bit about simplicity.
A lot of people are drawn to the ethical dimension of simplicity; we recognize that we have abundance in a world where many are hungry, and we want to “live simply, that others may simply live.” That is one of the flowerings of Spirit in our lives. But it is not the only one, nor the defining one.
Other people are drawn to the traditions of plainness which Quakers have historically kept: right down to plain dress–that broad brimmed hat or bonnet, suspenders or a simple, modest dress. Your basic Amish look, carried to it’s historical appearance, though other Friends choose instead to wear only clothing that carries no logos or advertisements, or no clothing produced in sweatshops, for instance. Others choose to wear only clothing that carries no message of power or authority (no ties or suits or dress-for-success outfits), and others choose clothing that is hard-wearing and durable, to avoid the frivolous (“vain” in old-time Quaker speak) expense of constant updating and replacement of cheap and transient fashions.
For Quakers in the past, simplicity implied eliminating distractions like music or novels from our homes; for many Quakers today, it means questioning the constant distractions of pop culture (especially violent pop culture) with its expensive, flashy video games, movies, and consumerism. Some become freegans, or thrift shop customers, and others learn to make their own bread, clothes, and gardens.
But although avoiding waste is one of the results of this kind of anti-consumerism, and (hopefully) that frees up income to share the world’s resources a bit more equitably with others who have less, I think that perhaps the most valuable benefit of simplicity is the elimination of distractions. Not that I’m opposed to distractions, in their place: I love me my pop culture! Joss Whedon’s television shows, a good comic book, and even video games with their sometimes violent and hypnotic images do, in fact, find a home in my life. I’d even argue that there have been times, when I’ve been tempted into self-importance and a strained, self-conscious piety that definitely outruns my Guide, that the very frivolity of pop culture has been the saving of me–at least for a while.
However, I need to remember the importance of simplicity in clearing away the excess, the clutter and the competing noise in my life that take away from me my ability to center down and listen for the Spirit speaking to my condition moment by moment.
Today, my only job was to sleep, to rest, so that my mind and body would again be strong enough and clear enough to do the work that is given to me right now to do. And I loved it. The result is that I am refreshed, really refreshed, in a way that no comic book or new set of clothes or laptop computer will ever refresh me.
Real simplicity is remembering the importance of the root. Real simplicity is setting aside the superficial long enough to find rest and to water that root, to remember and recover that living connection with Spirit.
As important as it is to avoid consumerism, greed, waste, and addiction, I feel today quite clear that the place of simplicity in spiritual life is greater than any of these: it is preserving the space in my life for the Holy; it is refusing to allow anything to crowd out that connection with the living Spirit that is the root of all the other flowerings of my outward practice.
At least when I am doing it right, for me, the testimony of simplicity is about resting in God.