Defining the monastic practice of simplicity is anything but simple. Attempts are thwarted by endless exceptions and personal preference. What may seem extravagant to some--a towering cathedral filled with exquisite artwork or a spacious workshop stocked with expensive equipment--are necessities to others, essential places and things that help their spirits soar in praise of God and in practice of God-given talents.
To complicate matters, the word "simplicity," as written in the Rule of St. Benedict, is often used interchangeably with the word "poverty." But nuances can be lost in translation and over time. In the sixth-century Benedictine tradition, poverty referred more to having only what was necessary than to an imposed asceticism. The goal was not so much about doing without as it was making room for God. Monks left behind worldly concerns and lived simply so that they were freer to go within to discover the deeper meaning of their lives.
"We do not detach ourselves from things in order to attach ourselves to God," Thomas Merton wrote in "New Seeds of Contemplation," "but rather we become detached from ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God."
Simplicity requires self-knowledge so we can determine what is necessary for each of us. We can then take on a conscious single-mindedness, says Sr. Joan Chittister, a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie and author of numerous books, including "Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today."
"Simplicity has to do with knowing the things that are important, and with not having more than what is important," she explains. "It's about keeping our eye on a single goal, and of living very simply with that goal in mind."
But Chittister cautions that single-mindedness should not to be confused with simplemindedness. "That's when we are so unaware of the interconnection of things that we really believe we can join the great profit-making rat race without hurting anybody or questioning where that money is coming from," she continues. "The simpleminded never ask questions of conscience and never examine elements of consequence on all members of society. They say, 'Everything is getting better for everybody.' But it's not. The people in my hometown no longer work for benefits. Nobody hires them for 40 hours a week anymore; they hire them for 39 so they don't have to pay their medical insurance or give them a pension or vacation."
The ancient monastic tradition of simplicity is experiencing a renaissance in a modern movement known as Voluntary Simplicity. The Simple Living Network
estimates that 15 percent of America's 77 million baby boomers will join the movement by the end of the decade. While these seekers may use terms such as "spirituality" and "depth" instead of "God" and "faith," they are working toward the same goal--lives that are inwardly rich and outwardly simple.
"I define simplicity as the examined life, which helps us figure out our real needs instead of those artificially imposed by commercial society," says Cecile Andrews, author of "The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life." "If we're spending all our time at work, in the malls, or in front of the television, we just cannot have that depth.
How, then, do we begin to simplify our lives? Even before we take measures such as cutting consumption, carrying less debt, or spending more time with family and friends, we need to examine what matters most to us. Periods of silence can lead us closer to that discovery. Even 10 minutes a day can help us learn more about our true selves--what we personally need, what is missing in our lives, and what drives us to fill those holes with things that never can really satisfy.
Next, we can stop during the day and check in with ourselves to see how we are feeling at any given moment. In a culture obsessed with personal growth and goal-setting, we often strive to have more rather than realizing that much of what we need lies within. And we can join with others. Whether we choose the Simplicity Circles that Andrews helps to organize, church and support groups, or simple neighborhood get-togethers, we need others to help us re-create our lives.
In our complex, modern society, turning toward simplicity does not come easily. As we try to incorporate this practice into our lives, we will surely slip into old ways. But don't give up, Sr. Chittister counsels.
"Failure is a very acceptable part of growth. In fact, it is how we learn, how we make decisions in life," she explains. "It isn't that we don't fail, it is that we know more clearly what our single-minded criteria for [living a meaningful] life are so that we can do things with greater simplicity. We do not need to be or do everything possible-just that which advances our true criteria for living. That's simplicity."