Blogging Benedict: The freedom of simplicity

In chapter 55 of the Rule, we read that the clothes of the monks are to be simple and plain, as well as few in number:

When the brothers receive new [clothes] they should always hand in the old ones at once, so that they can be put away in the clothes room for the poor. (p. 87, trans. White)

The clothing is not of importance itself. It is not to be hoarded, but the excess in the monastery’s life is to be used in acts of charity (caritasagape = the highest form of love). They are only to have two tunics and two cowls.

The teaching on clothing should be tied in with the teaching on food — simple fare with little wine. It should also be tied in with the vows of stability, poverty, and obedience (ch. 58). Again: stability = a simple life, not roving about. Poverty = a simple life uncluttered by possessions and the administration of property. Obedience = simplicity in choosing how to live.

The (ideal) life of the Benedictine is simple. Pray and work with the hands. The complicated round of prayers that characterise Lanfranc’s Constitutions is not what Benedict originally intended. The complicated tasks of administering large landholdings are not, either.

This desire for simplicity drove many of the late eleventh- and early twelfth-century monastic reform movements, such as the Tironensians (on whom I’ve blogged here) and the Cistercians. The Cistercian life was meant to be simple and austere. They were to be free to perform Benedict’s liturgy of the hours. They dress simply, they live simply.

Their minds are to be simply devoted to God. Cistercian manuscripts are rarely of secular or pagan authors. Instead, they are Bibles, biblical commentaries, liturgical texts, and the Fathers. The earliest Cistercian manuscripts tend not to have figural decorations but, instead, have lovely marginal illustrations of plants and herbs. Their churches were originally not to have steeples. They are to be simple and austere.

The title of this post is taken from a book by Richard Foster, The Freedom of Simplicity. In this book, he charts the biblical vision of how we are to treat possessions and live in the world, as well as practical steps we can take to live more simply. According to Foster, such a life is ultimately freeing, if only we continue to pursue. It is a very Quaker approach, but the monastics would agree.

So, let’s think on how we can simplify our lives and find true freedom in Christ and gospel-centred living.

  • What activities can you cut out of your day, week, month?
  • What expenses can you reduce?
  • What temptations do you have in the area of food and drink?
  • What can you give away?
  • Is your devotional life cluttered with too many books, too many ideas, too many options, too many practices? Which might be the most helpful for you to love God more? Focus on these.

Simplicity: Freedom from avarice and anxiety

In his book Celebration of Discipline, the first ‘Outward Discipline’ Richard Foster discusses is Simplicity. I am not the greatest practitioner of Simplicity, but ever since I really discovered St Francis of Assisi as an undergraduate, I have wished to be. As I look around at my multitudinous books, Playmobil, CDs, DVDs, cluttered schedule, I want to be unshackled. I want what Evagrius calls ‘Freedom from Possessions’.

Foster maintains that anxiety is the opposite of simplicity. I agree. I also believe that avarice is one of the great problems confronting and confronted by Simplicity. To cultivate Simplicity, to seek first the Kingdom of God, to dress like flowers and eat like birds, he gives three inner attitudes:

Freedom from anxiety is characterized by three inner attitudes. If what we have we receive as a gift, and if what we have is to be cared for by God, and if what we have is available to others, then we will possess freedom from anxiety. This is the inward reality of simplicity. However, if what we have we believe we have gotten, and if what we have we believe we must hold onto, and if what we have is not available to others, then we will live in anxiety. Such persons will never know simplicity regardless of the outward contortions they may put themselves through in order to live ‘the simple life’. (p. 77, 1st UK ed.)

The focus of our material possessions, and — I maintain — earthly relationships is turned from us maintaining and controlling to God maintaining and controlling. This can only be healthy.

But Simplicity is an outward discipline. What sorts of things can w do to live such a life? Foster gives ten principles; I give you the outdated page number for each in case you happen to also have the first UK ed at hand:

  1. buy things for their usefulness rather than their status (78)
  2. reject anything that is producing an addiction in you (79)
  3. develop a habit of giving things away (79)
  4. refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry (80)
  5. learn to enjoy things without owning them (80)
  6. develop a deeper appreciation for the creation (80)
  7. look with a healthy skepticism at all ‘buy now, pay later’ schemes. They are a trap and serve to deepen your bondage (81)
  8. obey Jesus’ instructions about plain, honest speech (81)
  9. reject anything that will breed the oppression of others (82)
  10. shun whatever would distract you from your main goal (82)

Many of those are painfully obvious, but we do not live by them! Many we can think of friends or even ourselves being entrapped by such un-simplicity (e.g. ‘Must – have – iPhone – 5 …’; I know a guy with $25 000 of consumer debt). Number 8 is refers to, ‘Let your yes be yes and your no, no.’ How often do we just say what is necessary and what we mean without trying to justify ourselves or our answers? How many of us can even give an unqualified apology?

Our main goal — the Kingdom of God. Cassian (Conference 1) points us to ‘Purity of Heart’ as the earthly goal to attain this heavenly end. Kierkegaard’s book title (referenced by Foster) tells us that Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. It is Simplicity.

For More on Simplicity

Besides Celebration of Discipline, I have been challenged (and sometimes changed to whatever degree I am simple) by these two modern books in particular:

Freedom of Simplicity by Richard J Foster. He goes into ever deeper detail in this book. Well worth reading and re-reading.

The Lessons of Saint Francis by John Michael Talbot. Gives various lessons on daily living with Christ through the lens of the life and teachings of the jongleur de Dieu.

From the ancient and medieval writers, check out John Cassian, The Conferences and Benedict of Nursia, The Rule.