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Center for Action and Contemplation
The Path to Simplicity
The Path to Simplicity

Set Free from Holding Tightly 

Thursday, May 2, 2024

Episcopal priest and spiritual director Margaret Guenther (1929–2016) reflects upon the challenge of “true” simplicity:  

Simplicity is not one of the cardinal virtues, but perhaps it should be. The old Shaker gift-song tells us that “When true Simplicity is gained / To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed. / To turn, turn will be our delight, / ’Till by turning, turning we come ’round right! [1] 

This is scarcely a new or radical idea for Christians. Jesus teaches that we should avoid distracting encumbrances: the disciples are sent out without so much as a backpack. They are “to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics” (Mark 6:8–9). This is simplicity carried to the point of austerity and—in my midwestern view—improvidence. I would want at least an umbrella, a change of clothes, and a twenty-dollar bill tucked into a secure pocket. And maybe a few sandwiches. And a credit card. Just in case.  

To embrace simplicity calls for a radical trust that does not come easily. Simplicity is not a gift; along with the freedom that it brings it is the gift. But it must be, in the words of the song, true simplicity….  

We grow in generosity as we embrace simplicity. We are able to hold all things lightly and, if need be, let them go—our possessions, our money, our pretensions, even our anger, our prejudices, and our fears. But the letting-go, if it is the fruit of generous simplicity, can never be coerced. It must be joyful, and it must be voluntary. It is not to be confused with spiritual deadness, living without passion. Indeed, we live more passionately because we are set free from the burdensome work of holding on tightly to anything that comes within our grasp. [2]  

For Benedictine monk Augustin Belisle, simplicity provides a necessary self-emptying so we can dwell more fully in the presence of God.  

To live simply, simply to listen, to be simple in our response to persons and events, to speak with simplicity, to simplify our surroundings—simplicity helps to clear our vision. It dissipates the cloudiness which tends to fog our daily responses to God’s Word. Simplicity helps clear the confusion which can easily bombard us from so many directions…. It corrects the myopia we experience when we hold on to the possessive drive. This shortsighted obsession … adds to the burdens of others around us.… Simplicity works against our proclivities toward obsession—with self, guilt, weakness, and things. If we are not obsessed, we can be possessed by the sacred. If we know the emptiness which yearns to be filled—if we recognize the potential spiritual energy which lies within the heart—then we can feel at home with this emptiness. Our souls will be vibrated by it. To live the present in the presence of God is our aim. [3]  

[1] Joseph Brackett, “Inspirational Gift-Song,” quoted in The Shakers: Two Centuries of Spiritual Reflection, ed. Robley Edward Whitson (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), 295. 

[2] Margaret Guenther, The Practice of Prayer (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1998), 140–141, 156. 

[3] Augustin Belisle, Into the Heart of God: Spiritual Reflections (Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications, 1989), 33–34. 

Image credit and inspiration: Benjamin Yazza, Untitled (detail), New Mexico, 2023, photo, used with permission. Click here to enlarge image. When we let go of anything other than what is right here, right now, we can fly. 

Story from Our Community:  

The meditation on April 9, “Practicing Sabbath” deepened my understanding of the Sundays of my childhood. After going to church, we would prepare a lovely roast lunch together at home. The guests at our table often included the wider family or friends. I learned the joy of cooking for loved ones. I never understood those seemingly ordinary Sundays as part of the practice of Sabbath. Today, I see those Sundays preparing food as a family practice of sacred rest, celebrating the joy of simply living. Thank you for this uplifting insight. —Beth H. 

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