It’s not unusual to hear visitors to the monastery say, “I want to simplify my life but I don’t know how!” I wish I had a good response to that exclamation. I clearly remember a few years ago a sister from another institute visiting our community and remarking that we may not appreciate how simple our lifestyle is here. We probably do lose sight of that! What I am keenly aware of is how we, too, feel the pressures of our complex society.
Were I a wise man or a prophet I might be able to make some valuable suggestion about simplifying our lives. I’m not. If I told you what seems to work for me, I realize that would only have limited application since we’re all so different. I realize that some people, like Francis of Assisi, are capable of the dramatic public gesture, a complete reversal in one moment. Change for me is gradual, by small increments as I get acclimated to a new level. Yet other people need external support, even pressure to make the changes they want to make. For what it’s worth, I have a practice of getting rid of anything in my room that I haven’t used for an entire year. If I can go through four seasons without needing it, I don’t need it. Clothes can always be given away to the homeless, books can always find a new home, letters and journals can feed paper recycling, some brick-a-brac make good gifts–and the rest is just plain junk anyway. Once something is gone, why replace it? Re-cycle, re-use, reduce.
That refrain is certainly good for the environment. Some things that have already exhausted their usefulness can be recycled to become a renewable resource. Paper is a very good example of that. Other objects may have another “life” somewhere else, may be just the thing someone has been looking for: consignment shops, the Salvation Army, Good Will Industries, the American Legion, the St. Vincent de Paul Society have been doing that for decades. Reduce…now that just might be where simplicity begins to enter the picture. Why should I believe advertising? Do I really need all these things? Has any of that really made me content or happy for more than a few minutes? Certainly washing machines, stoves, bicycles have made life easier; I don’t suggest eleiminating these.
But is there something operative on a deeper level beneath Re-cycle, Re-use, reduce? I’d like to suggest that a crucial factor may be gratitude for what we do have, even gratitude for what we really need.
In an era of “entitlement”, how often has what-we-can-get-but-don’t-have lead to embitterment? If I could get back down to what I only need–even if in my imagination alone–might I begin to be grateful for what I have and can use? I believe that gratitude is intentional. It is only evoked when I bother to look at and understand my situation.
So often the truly grateful people I meet haven’t had easy lives. Did their struggles sharpen their sense of the good and appreciation for their share in it?The grateful people I meet in life are the people who are aware of themselves and their lives. They are awake and pay attention; they take stock. They are not unaware of the debit column; they’re not optimistic pollyanna’s; but they are aware of the bigger picture. They are conscious of people who have less and are concerned about them. They may even wonder whether in indirect or direct ways they are responsible for people having less. As Elizabeth Anne Seton remarked two hundred years ago, “To live simply so others might simply live.”
I wonder if gratitude for what life has dealt me might might be a key to living simply?