Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Morning thoughts

Simplicity and minimalism have merged in my life as essential to each other. This is a testimony, but not a recommendation.

Some friends testify that for them minimalism gets in the way of simplicity – because one has to strategize, plan, make choices, continually and patiently apply mindfulness to the maintenance of minimalism in a cluttered world. And some consider this exercise does not belong to simplicity; it makes life complicated, thinking about these things all the time. That our minds are better occupied on God, on philosophy and theology, reading, creating, on music and art and the fair beauty of the living earth. I don’t propose any argument against that. I say only, that is their finding and their lives, but not mine.

I think perhaps it is a matter of inclination or calling – depending whether one likes to lay the responsibility for these things at one’s own door or God’s.

Abba Moses (one of the Desert Fathers) responded to a young monk asking him for some wise teaching: “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”

I think when he said “cell”, he would have been assuming somewhere sparsely furnished, almost empty, a place of few possessions. I don’t imagine he meant “Go into your three-bedroomed house with its central heating, TV, well-equipped kitchen, study with computer and printer and stocked bookshelves, living room with comfy chairs and stacks of magazines, jigsaw puzzles, novels, knitting, and various hobbies.”

“Go into your cell and your cell will teach you everything” doesn’t mean “Go home and don’t bother me, figure it out yourself”. It isn’t even quite the same as what Lao Tsu said in the Tao Te Ching: “Without going outside you can know the whole world”. Though that is true. Up to a point. I think. Maybe. I know having gone out and about a bit has changed the way I look at things. I would not be the same if I hadn’t kept company with dying people, with prisoners, with people struggling in poverty and various journeys of transformation. But I take his point.

Still, I think there’s no getting round it, Abba Moses intended “Go into your cell and your cell will teach you everything” as an exercise in extreme minimalism. No distraction. No comfort. No possessions. Enclosure. Quiet. Solitude. Because it forces you inward, and hopefully along the hidden track to the presence of God.

This is ascetic, of course.

Minimalism means different things to different people, and so does simplicity.

For me, it started with St Francis; and his minimalism/simplicity was about humility and intimacy with God – so that made a good beginning. To do with getting his hands dirty, taking the literal and immediate paths, nurturing the innocence of the childlike spirit. And choosing the place of the lowliest. Taking the lowest place. This spoke to me deeply. In small and insignificant ways I have tried to do it – to eschew status, not that I’ve ever had a lot to eschew so it’s been no big deal.

I watched and learned from monastics and Anabaptists, and learned what I could from Zen (actually of course what Zen teaches you is precisely nothing, so it’s useful in this context).

I loved Gandhi.

Since my teenage years the exercise of living in the smallest possible space has held a fascination for me.

So for a while I dressed in saris, which are excellent for space-saving. They fold up small and carry over from doing the housework to conducting ceremonies to going out and about to attending functions to preaching – pretty much anything you can think of. But I discovered (I would not have known this if I hadn’t worn them) they are also political. Unknowingly I had stepped across a cultural divide into a different world. I know how we dress is always a statement whether we like it or not, but I didn’t want to be a walking political banner. And – oh, dear – what a magnet they were for bored men at religious gatherings: “So. Did you live long in India?” “I have never been to India.” “Then why are you . . .” etc.

Though once a man from India approached me with his eyes full of tears because the sari I wore that evening came from the same place as he did. He thanked me over and over, for wearing it.

The whole thing turned out to be a bigger deal than I’d meant.

Then I discovered the Amish and fell head over heels in love with them. Everything I read said they were all about simplicity and kindness, the humble, guileless, plain pursuit of the Gospel. I embraced this with a whole heart, and entered the world of Plain Dress. For a while my life was all about petticoats and ironing and trying to get the right combination of underclothes so my skirts didn’t ride up when I walked fast wearing wooly tights in the winter. And making head-coverings and remembering to put aprons on and take them off and getting an extra clothes rail to accommodate all the clobber, and trying desperately – and unsuccessfully – to be unobtrusive. And people staring. Mistaking me for a re-enactor – asking me the way to the toilets in the medieval castle. It all got a bit . . . silly. So I stopped. No matter what its proponents insisted, the Plain Dress adventure didn’t feel one iota like simplicity to me.

I still dress plain, but my own way of it. Quiet, dark, modest clothes. Nothing fancy.

And then quite by itself, like Red Riding Hood wandering deeper into a wood without wolves, my soul drifted along the tracks that led into minimalism.

Minimalism and simplicity have implications one can compartmentalize. Here are the ones I can think of:

  • What I wear. Simple, plain, dark, quiet, unobtrusive; a capsule wardrobe of garments designed to be warm, comfortable, dignified and easy to care for. No ironing. Na-ah. None.
  • Other things I own. I try to keep my possessions to a minimum. So I fit my personal things in one tiny room without it looking cluttered. Because I live in a shared house, there are things held in common that belong also to my life; but there too, we continually prune, pare down, review. Open any cupboard and the contents are stored plainly and without muddle. The rooms are not overfilled and the passageways are bare. We try to keep it plain and simple.
  • What I eat. A plain and simple diet of only what will nourish me and create health.
  • How I spend my time. Working – whether writing or tending to the needs of other people, or cleaning house or whatever. Reading. In conversation with the people I live with, or in correspondence with others far away, or feeding the fox and the crow. Thinking. Praying. Looking. Listening. It is the plainest, simplest life I can devise. A schedule with a quiet rhythm. Not as a penance but because I like it that way. I love the calling of the anchorites – to anchor the Light to the particular spot of earth where they are. I try so to live.
  • My finances. My life is small and uneventful, so it proceeds on little income. I try to get things so arranged that any benefit coming to me will, by the structures I’ve put in place, do good to other people as well. Flow through me as well as to me. I have this body, I must sustain it and care for it, but I want no kind of hoard.
  • My home. It’s important to me to live in a poor town, among poor people. For a while my work took me into what one could call comfort zones. I lived only in church houses there, owning nothing (apart from the usual domestic basics); even so I felt stifled. It was a relief to come back to this rough and ready place by the sea. I feel at home with those who live near the edge. Making their nests like seagulls on what ledges they can find. Preferring freedom. And I like my place to be somewhat shabby, which it is. Not imposing, not grand; a house that makes no statements. Nonetheless, to me, beautiful. Bigger than I’d like, but then it has to shelter several of us, so that’s okay.
  • My relationships. I choose solitude, and the company of those on a serious path. I withdraw from contention and display, from what is loud and rude, or ribald or imprudent. I choose peace – not selfishly, but because I am growing it, like moss, in a world that needs it.

This is my way of simplicity, the cell I am building of my life, and minimalism is intrinsically part of it.

What I’ve found about minimalism (“Go into your cell and your cell will teach you everything”) is that it peels back layers, takes me deeper. This morning, awake and reading towards dawn, occasionally pausing to think, turn things over in my mind – yes, and pray – I noticed something, discerned something in the landscape of my soul. That need to talk things through with those close to me, to let off steam. And I saw how it is like a dandelion clock – these bits and pieces of criticism, of discontent and unkindness I let fly – they are not merely like flakes of shed scales and skin – they are seeds.

And I saw that this is an endeavor of simplicity in which the application of minimalism will be a wholesome salve. The minimalism of silence, the application of “Ssh”, of keeping my own counsel; and, if that’s what it takes to achieve it, of greater solitude.
So this, too, is a form of minimalism, simplicity, a dew nourishing the garden of peace I am slowly developing – not for myself alone but for the stressed and tired world.

But it’s all steps and layers. It doesn’t come all at once. Minimalism and simplicity reveal their riches incrementally. They are discovered behind many veils. Or, like an archeologist, digging down, scraping back, discovering for the first time the story of something lying hidden from view, lost civilization.

Well, that’s what I think, anyway.

Though this is a mere aside. In the main my heart beats this morning in sorrow for this man’s agony. How could they do that?


gail said...

Hello Pen,
Yes like you I am saddened to think that any man could do such terrible things to his fellow man. This is something I will never understand.

I am walking a very slow path to simplicity. Slowly peeling off layers that have accumulated over the years. Guilt often plagues me when I think of money wasted. I am encouraged to move forward when I read what you have written today and at other times in your blog. Thank you Pen.
Blessings Gail.

Anonymous said...

"I choose solitude, and the company of those on a serious path. I withdraw from contention and display, from what is loud and rude, or ribald or imprudent. I choose peace – not selfishly, but because I am growing it, like moss, in a world that needs it."

Thank you for these words. They resonate deeply. I am slowly learning to arrange my life so that I am not swallowed up by the adversariality and noise that many others seem to thrive on. Your blog is an inspiration!

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Gail - About the guilt; I do believe it's unnecessary. The things, the money - those were never what life was about. Look upon them as materials for the course you enrolled on in signing up to life on earth - the deepening understanding of what really matters. I think the river doesn't feel guilty about the water that flows into the sea. xx

Hi Osynligstig - God bless your life with real peace.

Pilgrim said...

Amish clothes are only easy if you grow up in the tradition, and have the muscle memory needed for the work.

Re the death, I think spiritual warfare is intensifying.

Pen Wilcock said...

Interesting thought about muscle memory!

But about the spiritual warfare, it's a thought that draws me, yet something hesitates too. Have you been watching Wolf Hall on the TV (or read it)? As I think of Tyndale and More and King Henry and the roots of the Church of England, then fast-forward to ISIS or ISIL or whatever they're calling themselves today, I cannot help but conclude, "Plus ça change plus c'est la même chose."


Pilgrim said...

I'm embarrassed to admit I got about two pages into Wolf Hall and couldn't take the violence, or something. Can't remember. Do you recommend it?

C'est vrai. The devil has been prowling about for a long time. I don't know where the boundaries of power are, between human volition and the forces of the spiritual world. May be time to re-read The Screwtape Letters.

Pen Wilcock said...

Wolf Hall - my husband warned me against reading it because I can't bear torture and cruelty and sadistic stuff in books. So I felt very fearful of watching it on TV. There is an opening scene of the child Thomas Cromwell and his abusive father, but given the historical realities it deals with, I'm surprised by how sensitively - with how light a hand - the grim savagery is sketched in.
I have also delighted in Hillary Mantel's compassion and insight, her grasp of down-to-earth practicality.
She is an astonishing writer.
I know that writers are recommended to read widely all the time, but I confess I rarely finish a book. I get a few pages in, think, "Oh, right, I see where you're going with this," and can't be bothered to finish it.
Hillary Mantel is now bracketed in the small lonely category of My Favourite Writers - so Ursula le Guin is not all on her own in there any more.
I think Wolf Hall is a *brilliant* book.
I am a very slow reader, but I am pegging away at it, reading it every day. I think it's wonderful.
And the TV series is excellent - Mark Rylance, the direction, the score, the cast in general, the faithfulness to the book, the costumes, the sets … One of the best TV programmes I've ever seen.

Pilgrim said...

Thank you for your thoughts about it. The Amazon reviews are quite entertaining, at least the negative ones. Maybe I will give it a try when the weather usn't so rugged. I read Ellis Peters history of Wales. There was enough violence there. My Anabaptist heritage makes more and more sense.

Pilgrim said...

Oops. Meant Edith Pargeter. :-)

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) xx

Jenna Caruthers said...

I echo others' thoughts that spiritual battles are becoming more intense. The enemy knows time is short and this penultimate campaign of unrelenting fear will cause the love of many (actually carries he sense of "most") to "wax cold." (Matt 24:12) The Greek word translated "cold" there is actually more accurately thought of as having to do with breathing or breath. That loving breath of YHVH will go cold--it will die--in those whose love isn't true, who won't endure. In my estimation, fear IS a false prophet.

Pen Wilcock said...

Thanks, Jenna :0) xx

rebecca said...

I'm sharing "space" with you in your explanation and current experience of personal simplicity/minimalism.

The "space" I have yet to address adequately is "Other things I own". I'm not sure why it is so hard for me to sort this out (Could it be because much of the space is taken up by books?) Nothing here is valuable in terms of money. Only a bit of it seems essential..still I hesitate not knowing where to start...

Carol Z said...

So much to think about. Thank you!

How could they do that? I've asked myself this question a dozen times today. No good answer.

Pen Wilcock said...

Carol - all we can do is look to our own lives, being mindful of the seeds of war, seeds of peace, learn about compassion, keep our hearts knowingly and continually open to the gaze of Jesus. xx

Rebecca - you might find this lady's book a help with regard to sorting out the "other things you own".

Rebecca said...

Pen, Without meaning to sound arrogant, I probably could have WRITTEN that book! :)

I misstated my problem. It's definitely not know "how".

Pen Wilcock said...



Our Hebe has the same problem. She holds all of her many scarves and gloves in her hands one after the other to see which sparks joy. None of them do. No, they all do. Well, whether they do or not, they are each useful in different circumstances . . .

Rebecca said...

Exactly!(And I "know" there are other questions to ask - like have I used these "gloves" in the past 12 months, etc.

"Know HOW" is definitely not my problem.

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) xx

daisyanon said...

Sorry I'm late to this:

"the cell I am building of my life"

Completely describes what I am trying to do! Perfect! Although I am not very far along the road of minimalism and simplicity in terms of possessions.

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) xx