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?