“Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free, tis a gift to come down where you want to be….” So runs the opening line of the famous Shaker hymn, hauntingly beautiful and evocative of the Spirit it celebrates. These lines spring readily to my mind as I gaze on the simplicity of the bare trees in November. The trees didn’t have as much color as usual this year, and the leaves were about two weeks late in falling. But now in late November they are bare.
The weather has been unusually mild also, though we’ve had a freak early snowstorm or two. It’s felt like an extended moratorium, a pause of quiet and stillness before the sure and certain descent of winter.
During this pause I’ve been reflecting on simplicity and what it’s about. Perhaps it’s been conjured up by the simplicity of the bare trees, and the late autumn sunlight on bare ground, empty gardens and yellowing grass. The garden is put to bed for the winter, the hoses rolled up and put away, the lawn mowers are under cover, the benches as well. Everything looks neat and tidy and plain. Plain and bare may not always be the same as simple, yet we often make that connection. For surely it is hard to think of simplicity or to act simply when our lives and living spaces and minds are cluttered and confused.
But what is simplicity? Or what is it to be simple? There’s an archaic usage of the word ‘simple’ that means ‘mentally deficient.’ That’s not what true simplicity is about.
I ponder the image of the bare trees and lawns and gardens and one meaning that literally leaps to the eye is ‘unconfused’ and ‘open’. When the leaves and vegetation are removed, everything is open and visible. One can see for greater distances, even in the forest. The same may well be true in our spiritual landscape also. When we are focused on sikking God, and not on the clutter of conflicting and extraneous desires and needs, we can see more clearly the path before us – the path upon which God is leading us.
One of the ways to help ourselves see with this ‘single eye’ that seeks God’s way in our lives is to simplify. This can begin with disposing of some of our excess possessions, and move on to simplify the ways in which we spend our precious time. Everyone is so very busy today! Perhaps we could become less busy if we pondered which activities are most important to us, and which are less so – and then gradually extracted ourselves from the less important.
Imagine the gift of free time and uncluttered space! Why, we might even make room for God’s Spirit to speak to us! Although God’s Spirit is always speaking to us – but mostly we can’t hear this loving voice. We’re to cluttered up and preoccupied with all sorts of lesser attractions.
When we begin to unclutter our lives we may find deeper movements stirring within us. Or we may not even notice these stirrings, they happen so gently. We are being led to the depths of simplicity, in which our spirit itself begins to simplify and unify. We are becoming more integrated as persons. Instead of acting with layer upon layer of defensiveness, superficial emotion, and self-deception, we become more direct, more focused upon the ‘one thing necessary’ – seeking God’s path, God’s way in our lives. We are blessed with the ability to let go of old hurts, angers, fears, doubts, and all sorts of lesser needs. We are becoming unified and integrated. This is the truest and deepest meaning of simplicity. It is a long journey to arrive at this, and it takes a lifetime! But we can always begin.
We can always begin – and begin again and again and again. We can gently work at this process throughout our lives. Yet we can only begin; it is the gift of the Spirit to empower us to arrive, even for a moment, here and there, sporadically at first, and then more and more as we continue to follow the path of simplicity. Remember that song? “Tis a gift to be simple….” We do our part, as best we can, imperfectly, occasionally. It is the gift of God to bring us to true simplicity.
As Advent arrives, let us all open ourselves to prepare for the arrival of the Lord by making a simple, uncluttered, open and welcoming home for him in our hearts.