'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,You might recognize these words as an 1848 Shaker dance song written by Elder Joseph Brackett. Tis the gift to be simple – simplicity, I think it is one of the key aspects to trying to live a Holy Lent. What is simplicity? Consider these words from two of the Desert Fathers of the 4th Century:
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right. (Hymn #554)
Simplicity isn’t about getting rid of our possessions, being a minimalist, although for some this might be helpful! What simplicity is really about is being authentic. Neither letting things control us nor define us, but instead making sure its about who we are, “each one should act according to his own spiritual way” as Abott Arsenius put it. Sister Joan Chittister, a contemporary monastic, puts it this way,
Abbot Mark once said to Abbot Arsenius: It is good, is it not, to have nothing in your cell that just gives you pleasure? For example, once I knew a brother who had a little wildflower that came up in his cell, and he pulled it out by the roots. "Well," said Abbot Arsenius, "that is all right. But each one should act according to his own spiritual way. And if one were not able to get along without the flower, he should plant it again."
“Simplicity is an attitude of heart, not a checklist of belongings.”It’s really not about our stuff, it’s about us. Who we are & when we focus on who we are, centered in our hearts, then we gain freedom in our actions. Again from Joan Chittister:
Simplicity and freedom are also in the Shaker Hymn: 'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free, 'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
“Simplicity is openness to the beauty of the present, whatever its shape, whatever its lack. Simplicity, clearly, leads to freedom of soul. When we cultivate a sense of “enoughness,” when we learn to enjoy things for their own sakes, when we learn to be gentle even with what is lacking in ourselves, we find ourselves free to be where we are and to stop mourning where we are not.”
Both Sister Joan and that Shaker hymn would agree that by seeking to live from our heart, that simple gift, we will be free, which will guide us to where we ought to be – centered in ourselves, all of which is a gift from God. And when we find ourselves in the place just right, 'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
The Shaker Communities saw themselves living in those valleys of love and delight. Simplicity ruled their lives, and that simplicity gave them the freedom that lead to justice and equality in their community well before this nation understood equality for all its citizens. Such understanding of justice is like the words from our first reading, Isaiah:
What simplicity seeks is the essence of life, and the essence of life is not disconnected from the rest of creation. Our lives are interconnected, and the essence we seek in ourselves is something we work for in all people. And when we do, the light that is inside each one of us, a God given light, will break forth like the dawn. What might this look like? Again a story from the Desert Fathers:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…
I would say that the monk understood the needs of his neighbor because he is so grounded in who he is. He could share what he had and not feel a loss, even with is unfinished baskets. Our challenge is to be so grounded, and that starts by working towards that simplicity for ourselves, and Lent is the perfect time for us to start. When true simplicity is gain'd, To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd, To turn, turn will be our delight, Till by turning, turning we come round right.
It was said about one brother that when he had woven baskets and put handles on them, he heard a monk next door saying: What shall I do? The trader is coming but I don't have handles to put on my baskets! Then he took the handles off his own baskets and brought them to his neighbor, saying: Look, I have these left over. Why don't you put them on your baskets? And he made his brother's work complete, as there was need, leaving his own unfinished.
When we gain that simplicity, know the essence of life and ourselves, we will have come round right and there will be nothing to be ashamed of. In the words of Joan Chittister,
“Simplicity has something to do with being willing to have it known that you are from Bethlehem rather than from Beverly Hills.”May God help us be our authentic selves and bless our journey to Calvary this Lent. Amen.