Can We Have Some Simplicity for God’s Sake! (Part 1 of 2)

maxresdefaultA recent blog post quoted Chesterton on the topic of ‘fitting in.’ His unconquerable wisdom showed us how, oddly enough, each generation is converted by the saints who contradict it the most.

An interesting question follows: in what ways does our generation and its attendant culture need to be contradicted the most (i.e. what would the life of a ‘saint’ life look like today?) Yes, there are quite a few answers to that question. But let’s propose just one here today.

It doesn’t take long – in the more reflective moments of reading about ages past or asking old family members things like, ‘What’s changed the most since you were a kid?’ or just pondering one’s weekly schedule – to realize a fact that is so darn obvious that we often fail to see it: our times are characterized by overwhelming, nearly dictatorial, complexity.

This takes next to no convincing at all. Consider the mountain of legal, economic, electric and mechanized structures that have to be established and maintained for you to simply drive to work in the morning. And this daily activity is just one example. The things that make up the fabric of our lives are like a thick forest. Man has indeed invented many things to make life easier and more comfortable, but if we raise our heads just a little and take in the sum total of that criss-crossing web of systems and stuff, it nearly blots out the sun. It is a many-tentacled juggernaut that creates an awful lot of mental, physical and spiritual noise in our everyday lives.

(An aside: If anyone doubts this, I challenge you to spend a week in the mountains with nothing but necessities and see if you don’t experience a preliminarily distressing withdrawal that gives birth to an emancipating levity.)

Unprecedented worldly complexity is surely a sign of our times. But, can it drag us away from God? Can it affect us interiorly? Well, why not give the floor to Jesus and see what He has to say on the matter (it’s usually pretty good.)

Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. (Luke 10:41)

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)

Jesus’ words themselves are not complex, nor do they counsel complexity. Yet, they are a deep ocean of refreshing riches. Let’s dive in.

What is purity of heart? It is emphatically not to be conflated with chastity. It is much more than what we often refer to as ‘purity.’ Purity of heart means a singleness of purpose (like a heartbeat), a decontaminated desire that sets its sights on “the one thing necessary” and Him alone. It means to will only one thing. In this sense, purity means oneness and wholeness. Just as pure water has nothing in it except water, so the pure in heart have no dust particles clouding their line of vision to God. Thus, a pure heart is a simple heart.

Again the objection could arise: this is internal, spiritual simplicity – what does external, material simplicity have do with that?

One of the great sages of our time, Peter Kreeft, in one of his lesser known books on the moral life has an obscure chapter entitled “Simplicity” that asks this very question. He responds like so:

Because external simplicity is very closely related to internal simplicity, to the “purity of heart” Jesus calls for. A simple lifestyle is a powerful aid to a simple heart. It aids simplicity of heart for the same reason bodily kneeling aids humility of spirit in prayer. Our spirit learns from our body…In other words, here is the fundamental argument: If you have simplicity of life, you will probably have simplicity of spirit. If you have simplicity of spirit, you will be a better person. Therefore if you have simplicity of life, you will probably be a better person. (Pg. 148, Making Choices)

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For this reason, Kreeft argues against living in the grasp of the “tentacles” of the “octopus [that] is our modern society”, which is full of “dark ink” and “strangling” tendencies. How? Through simplicity:

I do not counsel flight but fight; not running away from the complex octopus of modern society but using the tentacles of the octopus without being used by them, swimming in and out freely. Simplicity is the oil that greases our backs and prevents the octopus from grabbing hold of us. (Pg. 149, Making Choices)

So, if this complexity is the texture of our world today, and if that complexity can, as Kreeft posits, pull us away from the Lord, what are we (keeping Chesterton in mind) as disciples of Christ to do?

As always, the apparent truth is at once convicting and vivifying: Perhaps we need to simplify our lives.

How? Kreeft has life-changing suggestions (that I won’t explain, you should seriously read this chapter – it’s marvelous):

–       Taking back time by doing timeless things

–       Sleeping closer to the sun’s schedules

–       Living a poorer (which is, paradoxically, richer) life with less ‘stuff’

–       Taking more time for silence (and the things silence produces)

–       Instead of buying so many things, make them yourself

–       And many more…

In this short post, we need not fuddle with how we should simplify our lives. Obviously the method and expression of this simplicity will be different in each person’s life.

But, one thing is clear: we need to get real with ourselves. We all (especially living in this country) can think of two (probably ten) things that we fundamentally do not need, yet we rely on as ‘innocent’ little titillations and diversions. Kreeft, again, has exacting words:

Whether you take the particular pieces of advice in this chapter or not – e.g., whether or not you put the TV set in the attic – you should be able to do so. If you simply can’t, then the octopus has captured your heart and you are an addict. In that case you probably need to “go cold turkey” and free yourself by taking an axe to your slave master, destroying your drug.

freedom-ocean

And isn’t that the very chord this sort of tune comes down to: freedom. Taken further, freedom to see God. Amidst all of the clutter of our world are we free to gaze upon and really know He who is everything we love? (Aside: this earthly, infant version of the beatific vision is what St. Thomas Aquinas called the foundation of happiness.) Are we free to know (be united to) He whom we love? Or do thick, noisy clouds of dust muddy our vision? If so, as a statement of fact, these clouds are our enemies and we ought to set them aflame. No doubt such simplicity, such radicalness, such purity of heart would revolutionize Christian culture and the world.

Perhaps it is for these reasons the Catechism encourages us to…

Remain simple and innocent, and you will be like little children who do not know the evil that destroys man’s life. (CCC 2517)

… and why Mother Teresa confessed:

My secret is very simple: I pray. (No Greater Love, Mother Teresa)

mother teresa praying

Forget ‘Fitting In’

chesterton-banner-640x400In the beginning of G.K. Chesterton’s deftly illuminating biography of St. Thomas Aquinas lies this thought:

Christ did not tell his apostles that they were only the excellent people, but that they were the exceptional people; the permanently incongruous and incompatible people; and the text about the salt of the earth is really as sharp and shrewd and tart as the taste of salt… Therefore it is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.

Like most of Chesterton’s writing, that quote comes at us like an unforeseen stiff jab; it’s odd, jolting and strangely awakening. When we try that passage on like a t-shirt we see that at once it scratches and challenges us, but, simultaneously, somehow it fits perfectly.

From adolescence to our twilight hours, we get so anxious about ‘fitting in’ and ‘finding our place’ in the world. We try to find our group – our place of connection and belonging. We have last names that contextualize our lives in a ‘clan’, we buy t-shirts that manifest our being ‘part of something’ and we find people with whom we come alive. And it goes all the way up: we look for this sense of belonging – this sense of home – in our communities, countries and our planet as a whole. (What else do political and environmental concerns – local or global – boil down to but a worry over the state of one’s hearth and nest?)

This is all very natural; it is a deep human need. We should look to belong somewhere. We should desire a home. But, where is our home? Where do we belong?

It simply can’t be here. If it is here, then while we live we make no sense to ourselves and then, ultimately, we are lost forever. Such a perspective offers us this: we go through life with an insatiable, restless Sehnsucht that yearns for something ‘we-know-not-what’, something ‘more’; and, as a culminating capstone, we are ripped from our beds and from our ‘home’ by the death that comes for us all. Life is a meaningless tragedy.

But, no, we are not orphans! We are not stuck out in the cold forever. We do have a home…but it is not of this world. It is the world to come. This is a fact that should change the entirety of our lives. Really.

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Now, the challenge: If this is the truth, do we actually live this way?

This should stop us in our tracks. How often do we try to ‘fit in’ and conform to what is around us? How often do we feel the pressure to live by the creeds and impulses of the clay-footed culture of this passing kingdom? How often do we allow a competing compass set our priorities? How often, amidst the copious options encircling us, do we frantically search for our place of belonging – thinking that changing ‘this’ or ‘that’ will finally be the answer?

Thankfully, Christ came to free us from that unquenchable and desperate search. When we finally quit the rat race and rest in Jesus, as always, we discover He has the only answer that helps us understand ourselves. He told us we wouldn’t ‘fit in’:

In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

Look around – there is a distinct tension between the culture ‘out there’ and the Gospel. This presents an enormous temptation to Christians (as human beings with a natural urge to get along with others) to ‘go the way of the world’ because running against the grain is too isolating and just too darn difficult! It’s simply a lot easier to ‘get along.’ But, to do that is to live a lie:

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:18-19; emphasis added)

We are not of this world. Thus, our lives should manifest that reality. If we are baptized into Christ, we cannot sacrifice and compromise our identity merely to ‘fit in.’ It may bring us grief and woe, but Jesus can handle that hurt. He begs us not to give in, but to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Heb 12:1), because in Him alone is life and eternally tremendous glory.

We must constantly be asking ourselves, “Where is my home and where does my allegiance lie?” And then, live accordingly.

A final, crucial point: the answer is not to grit our teeth, build a bunker and bear out our countercultural lifestyle in lonely isolation. Such a condition is hardly conducive to the Gospel message or human flourishing. The answer is solidarity. The common gathering and shared life of the brothers and sisters, supporting one another in our walk toward the Lord. Any talk of not conforming to the ‘ways of the world’ is insufficient without affirming the proper solution: a rich communal life of missionary disciples. And, paradoxically, it is in living this way of ‘contradicting’ the world (as Chesterton aptly illuminated) that each and every generation can be brought to Jesus.

In conclusion: do you want to be a saint? Do you want to be missionary? Do you want to be a disciple? Then forget about ‘fitting in.’ Give your allegiance to the one true King.

 

(Check out further application of this discussion here and here.)

The Importance of Community

00000402421032046K051JMV(Image credit Charlie Mackesy)

What are the worst things in the world? What are the things that run directly contrary to what we are made for? Peter Kreeft has a suggestion: boredom and loneliness (from his talk Lost in the Cosmos). This makes sense, because at the heart of all reality – at the heart of everything we are made for – is the Trinity: unending, ecstatic love, which is anything but boring and lonely.

Now, look out your window or into your own home or into your own soul – do you see any boredom and loneliness…? Sadly, like a wet, hot dumpster, our world (and, we must admit, our own hearts) reek with the ‘worst of things.’ Why? For this post, only one reason will be explored; a paramount problem that is one of the biggest challenges of our times: a lack of community.

PointCounterpointDan, times change and so does the nature of relationships…

So quipped Jane Curtin in the legendary SNL skit, Point/Counterpoint. She was referencing mostly romantic relationships, but let’s expand it to a broader view of basic human-human relationships. Does the nature of human relationships change? It would seem just the opposite of Jane’s claim is true: the more ‘times change’ the more things stay the same. We are not titans – individuals fit to conquer and thrive if left to ourselves.

We are, by our very nature, interiorly impoverished; ever in need of a labyrinthine webbing of others to bring us out of the curvatus in se (curving inward on oneself) that St. Augustine and Dante showed to be the very essence of Hell. For this reason, no man (if he is to remain a man) can be an island. We are made for love and “love can be kept only by being given away” (No Man Is An Island, Thomas Merton.)

Yet in our society today it is a fact as cold as steel that this webbing of others – this sense of community – is increasingly hard to find.

Perhaps this is true especially for the young adult demographic. In the recently published article, “Alone in the New America” (well worth a read), authors David and Amber Lapp chronicle “the alienation of young working people.” In the midst of heavy debt and beleaguering, widespread, epidemic family fragmentation, most Millenials have embraced a “go-it-alone ethic” in which “there is no sense of ‘we.’” Instead:

“They learn to approach others with suspicion and distrust… thinking of themselves as strangers to each other in their struggles… They just come to work and just cope.”

This quote perhaps sums it up best:

“I don’t think there’s a thing we can do about it,” said Anthony. “And that’s kind of the American way – this is a free country, and free this and free that. But it’s your life, and not too many people care about other people’s lives. As long as it’s not theirs, they don’t care.”

Preeminent scholars, Charles Murray, who has been called “arguably the most consequential social scientist alive,” and Robert Putnam, a public policy professor at Harvard, have painted this rather sobering picture in their books Coming Apart and Bowling Alone, respectively.  The long and short of it is this: on a national level (and most strikingly in particular populations) “the raw material that makes community even possible has diminished so much… that the situation may be beyond retrieval.” Blame the media, blame technology, blame work – whatever the reason: our “social capital” has plummeted, deeply affecting our ability to form and join into vibrant communities.

One would venture to guess that this is all anecdotally confirmed by our own experiences. When was the last time you saw hoards of kids playing with each other in a neighborhood? When was the last time you interrupted someone’s family dinner? When was the last time you saw two total strangers interact with each other on the street? And just think of how many inventions of the past decades have replaced regular opportunities for human-human interaction, right down to buying groceries and cooking food (charmingly depicted recently by the season opener of Downton Abbey).

This may sound like a caricatured, nostalgic response but it is a) empirically verifiable and b) hard to deny that it’s ‘easy’ nowadays for people to live without sharing common experiences, memories, activities and life with a consistent group of people. This is the very essence of community and it is rupturing. To drive it home, consider this chilling remark from a priest at an ordinary parish in southeastern Michigan:

I don’t know where everybody is. I don’t see anybody anymore and I don’t know where to find them.

Yes, that’s heavy stuff.

It gives “subject to futility” (Rom 8:20) a whole new look. If you’ve read this far, it can seem like the darkness is getting darker. But the light is getting lighter!

Do not abandon yourself to despair. We are the Easter people; and ‘Alleluia!’ is our song! (Pope John Paul II)

Set firmly in the beating heart of Christ, we can be confident and without fear. He reigns supreme over any problem that might seem insurmountable. And, what’s more, he wants us to live in this world – not out of it. He has a way for us to witness to the world of the gift that is freely given: His Mercy, His Love… Himself. How will He have us witness to the world while living in the world? No doubt: in the context of Christian community.

It is not good that the man should be alone… (Gen 2:18)

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt 18:20)

…and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself. (John 12:32)

When did the Lord ever ask anyone to go-it-alone? When has He moved in history if not in a group that had a sense of ‘we?’ Even Abraham had Lot, Moses had Aaron, Mary had Joseph, Paul had Timothy, etc. God gathers to Himself a people, which is very different from merely calling a bunch of individual persons. As deeply affected by our environment as we are, we need the constant contact, support and inspiration of a people if we are to thrive, grow in holiness and succeed in mission.

Most Catholics in this country (like most people in this country in general) need to be more intentional about this. We don’t need people only to ‘chillax’ with as a means of getting our ‘fix’ of human contact. We need brothers and sisters – fellow disciples we can sharpen and be sharpen by, count on, lean into and love. (Note: recall the verse above: “Where two or three are gathered in my name…” – true community requires presence, going far and above just ‘connecting’ through the Internet.) We need to be accountable to others; we need others to point out our weaknesses and strengths; we need intertwined threads if we are to levee the cold. As a rather wise Karol Wojtyla once noted, it is only the vibrancy of solidarity “that allows man to find the fulfillment of himself in complementing others” (pg. 285, Person and Act).

band-of-brothers-12729So, in short, we all need to find and mature in this kind of community. The walk of a disciple (both in terms of holiness and mission) is just about impossible without it. And it is equally as unlikely for any standard pagan walking the streets about you to ‘hear’ the Gospel if they don’t first ‘see’ how we love and are loved by one another (John 13:35). As the authors of “Alone in The New America” once again note:

And it becomes apparent that these young adults need opportunities for communion: to share their stories in supportive communities, to name and to share their suffering, and to receive healing. The remedy for their alienation is the experience of solidarity, of being with others, of forging ties. (Emphasis added.)

In the Christian life, we are never meant to walk alone.

‘Oceans’ Full of Angels

C.S. Lewis said that two things which cannot be found in hell are music and silence. (The Screwtape Letters)

Josef Pieper chimes in, “… to the extent that it is more than mere entertainment of intoxicating rhythmic noise, music is alone in creating a particular kind of silence… within which, when things come about happily, a reality can dawn which ranks higher than music.” (pg. 55-56, Only the Lover Sings)

George MacDonald agrees saying “Heaven is the region where there is only life, and therefore all that is not music is silence.” (pg. 113, George MacDonald: An Anthology)

Peter Kreeft concludes, “Heaven is both silent, like the contemplative mystic, and full of sound, like a dance or a symphony.”

This all jives with what is recorded about the end times, when the redeemed will be awed to silence “for about a half an hour” (Rev. 8:1) and then “sing a new song before the throne” (Rev. 14:3.)

It would seem that most of the music in our culture today, though, doesn’t really echo that “new song.” We don’t really make much music in which God rests and perches, waiting to show Himself to us. Isn’t all of the music from, say, the Grammys produced more or less for entertainment and pleasure-seeking? In the culture at large, how foreign is the idea of music helping us access the Good? The sentiment embedded in this anecdote about Handel’s famous piece Messiah seems almost strange to us:

“When a nobleman praised Handel as to how entertaining the Messiah was, Handel replied, ‘My Lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better.’”

We make a lot of noise, but not a lot of music.

But all is not lost! Every once in while one hears something that runs contrary to this current trend. Though it isn’t perfect, I think ‘Oceans’ by Hillsong United is a good example. I could see this being sung in Heaven.

A friend recently remarked to me that the period from 6:08-6:45 in this song, where the singer, Taya Smith, begins to soar into the heights, must be something of what Heaven is like – lifting up all of oneself (mind, body, spirit, voice, emotions, etc.) in a great chorus of praise to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I am instantly reminded of the great wedding feast where the music of Heaven will drench us and the glory of God will irradiate us as we sing ‘Hallelujah!’

Ergo, I once again encourage you to, at some point in the near future, set aside everything you are doing (carve out a little attentive, receptive ‘silence’), free your hands from the computer and…

1)   Read Revelation 19:6-10 to prime the pump.

2)   Simply listen to this performance, allowing God to surprise you.

3)   Pray.

(Note: Praise is universal. The Holy Father recently taught us that praise is essential to Christian life and explicitly ‘not just for Charismatics.’ So whether it’s King David, chanting monks, George Handel, Rich Mullins, Hillsong United or an off-putting amateur, God loves seeing His children “dance in front of the Lord with all [their] strength.”)