While Part 1 of these tandem posts focused on simplicity of life, it ended with a whisper of something more. Without this ‘something more,’ this practical simplicity of life is incomplete, akin to dry ritualism, “drudgery for the sake of it and an insult to all men of good will” (A Christmas Carol.)
We don’t empty ourselves as an act meaningful in and of itself. It is in service of a deeper kind of simplicity. Let us boldly assert what is, in truth, a rather queer fact: we empty ourselves to be filled! Our situation matches what we find in reality: we are in need of filling and (alleluia!) there is something that waits to fill us.
But with what do we need to be filled?
In 1995, a year after writing his prophetic, profound and highly praised book, The Catholic Church at The End of An Age: What is the Spirit Saying?, Ralph Martin traveled with Sr. Ann Shields to Rome to meet with Pope John Paul II. At their meeting, Ralph presented to him his new book. The Holy Father rhapsodically whisked the book out of Ralph’s hand, blindly reached back to hand it to his secretary, and said, “Ralph, I have already read your book!” Placing his outstretched hands on Ralph’s shoulders, his face grew fiery, his eyes locked and his voice lowered as he said, “Tell me, Ralph – what is the Spirit saying…?” Sr. Ann Shields recounts how, as both men looked into each other’s eyes, Ralph simply answered, “Jesus.” And the two men – two disciples, two children of God, two pilgrims longing for home – repeated back and forth to each other, “Jesus… Jesus… Jesus…” as their voices tailed off.
When we simplify our lives and empty ourselves of the clutter, we open ourselves to being filled more with the Holy Spirit – “The Lord, the Giver of Life”: God Himself. And when the Spirit fills our hearts, like a silent bolt of lightning suddenly illuminating the darkened sky, it points and bears witness to one, simple thing: Jesus.
Oh how badly we need (and desire!) this deeper kind of simplicity. We run around and chase so many causes (pro-life/pro-choice), philosophies (expanded/limited government), worldviews (“just love people, dude”) and lifestyles (“P90X and a gluten-free diet changed my life!”), when all we need is more of Him. Please don’t misunderstand – causes, philosophies, worldviews and lifestyles are all legitimate parts of life. But, they are secondary. Jesus is primary. We must come to grips with this, because we are forever in discord until we put first things first and second things second (as pointed out with customary brilliance by Lewis in God in the Dock).
To be human means to look for meaning and purpose in your life as a whole and in your everyday activities. We are all on this search. And as we journey, we accumulate so many things that serve as our guiding lights, giving us meaning and purpose. But are they not all doomed to disappoint us, these dressed-up finitudes to which our hearts aren’t built to belong? We are called to a radical simplicity, to a singleness of purpose.
This simplicity, this singleness of purpose always breeds excellence (see Rediscover Catholicism, Matthew Kelly), whether be in secular tasks or on the spiritual journey.
We see clear-cut evidence of this in Pope John Paul II. He was a man of tremendous gifts – a philosopher, mystic, sportsman, intellectual, dramatist, statesman and leader, but who can best be understood in a “simplicity that lies on the far side of complexity” as a “radical, Christian…disciple” (Witness to Hope, George Weigel). Though life is complicated and our participation “in the world” produces myriad currents of interest, involvement and activity in our lives, at the bottom of that ocean – at the bedrock foundation that lies on the “far side” of all that complexity – what sits on the throne of our heart? Does Jesus sit there? Do we live for a singular purpose?
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Cor 2:2)
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. (Phil 3:7-8)
At the end of the day, after being filled with the Spirit, they had this deep simplicity. Their meaning and purpose didn’t come from their jobs, their bank accounts, their houses, their projects, their vacations, their ‘experiences’ or even their web of relationships. Life was about one thing and one thing only: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
This kind of simplicity is radical and deeply counter-cultural. Our (now, global) culture is a culture of stuff. You have an itch (boredom)? The culture has a thing for that (TV, Netflix or another form of entertainment). Now a different itch (nope, boredom again)? Well, it has something else for that, too (big ‘experiences’). We take a little bit from here and little bit from there, accumulating these void remedies until eventually we end up bloated on a bunch of solutions that just create more problems, less peace and don’t satisfy anything. We resolve ourselves to living these fragmented lives when “only one thing is needful.” Why?!
Do we really believe that Jesus is all we need; that we need nothing else; that the kind of life He would give us is the life we actually would quit everything to have? Every saint answered ‘yes’ to those questions – and then lived a ‘simple’ life that confessed only one thing: Jesus.
All of us can feel convicted by this. What this really boils down to is a lack of conversion. We simply need to have more deeply converted hearts. Let’s put ourselves in God’s hands, in prayer, and ask Him for that. He’ll answer.
In our complicated, bloated, materially obese culture, we need a greater simplicity of life and a more radical simplicity of heart. And the Good News is that the King is ready and waiting to grow these in us! Let us come before Him so that we may…
Remain simple and innocent, and [we] will be like little children who do not know the evil that destroys man’s life. (CCC 2517)
In this way we will contradict our generation. But, paradoxically, it needs us to do just that.