by Jennifer Kavanagh
My favourite definition of simplicity is removing the clutter between ourselves and God. In our Meetings for Worship we have stripped away the inessentials not only in the rooms in which we meet but in the process. There is nothing put in the way of a direct experience of God. Like all the Quaker testimonies, simplicity stems from that act of worship. How we take it out into the world is a matter of personal interpretation, and will vary at different times of our lives.
What the clutter is, only we can know: it can be about material possessions – think of what we actually need, and what we have: those books we will not read again, those bargains we didn’t like when we got home, those clothes we might get back into one day, those presents given by Auntie Aggie that we never really liked, the pictures on the wall that we walk past several times a day and never notice.
Clutter can also be busyness, and noise both from outside and in our heads. Too many things pulling us in different directions. Information overload, electronic devices to which we are connected much of the day.
And it is not just about us as individuals, but about how we relate to others, and to the planet. God, after all, is expressed in people and in other forms of life. To remove the clutter between us and our proper relations with others is not at all a simple matter – the choices are complex, and it is far easier to buy fast food, to jump on a plane or to turn on the dishwasher than to consider the ramifications of what we are doing. Counter-cultural behaviour can be uncomfortable. It is hard to deny children the designer trainers or latest iPad; to reject packaging; or challenge the working practices of our local supermarket. But the result might be a more considered and authentic position: simple in the sense of being all of a piece with our inner convictions.
Simplicity in outer things allows us to order our inner life, and, as we become more attuned to our inner life, a simplification of externals, less “clutter”, may become not a duty nor an expression of social or political views, but a mystic necessity. But much of what gets in the way is from within, from the ego. A deeper kind of non-attachment.
Letting go of ambition, attachment to the fruits of labour – success or failure; letting go of the need to please, to be loved, to be in control – belongings of another kind, these are harder lessons to learn. Only when we let go of our own willing, only when we accept what is given to us in life, and allow ourselves to be guided, will there be an opening for the inflowing of grace and transformation.
Simplicity is not about mediocrity or drabness, but about essence, distillation. Less is certainly more: spareness brings a deeper appreciation. It is not about guilt, either. The process is not imposed from without: any change will come from an inner niggle, a dissatisfaction that, if we take the time to listen, will result in change. We will be enabled to let go of the cause of that discomfort, freeing our behaviour to be more clearly aligned with our essential selves.
In a life devoted to God’s purpose, the stripping down of the inessentials pares away the context of life: one is more purely an instrument of purpose… Reducing the clutter in our lives, whether in material objects, use of time or money, or in our religious practices, leads to an increased clarity of vision and a focus; a view of life and its priorities that is in itself simple. We can move towards a state in which our attitudes and life are all of one piece, integrated and made one. Simplicity, like a sacrament, is the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
Quotes are from Jennifer’s book, Simplicity Made Easy, published by O Books.
Jennifer will launch and speak about her new book from 6pm to 8pm on Tuesday 24/05/2011 at the Quaker Centre at Friends House, 173 Euston Road London NW1 2BJ. Please register for a free place at www.quaker.org.uk/simplicitymadeeasy if you plan to come.