I recently gave a talk to the seminarians on the meaning and value of a priestly life of simplicity, and emphasized how important the virtue of simplicity is to effective leadership and effective witness as a priest. I will share a few of the points I offered them, as I believe they are applicable to all.
God is supremely simple, which means God is utter and absolute unity, without contradiction, sequence (i.e. no ‘before and after’), conflict, composition or fragmentation of any sort, and in God every attribute and quality of His essence-existence conspires toward one beginning-less and endless end: eternal self-giving love.
Of this divine simplicity, G.K. Chesterton once shared an amusing anecdote:
A lady I knew picked up a book of selections from St. Thomas, with a commentary; and began hopefully to read a section with the innocent heading, The Simplicity of God. She then laid the book down with a sigh and said: ‘Well, if that’s His simplicity, I wonder what His complexity is like.’
Simple, but deep
I must say that taking the time in preparation for my talk to reflect on the “metaphysical” meaning of God’s simplicity (especially in this section of the Summa) led me to some personally impactful meditations on some of the more “existential” implication of God’s simplicity – like what it means to affirm God’s simplicity as a supreme innocence and purity.
Reflection on God’s simplicity leads to the necessary consideration of our call to be “like God” after the manner of Christ, who is the visible image of the invisible God that made imitating God accessible to humanity in ways pious Jews, who meticulously imitated God by keeping the Law, could never have imagined before the Word became flesh and tented among us.
So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma. — Ephesians 5:1
How can one imitate God’s simplicity? By striving for a unity of life that makes a Christ-like love of God and neighbor the uncompromising goal of both interior and exterior life. The simple are those whose single-mindedness reflects the divine single-mindedness expressive of the divine essence: God is love.
The whole goal of the spiritual life, in many ways, can be said to simply be one’s free consent to (1) God’s purifying grace that burns away whatever keeps our life fragmented and not in concert with an authentic, Godlike self-giving love, and to (2) the enkindling, illumining and sanctifying grace fully revealed in the outpouring of the dead-risen Christ’s Spirit who — so dangerously! — has been poured into our divided hearts.
Simple within and without
As I mentioned above, this process of being “simplified” by God extends to both our interior and exterior lives. Interiorly, we daily make “captive in obedience to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) our every thought, feeling, desire, memory, choice, fear – every dimension of our inner life — through prayer, sacraments, repentance and the intentional practice of integrating moral virtues like chastity, patience, fortitude and justice, along with the grace-saturated theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. Exteriorly, we offer to God as a living sacrifice every dimension of our life in the world, including such things as our relationships, possessions, health, hobbies, food, drink, sleep, present, past and future, asking God to receive what is an acceptable offering and purge or take from us what is not. In the perfected saint, there is nothing left within or without that does not conspire toward the glory of God and the salvation of all. Nothing.
Dare I ask to be made thus simple?
Can I get a witness?
I shared at the end of my reflection a bit about a priest I once knew, whom I have always thought of as a paragon of divine simplicity in flesh and blood. He lived an austere life, stripped of all that he considered superfluous, and avoided, as he was able, all of the “perks” of privilege that can come with any position of leadership. For example, the times he had been pulled over by a cop for speeding, he would always insist on accepting the ticket; or when he was taken out to eat by a generous parishioner-family of meager means, he would slip his credit card to the waiter even before the meal began. But his favorite thing to do, which I was privileged to discover once on the sly, was to anonymously pay, from his own resources, the utility bills of parishioners who had fallen on hard times.
He once confided to me that his hope was that Jesus would allow him to “die broke,” having spent what he had on others. But he said it with no fake, syrupy or pious affect. There was no guile in this man, and he was very much like a child in the innocence of his joy in being a man for others.
Though he was obviously not perfect (which he often made reference to under the form of humor), his dedication to sloughing off all dead weight in his life to maximize his ability to be “for others” as a servant of Jesus left a massive impact one me and on many. He was, in my estimate, simple after the pattern of God who, in Christ, “stripped himself of glory” in order to raise up and clothe the shameful nakedness of fallen, beaten humanity. He was simple to the point of being unimpressive, largely because his ego had so nearly completely vanished from view. But that was his glory. In fact, and this is a perfect example of the meaning of simplicity, though he had a very lowly and (honestly) droning preaching style, his “compact” manner of life made his words high-impact, bearing witness to a truth eloquently summed up in St. John of the Cross’ words at the end of the Ascent of Mount Carmel:
It is a common matter of observation that, so far as we can judge here below, the better is the life of the preacher, the greater is the fruit that he bears, however undistinguished his style may be, however small his rhetoric and however ordinary his instruction. For it is the warmth that comes from the living spirit that clings; whereas the other kind of preacher will produce very little profit, however sublime be his style and his instruction. For, although it is true that a good style and gestures and sublime instruction and well-chosen language influence men and produce much effect when accompanied by true spirituality, yet without this, although a sermon gives pleasure and delight to the sense and the understanding, very little or nothing of its sweetness remains in the will. As a rule, in this case, the will remains as weak and remiss with regard to good works as it was before. Although marvelous things may have been marvellously said by the preacher, they serve only to delight the ear, like a concert of music or a peal of bells; the spirit, as I say, goes no farther from its habits than before, since the voice has no virtue to raise one that is dead from his grave.