Just outside the Indiana farmhouse where I lived as a young man stood several large mulberry trees that seemed like members of our family.
Then one day, these beloved trees endured a three-hour attack by a uniformed professional crew wielding chain saws and hydraulic ladders. The crew sawed, trimmed, and pruned, transforming a large, leafy mass into a skeleton of a few stark, naked limbs.
I felt certain the trees would never recover from the assault; but the following spring they grew larger and fuller than ever before, bursting forth in an extravagant display of flowers, leaves and mulberries. Instead of killing off my beloved trees, the process of pruning helped them blossom into their fullest productivity.
What’s good for mulberry trees is good for us, too. And Francis of Assisi’s model of Christian simplicity provides a time-tested way we can prune our lives.
If we allow our lives to be pruned so that we forsake our love for unnecessary possessions, this process can trim back our unproductive growth and prepare us for a joyful life of fruitfulness and productivity.
FRANCIS ON SIMPLICITY
Francis spent the first 24 years of his life in luxury and indulgence. He converted to a life of rugged simplicity after experiencing a life-changing mystical encounter with Jesus, who had told His own disciples:
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or stow away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:25-26, NIV).
Francis saw simplicity as an antidote to our sometimes unquenchable hunger for accumulating wealth and possessions, a hunger which often hinders both human community and union with God.
Here’s how later generations Franciscans stated his philosophy: “Simple living … takes shape by reducing material needs, by curbing a thirst for possessions and the domineering power that comes from ownership, and by using all of God’s gifts in a spirit of generosity, justice and moderation.”
THREE MODELS FOR SIMPLE LIVING
When monks in the Christian tradition talk about simple living, they’re usually talking about one of three basic models that appear in the pages of the New Testament. These three biblical models have much to do with why monks live the way they do and why monasteries have developed in the ways they have.
1. The “mendicant” model
The earliest Christian model for living a life of simplicity is found in Jesus’ teaching on poverty in the gospel of Matthew. In Matthew Chapter 10, Jesus sent out His disciples on a mission to spread His gospel. These disciples were told not to take gold, silver, copper, bags, changes of clothes or sandals, or even a walking staff.
This early example of itinerant gospel ministry is the source of the “mendicant,” or open-handed, approach to simplicity. Admittedly, it’s an extreme approach that is impractical and unappealing for the vast majority of people.
2. The communal model
A second biblical model is found in the book of Acts, a firsthand account that describes the phenomenal growth of the first Christian community:
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:44-45).
The communal model formed the basis of the earliest monastic settlements and provides the framework for our life here at Little Portion, where both men and women live in community, own nothing and contribute their individual labors to the benefit of the whole.
This model’s superficial similarities to counterculture’s experimentation with communal living in the 1960s and 1970s also help explain why a 1971 article in LOOK magazine described Francis as “The Hippie Saint.”
3. The way of equality
The Apostle Paul outlined a third, more mainstream model in his second letter to the believers at Corinth:
“… as a matter of equality your surplus at the present time should supply [others’] needs, so that their surplus may also supply your needs, that there may be equality.”
This equality-based model for simple living is both practical and urgent in our day.
PRACTICING EQUALITY IN A WORLD OF SAVAGE DISPARITY
Equality is a noble ideal, but how do we practice it in our own time? North Americansâ€”even those who are relatively poorâ€”are among the richest residents of our planet. Though only 5 percent of the world’s population, we consume around 40 percent of the world’s resources.
Meanwhile, more than 40,000 people around the globe die every day as a result of preventable, hunger-related causes.
Ours is a world in which the few possess much while the many do not possess even their most basic needs. This chasm of disparity calls out for a compassionate response.
Or as Gandhi challenged his followers, “Live simply so that others may simply live.”
Simplicity is more than a way of improving our spiritual and psychological health. For one, it’s a way to symbolically enter into the suffering of others around the world. But beyond symbolism, simple living is a practical way to decrease our emphasis on self-gratification and increase our ability to share with others, just as Francis and Paul have suggested.
DISTINGUISHING WANTS FROM NEEDS
We don’t need to plunge into abject poverty to simplify our lives. But we can take a huge step by distinguishing between wants and needs. Here’s a simple formula you can use:
– Food is a need. But a medium rare T-bone steak smothered in onions is a want.
– Clothing is a need. But a Ralph Lauren suit with matching patent leather shoes is a want.
– Housing is a need. But a split-level ranch house with a semi-attached garage, walk-in closets, and three bathrooms is a want.
Not all wants are bad or destructive. But when we don’t try to distinguish between the two, we can create all kinds of problems in our lives and our budgets.
Here’s a Franciscan perspective on some of the key areas of our lives.
What’s wrong with this picture? North Americans spend billions on food and billions more on diet books, programs, and drugs. In fact, most Americans spend more on diets than people elsewhere spend on food.
The Book of Sirach, a classic Jewish wisdom literature, makes a case for the virtue of moderation:
“Moderate eating ensures sound slumber and a clear mind next day on rising…
In whatever you do, be moderate, and no sickness will befall you.”
Here’s how we practice simplicity in food at our Little Portion community in Arkansas.
1. Do it naturally
We take advantage of our rural location to grow our own vegetables and raise our own chickens and goats, which provide us with fresh eggs, meat, and milk. This enables us to produce healthy and affordable food while avoiding the hazards of an agribusiness-dominated food industry that depends on high-tech equipment and large doses of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, which harm the food supply and pollute our fragile environment.
While it may be impossible for you to begin a mini-farm in your front yard, you may be able to grow small amounts of lettuce, tomatoes, or strawberries in a garden.
And if you can afford it, your body will appreciate naturally grown fruits and vegetables.
2. Promoting protein
We derive the majority of the protein in our diets from beans and rice. These foods are inexpensive and easy to prepare. This has cut the average cost of our meals to around fifty cents per person.
Beyond nutrition and cost issues, we believe there are two powerful ethical reasons to cut down the amount of meat in our diets. First, producing meat requires much more land, water, and other natural resources than does growing vegetables and grains. Second, large meat-producing facilities often subject animals to horrible conditions. Animals are God’s creatures and deserve ethical treatment.
Twice a week, our community fasts on bread and water. We have found that this is a wonderful discipline that teaches us the difference between wants and needs while allowing us to empathize with the hunger of the poor.
If done properly (and in some cases, under a doctor’s supervision), fasting can be a powerful discipline that cleanses the body of impurities, enhances the power of the mind, sensitizes us to the needs of the spirit, breaks our addictions to unhealthy eating habits and makes a significant symbolic statement about the desire to stand against the excesses of consumer culture.
Monks don’t spend hours standing in front of their closets every morning wondering about what clothes they’re going to put on. For me, the choices are simple: this basic brown habit or that basic brown habit.
This is quite a contrast to mainstream America, which spends more than $60 billion a year on clothes.
Maybe you aren’t ready to adopt the monk’s simple habit, but you can move toward simple living by creating a small-but-versatile wardrobe in a few basic colors. Instead of having pants or dresses in every color of the rainbow, complete with matching accessories, start with basic blacks, browns or blues. Add variety by carefully choosing a few colorful shirts or tops that can be varied easily. If your work requires a more formal dress, have a few basic suits, not a closet full of expensive and seldom-worn clothes.
You can also cut down on shopping sprees. Decide what clothes you need before getting near a shopping mall. And try to resist being overly influenced by persuasive advertising or perceived social pressure.
Even before the collapse of the real estate mortgage industry, it was clear that many Americans are scrambling to afford overly expensive, unnecessarily roomy houses that are a hassle to maintain. Having a home is part of the American Dream, but perhaps smaller is better. Also, some people seek to practice hospitality by having a single person share their home. And others are looking into cohousing or communal arrangements, which are growing in popularity.
PUTTING SIMPLICITY INTO PRACTICE
Are you so busy working to make money to buy time-saving devices that you don’t have any time to use them? Do you spend more time taking care of cars, clothes, and your house that you have no time to enjoy life, others and God?
If so, sit down for a few minutes and reflect on the following questions:
1) Do I have some possessions that complicate my life but don’t really bring me any enjoyment?
2) What are some things that do bring me enjoyment but may not be worth the cost in time, money and concern?
3) Do I buy things that I don’t need, won’t use or can’t afford?
4) What do I really need, and what do I merely want?
5) Am I consuming more than my fair share of the world’s limited resources?
6) What am I doing to help those who are less fortunate than myself? Is there some of my surplus that could benefit others with less?
As you can see, the practice of simplicity isn’t necessarily simple or easy! Like the pruning of a tree, the practice of simplicity requires that things be cut away, sometimes with pain. But in the long run, this is a practice that enables us to live life with more joy, peace, and happiness.