Text: Mark 10:17:31 (“give everything to the poor”)
The blessings of a simple life have been proclaimed for thousands of years by teachers like Jesus and Buddha. And in recent decades, a movement called voluntary simplicity has flourished. In 1981, Duane Elgin published a book with that title in which he urges people in rich countries like Canada to consume less, to adopt an ecological awareness, and to focus on personal growth. He advocates a lifestyle that is outwardly simple and inwardly rich.
This weekend as we celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving in a pandemic, many of us have simplified our usual holiday plans; and we could view this as a kind of involuntary simplicity. These restrictions might even generate pain or anger on top of the fear many of us have felt over the last seven months of pandemic.
But, a simple life is supposed to be one of freedom and joy, not one of pain or fear. So this morning, I reflect on the Gospel story of the rich man whom Jesus urges to give away his property to help the poor.
Does entering the realm of God’s eternal love really mean giving away all our possessions? Even those of us who are not ostentatiously wealthy might share the sadness felt by the rich man when we hear this.
For more insight, I turn to an essay I read this week about St. Francis of Assisi, the person in church history who is most associated with voluntary simplicity. Born into a wealthy Italian family in the 12th Century, Francis had a mystical conversion in his 20’s after which he adopted a life of poverty and built an order of priests dedicated to helping the poor, to glorifying nature, and to reforming the church.
This week, in one of the daily meditations I receive from Richard Rohr, who is a Franciscan priest in New Mexico, he wrote the following about the simple life advocated by St. Francis:
“When we agree to live simply, we put ourselves outside of others’ ability to buy us off, to reward us falsely, or to control us. Francis and Clare created a life in which they had little to lose, no debts to pay off, and no luxuries they wanted. This is a radical level of freedom, although one that is not easy to come by.
When we agree to live simply we can understand what Francis meant when he said that ‘a man has not yet given up everything for God as long as he holds onto the moneybag of his own opinions.’
When we agree to live simply, we no longer view immigrants, refugees, and others on the margins of society as a threat. When we relinquish our privileges, we have freely chosen to become ‘visitors and pilgrims’ in this world, as Francis puts it. A simple lifestyle is an act of solidarity with the way most people live.
When we agree to live simply, we have more time for works of mercy like prayer, service, and justice work, because we have renegotiated in our minds and hearts our understanding of time and its purposes. Time is not money. It is life itself, and we want to give our lives away freely as Jesus, Francis, and Clare did.
When we agree to live simply, we have little energy to defend or protect our group, our ethnicity, our country, and our religion. Our circle is no longer defined by these external and accidental qualities because we now find joy and beauty in the actual center, which is God.”
Rohr’s words about Francis may strike us as inspiring. But can the joy and freedom promised by them apply if simplicity is forced upon us?
A key insight linking voluntary to involuntary simplicity for me is an awareness of how fleeting privilege and material wealth can be. Even the richest person lives in a body as fragile and mortal as a poor person. Even those with the greatest privilege live in empires that are bound to one day fade away.
Those like Francis who adopt a simple life of poverty and service have simply taken a head start on entering God’s realm of eternal love.
We can spend our lives clinging to money and fearing the loss of privilege. Or we can listen to Francis and Jesus and throw our lot in with the rest of struggling humanity. Then with joy, we might realize that both our desires and our fears are illusions.
This stance of radical spiritual freedom and material poverty does not mean we welcome crises like the pandemic. Enlightened people like Francis want the pandemic to stop and its restrictions lifted just as much as the rest of us.
It does mean that on this unusual holiday we can enjoy simple pleasures even as we advocate that governments and our fellow citizens take the simple but difficult steps required to stop the transmission of COVID-19.
So, on this pandemic-tinged Thanksgiving, I pray that we will rejoice with Jesus and Francis in the endless blessings of the moment. May we all stumble, with Grace, into ever-more moments in which we accept our humble status. In doing so, may we rise closer to a blessed light in which our eternal connection to Love is joyously revealed.
May it be so. Amen.