The Spiritual Battle Behind Simple Living

joshs-phone-127For the past 13 years I have worked in an office where the majority of my coworkers regular go out to eat each and every day. Fancy to-go boxes fill the breakroom refrigerator while I carry around an old lunch box cast aside by my son with a simple sandwich or last night’s leftovers inside….

Closing time comes with talk of concerts, drinks at a local pub, or other such money intensive activities. On those rare times when I choose to join the after work pub visit, I typically drink water or perhaps just one alcoholic drink…all the while wishing I could buy multiple drinks for myself and my friends like those around me ….

Lest I forget, the mid-day talk of boats, cars, concerts, sports games, TVs, sound equipment and the like don’t really help… rather they all seek to tip my envy scale dangerously into the dark green slime of jealously….

Over the years I have fought my envious urges by consoling myself to the fact that I had very little debt and that my coworkers most likely had lots of debt. I read books about simplicity and hung onto stories about people who lived simply and gave away lots of money to help others.

It didn’t really work.

Oh, it kept me out of debt (for the most part). And it helped take the edge off the desire to experience the finer things in life… but the fight never really left my heart and mind. It was always there in the shadows ready to pounce when things got difficult, bringing with it negative thoughts and questioning my self-worth.

Early this year my wife and I joined an organization that seeks to help people get out of debt and break the cycle of poverty. One of the tools the organization uses to help folks is a becoming statement. That is, a written statement about who one wants to become over the next ten years. Once crafted, the becoming statement is supposed to help keep one on track when the green monster of envy and materialism strikes.

I, being a good student and volunteer, wrote such a statement. Only it wasn’t working as I found myself unable to articulate what it was that kept me striving for simplicity in the midst of a culture that values both material possessions and entertainment experiences.

Then I read the Desert Fathers.

Buried in their “rough-hewn words of life” I found something that I had previously missed. Forsaking material possessions and monetary entertainment wasn’t just about saving money to give away (though that is part of it). [1] Rather, the embracement of simplicity was about facing the darkness within ourselves and fighting the “battle of the heart.” [2]

Painting depicting Syncletica of Alexandria, from the Menologion of Basil II (c. 1000 AD)

Painting depicting Syncletica of Alexandria, from the Menologion of Basil II (c. 1000 AD)

It is about fighting the desires of flesh and the forces of this current evil age of pain. It is about resisting the seductive nature of modern culture which is unfriendly to the spiritual life. It is about recognizing the forces at work that cause a person to desire something they currently do not have. It is about seeking redemption through the suffering of self-control. It is a type of fasting that refines the soul.

Amma Syncletica of Blessed Memory, a wealthy noblewomen in the 4th century who gave away all her money, put it this way when asked about desire to suffer through lack of material possessions:

“It is a great good for those who are able. For those who can endure it endure suffering in the flesh, but they have quiet of soul. Even as stout garments trodden underfoot and turned over in the washing are made clean and white, so is a strong soul made steadfast by voluntary poverty.” [3], emphasis added

St. Augustine, another wealthy individual in the 4th century, read about the simplicity of the Desert Fathers (specifically St. Anthony) and gave way his riches. He would later write that “no bodily pleasure, however great it might be and whatever earthly light might shed lustre upon it, was worthy of comparison, or even of mention, beside the happiness of the life of the saints.” [4], emphasis added.

The quietness of the soul…

a strong soul…

the happiness of the life of the saints…

These are things that I can put into my becoming statement that will help me keep true when the forces of envy, materialism and others such items pull at my soul.

 

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), xix.

[2] Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus. Trans.by Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980), 44.

[3] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 90.

[4] Augustine. Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992), 197.

2 Comments

  1. Years ago when I was a younger mother.. I was standing in my clothes closet thinking about that if I really wanted a diamond ring like all the other women I could probably get my husband to do something to get me one… then the wisdom of the Holy Spirit spoke and asked what did I really, want gold and diamonds that would be worthless compared to the revelations of a relationship with Him? Over the years the desire for finer things still come and just as quickly go if I know they will interfere with that heavenly calling. They hold no lasting joy. Will I have fine things in life, yes, but they will be to bless others with. They so fall short of Him.

    Reply
    • Amen!

      Reply

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