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“Jesus, help me to simplify my life by learning what You want me to be and becoming that person.”

—St. Thérèse of Lisieux

THESE WORDS BY THE BELOVED SAINT MAY BE OVER 100 YEARS OLD, YET THEY CHALLENGE THOSE OF US IN THE MODERN WORLD TO TAKE A FRESH LOOK AT OUR LIVES— or more precisely, they challenge us to explore ways that we can simplify our lives.

Pursuing simple living is counter-cultural in a society that often seems all too focused on urging us to want more of everything. Yet for spiritual, ecological, and economic reasons, many people hope that cutting back on consumption will help reduce their personal stress levels, improve their relationship with God, and even promote justice in the world at large.

Simple living, therefore, is not just a personal project, but a communal effort that embodies the statement by Mahatma Gandhi: “We must live simply that others may simply live.”

Clearing the Clutter

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.”—Hans Hofmann

For many, the first step to living simply is to startsmall. When Susan Vogt decided to clear her homeof clutter, she challenged herself to get rid of oneitem a day during the Lenten season. She hopedto simplify her space by donating unneeded itemsto those in need. The experiment was fruitful andfulfilling in both a spiritual and practical sense, soshe chose to continue the effort for a full year. Shedescribed the journey in her book Blessed by Less: Clearing Your Life of Clutter by Living Lightly. 

Vogt says the process has helped her to obtain abetter balance in her life, and to recognize thatwhile she can’t give to the point of destitution,neither can she justify holding on to items thatcould be useful to someone else: “I have becomemore attuned to what is really important in lifeand what things I had been hanging on to or worryingabout that I could let go of.”

In addition, she says, “It was a reminder of myneed to clean out the interior, my inner self, aswell. On the outside I will look the same, but it’simportant to consider what’s going on inside. It’sabout changing one’s attitude. I learned that myworth and importance are not dependent on whatI own or even how I look or feel.”

 

Simplicity and Community

“In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.” —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

For some, at least a partial answer to the search for simplicity lies in the formation of community.

Luke Hansen’s first experience with living simply occurred in San Jose, California, when, as a layman, he did a stint with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, which serves the poor and marginalized. During that time, he and his fellow volunteers ate food mostly from the local food pantry. And though many people in the area used their cars to commute, most of the individuals that Hansen served through his work took the bus—so he took the bus as well.

“There is an inconvenience to it,” he says. “But it also creates more space to think, to say, ‘Ok, I have time to pray and I’m sharing life with people that I work with.’” Hansen’s firsthand experience with simple living 
stuck with him, so he chose to join the Society of Jesus in order to continue down that road. After becoming a Jesuit priest, Father Hansen was given $75 a month in spending money, which meant making hard choices about what to buy. But in some ways, things got easier. “There were 22 men in the novitiate, we shared everything in common, and we were helped by generous benefactors,” he says. “I had more than enough, even though I couldn’t claim any of it as mine.”

Father Hansen also realized that it was possible to put too much focus on counting every penny, to become obsessed with how little he had rather than how much. Being part of a Jesuit community helped him learn to accept the generosity of others. Yet, he remains conscious of what he buys and how much he spends. “I do try to live frugally; it makes things easier,” Father Hansen says. “In doing less and in spending less, I require less, and it creates more time for prayer and community. It’s humanizing.”

 

Life Feels More Connected

“What we would like to do is change the world— make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do.”

—Dorothy Day

Eric Anglada has found a way to disconnect from the technology and distractions of modern life by settling on a Catholic Worker farm in Iowa. He was first drawn to the Catholic Worker movement because of its holistic vision.

“It draws on the works of mercy and caring for the poor and the marginalized, and connects that to nonviolence and care for creation,” he says. And simple living is one of the things that holds all of the pieces of the Catholic Worker together.

Anglada has lived on the farm for six years. His community consists of 14 people and three households— eight adults and six children. He shares a house with his wife and another family. While Catholic Worker Houses in inner cities often serve as homes of hospitality for those in need, the farms tend to focus on agriculture and can accommodate families. By growing their own food instead of buying it, the community expresses solidarity with migrant farm workers and a desire to care for creation and trying to live more justly.

Without many of the trappings of modern society, Anglada says he is able to live more intentionally: “It opens up space to not be so frantic and harried and busy.” The community starts the day together with a reading from the Gospel or from a saint, followed by 20 minutes of silence, intercessions and then closing prayer. The common prayer, he says, sets the tone for the day: “We infuse our daily labors with more spiritual meaning. Life feels more connected here.”

 

Comfort in an Anxious World

“He who possesses God lacks nothing: God alone suffices.” —St. Teresa of Ávila

Paula Huston has been working to connect people with simple living for two decades. She’s written several books on living the good life—and she’sbeen practicing what she preaches. She and herhusband moved from a large home to a 920-square-foot house in southern California, whereshe can grow and preserve her own food. Theyalso do their own repairs and maintenance.

Her book Simplifying the Soul  offers spiritual meditationsand tips on how one might renew and declutterlife in the areas of space, money, the body,the mind, one’s schedule, relationships, andprayer. Her goal in focusing on these areas is toget at the internal sources of want.

“These are legitimate human desires,” she says.“These things represent security in the face ofuncertainty. They represent status in a society thatis competitive and success-oriented. They also representfreedom of choice, which is huge forAmericans.

”While some people believe that money is the keyto freedom, Huston suggests that we are all actuallyseeking “comfort in an anxious world.” Insteadof trying to find meaning by acquiring possessions,we need to show people other possibilities.

“There’s a huge stimulation of desire throughadvertising and the media in general,” Hustonsays. “Yet we don’t see many people who are consciouslyliving against the grain.” She hopes tohelp reintroduce people to the idea of framing thegood life within ancient concepts—“not as powerseekingand status-seeking, but as a life of self-controland virtue.” It’s a concept she learned from agroup of monks living as hermits in California.

Invited by a friend to join her on a visit to their hermitage, Huston—who was born into aLutheran family, but was an atheist at this time—found she was fascinated with the order’s alternativelifestyle. “I would feel a new calm and peace,”she said. “And I recognized early on that theirlifestyle wasn’t just an escape to a kind of fantasyland. It was something they believed and consciouslypracticed, and that could be available to aperson like me.”

This visit began not only her return to Christianity, 
but her embrace of the Catholic Church. “There’s a natural connection between simplicity and humility,” Huston says. “Humility means looking at the self realistically. It is the ability to look in the mirror and see who is there and to calm the stormy need for these things that are outside symbols of our own identity.”

Huston adds that possessions don’t take away our anxiety or stress, but can instead add to them: “Simplicity is that path to genuine freedom. You start to think of how little you need, instead of how much. You start to clear mental and physical space on purpose.”

This is something anyone can do, she concludes. The initial effort can be something as small as growing a pot of herbs on a windowsill so you can use them as ingredients in a home-cooked meal. Simplifying allows you to “feel like you have more to say about how your time and money are spent. The business of simplifying has opened up amazing things in my life.”

 


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