Monday, March 05, 2007

Abundance Breaking in on a Mindset of Guilt and Scarcity

I visited a Friend’s home recently, and had a wonderful evening drinking tea and talking about, well, everything. In addition to the pleasure of sharing her company and that of other friends, her home itself was a blessing. During the entire evening, I was struck by the simple beauty of her living space. And there was an abundance there; her apartment wanted for nothing. And there was a sense of safety there; I felt enveloped and comforted by the interior space that my friend had crafted. I felt very at home in my friend’s home.

My friend had commented before I came over that she struggled with the testimony of simplicity, and during our time together at her apartment, she mentioned it again. She indicated that, having seen her home, we could now see for ourselves how she struggled with simplicity. I looked around again, bathing in the joy I found in her well apportioned home, and replied that I hoped that I could someday live in such a beautiful place.

I, myself, have pushed myself to “simplify,” in terms of my physical possessions, for quite some time. It came to the point where I even began giving away some of my books, not buying new clothing, questioning myself and holding myself accountable for every purchase. I have pared down my possessions to a small wardrobe, a computer and ipod (I really question myself on the ipod) and my books and notebooks. Apart from a few small miscellaneous objects, that’s it. Clothes, books, music and computer. I look around the small room where I live, and I realize that I haven’t even bothered to decorate; my walls are bare.

Seeing the contrast between my home and my friend’s, it’s clear that my material life is far more sparse than hers. She has far more possessions, more room and more beauty in her living space than I do. But, instead of feeling any sense that she was living decadently or wasting resources or being self-absorbed, I felt very pleased at what she had created. I appreciated the beauty that she had wrought in her interior space. And, when I saw the beauty of her home and saw that “it was good,” it freed me from the shame I had been living in for so long. I had seen every “unnecessary” object as a burden and a sin for myself – an obscenity in a world wracked with abject poverty. However, seeing the goodness and beauty of my friend’s abundance, I was able to release myself to live abundantly, as well.

I was able to see that my friend’s attention to detail and appreciation for material beauty was good and wholesome – at least in the unidolatrous way that I saw her expressing it in her home. In recognizing that goodness in the life of another, I was able to find release to feel worthy of having my own needs met. It’s easy for me, when praying for my daily bread, to feel ashamed for having more than the bare necessities. But humans live on more than bread alone, on more than the bare essentials for sustaining biological function! Human needs include beauty, the feeling of safety and prepared sacred spaces. I am indebted to my friend for helping me to see that I am worthy of beauty and abundance – we all are.

Simplicity is not about reducing life, not merely about removing luxuries, “creaturely” pleasures and joys. Certainly, there is a place for this, but this is not at the root. The core of simplicity is knowing our need and accepting our provision as a pure gift from God. And, just as we should not seek more than our needs call for, neither should we seek to deprive ourselves of the daily bread – physical, emotional and spiritual – that God grants us. Simplicity calls for discernment and trust in God that the Spirit will provide for our needs. 

We need neither to seek riches nor poverty, but instead to seek the will of the Lord in all things. I am reminded of Margaret Fell, who it is said refused to stop wearing bright colors, even as many Friends began to insist on a somber wardrobe as an outward form of simplicity. We Children of the Light are not called to drabness, but instead to the colorful and joyful living of the Kingdom of Heaven.

As citizens of the New Jerusalem, we are called to be as little children, accepting joyfully the gifts of our Mother in heaven, but also being actively willing to share our gifts with our brothers and sisters. Let us not seek to escape the beauty and wealth of this world, but instead recognize the immense abundance that we have in Christ and be fearless in sharing that which we do have and seeking that all know that full and abundant life that we have found – both materially and spiritually. Let us know that, while there is immense injustice in the world and while we are called to share what we have with our brothers and sisters, we too are worthy of our daily bread.

We pray:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.


Anna said...

that was lovely Micah thank you so much. I often worry about simplisity in my life, thank you.

john said...
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john said...

As a hobo become parent, the challenge of simple living is never far from my contemplation, and your thoughtful reflection speaks my mind.

Most Friends remember Tom Fox for his sacrifice in Iraq which grabbed so much media. Tom's two years serving with CPT conjure up a romantic, horrifying, and challenging picture of Christian peace witness.

But for me the real challenge of Tom's legacy isn't his work with CPT; it's his decade or more of devotion to the discipline of simple living that made his peace witness possible. For years, Tom systematically reflected on how to eliminate encumbrances of time and energy in order to devote more life to his relationships, values, and divine openings.

But Tom's discipline was not based on deprivation at all. For him, simple living meant fulfillment and alignment. Here is a reflection he wrote for Friends at Langley Hill Meeting.
For him, tracking expenses and daily planning were a rigorous and joyfull spiritual discipline. When he meditated on how he was spending his time and money, he asked: Is this fulfilling in proportion to the life energy it cost me? Is this activity or expense aligned with my purpose in life?

No budgets or guilt, just celebration of fulfillment and alignment. By focusing his attention on these qualities, he became free of convoluted entanglements and was able to respond to the promptings of God when his friends and neighbors were in need.

I miss him a lot.

Tara said...

There was a friend at Burlington who talked about simplicity along similar lines. I do not remember who she was, but she refered to simplicity as an act of removing clutter from her life, not necessarily removing material possessions. Her comment was in response to a question I posed about what it means to lead a simple life. Thank you for this very thoughtful and eloquent testimony. I find for me that just contemplating simplicity allows me remember what I value in my life and to prioritize friends, family, and spiritual and religious exploration, without feeling shame over my beautiful and treasured possessions.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post. I, too, wish to learn true simplicity. What you have said here is, to me, a springboard into meaningful contemplation. Thank you!

Julie said...

I hesitate to use the word 'dualism,' since it's so often just chucked at anything that the average seminary student doesn't like. I'm struck, though, by how often we conflate simplicity and austerity. Seems to me that when we conflate those two ideas, it's because we're aiming for a 'spiritualized' sort of joy that's part of an otherworldly realm, rather than connected to the physical world in which we live. If we were just 'spiritual' enough, then we wouldn't care about seeing beautiful things in the world because we'd be focused on heavenly things instead.

So, dualism strikes again- it is so important to remember that the world is a deeply good place to be, that heaven is in our simple beauties.

Micah Bales said...


Rather than some idea of heavenly priorities, I think that my problem has been more the issue of how to deal with the reality of being materially satisfied in a world where so many are dying of starvation. I still haven't resolved that one, to be honest, but I have come to the conclusion that I shouldn't feel guilty for having my needs met, even if it does leave me with the responsibility to care for others.

Mr. Miro said...

Peter Unger isn't a Quaker (so far as I know), but his book Living High & Letting Die deals with this pretty directly. We can meet our own needs, Unger argues, but only as far as we see other people's needs being met.

Anonymous said...

Micah. Your words, or perhaps the general sentiment of this post (as I am not one to be able to hold onto quotes and specifics. Sigh) have been going through my mind in little waves and currents. Today I walked out of a cafe to...ahem...take a breath of fresh air and left my laptop, cell phone, water bottle, napsack etc etc on the table inside. It was right downtown Toronto, where I have grown up, and I did all the city-savvy things of positioning myself so I was clearly watching my posessions inside. It was gorgeous sunny today, beautiful beautiful, but the cafe north-east facing in the late afternoon was shaded and chilly. Across the street was ablaze with light, and people turning their faces up towards it. I wanted so much to cross that street, to close my eyes before the sun. But my napsack, laptop, etc, etc... It was just another settling of your words. A reminder of the ways one choice affects the next. I include the link for lyrics to an Erykah Badu song going through my head. Thank you again.