A friend of mine just linked to this article on creating a life plan that is a promo for a new book on the topic coming out soon.

I’m seeing more and more of a theme here.

I subscribe to Pixel of Ink which sends me a daily email of free and reduced-cost Kindle books. It’s usually fluff reading (and, let’s face it, I’m not above fluff reading…), but I’ve been noticing over the past months a not insignificant trickle of books on organizing, simplicity, and minimalistic living.

Indeed, a quick google on “minimalist living” produces 19.5 million results in half a second…

Too, I’ve already written a bit about this topic when talking about the book Essentialism

Here’s the thing. The dominant culture is looking for answers when it comes to questions of ultimate purpose, how to organize life and its immediate material manifestations, and how to structure time and experience and environment in ways that align with purpose.

To the church I must ask this question: What exactly is our problem!?!

Particularly thinking of us as an expression of liturgical (which is all about habits and patterns) Christianity (which is all about living into and living out God’s reconciliation with humanity and all creation through Jesus Christ under the guidance of the Holy Spirit) which is an heir of the Benedictine/Cistercian/Franciscan traditions (which emphasize discipline, clarity, and intentional simplicity), why are we not out front of all of this stuff? Why are we not offering a clear purpose undergirded by helpful pathways into proven disciplines for simple, intentional living? Why are we not viewing this urge towards purpose and simplicity as a classic praeparatio evangelica that is predisposing and asking leading questions of a seeking culture for something we’ve already found?

This ought to be right in our wheelhouse; but it’s not.

There’s part of me that wonders if the problem here is that we haven’t constructed the “missional” opportunity in these terms. That is, we haven’t said amongst ourselves, look—here’s an opportunity for us. They’re asking questions we have answers to. Now, here’s how we marshall our experience, tradition, and resources to provide a coherent answer to the population of people who are clearly asking these questions.

I suspect that’s a piece of it.

My fear, though, is that it’s not the bigger part of the answer. I think the bigger part of the answer is that we’re still part of that population who is looking for this same thing

Speaking for myself, at least, we need to get our act together and figure out how our tradition has been telling us to do this all along, then actually do it, before we can credibly present it to others.

And there we have it: a simple (though certainly not easy!!) and central task for Christian spirituality in the 21st century West.

8 thoughts on “Purpose/Organization/Simplicity

  1. Barbara S.

    Of course. Something very like that already exists, though; it’s called “The 12 Steps.”

    Interestingly, A.A. owes its existence to the efforts of a Lutheran pastor (Frank Buchman) and the encouragement and help of an Episcopal priest (Sam Shoemaker). (Not to forget that C.G. Jung – whose father was a pastor, too – also played an interesting role!)

    Of course, most people aren’t alcoholics – but I would bet that there are some strong clues to the thing in that story. From my point of view, the Church lacks Steps; it doesn’t have a program – and that is its failing. It doesn’t very well know how to apply what it knows to ordinary living.

    But since A.A. ideas are directly inspired by religion to begin with, it seems obvious to me at least that the church certainly could have a program, and almost certainly should. A.A. is a really very modest, simple program composed of a bunch of spiritual exercises strung together – and that’s it. Strangely, it blossoms into something way bigger than this – and best of all, it allows all kinds of people to take part, and to work things out at their own pace.

    It probably couldn’t hurt to look at the idea of “enlightenment” in all religions, actually. I’m sure there are many commonalities, which can help point to “things that work to help human beings find joy in living.”

    Empiricism is really very helpful. My $.02.

  2. Barbara S.

    Here’s another important thought: Richard Rohr, to whose email meditations I subscribe, points out the importance of making a spiritual home in a particular religious tradition (https://cac.org/home-base-2015-12-22/):

    “I invite you to sink your roots deep in one place, in one particular tradition, even as you explore the wealth of wisdom to be found in other places. Otherwise you will get trapped in individualism and private superiority without any real testing laboratory in the ways of faith, hope, and practical love. Outside of a concrete community of relationships, you can imagine you are much more enlightened than you really are. Whatever tradition you claim, be open to letting it change you even as you challenge your church or community to also grow in maturity. As Step 12 of Alcoholics Anonymous says, we do have to somehow pass enlightenment on to fully have it ourselves. If you are not a link in the wisdom chain, you are not even a link after a while.”

    This is a very important point to make in this discussion, I believe. I know you believe this, too – and I think you would find yourself agreeing with much of what he writes and says. I subscribe to his daily emails, and I would recommend them; I think his ability to speak to people both within and outside of the Christian tradition is crucial. I think he’s an important voice, and has a lot to say to the church about the very the questions you’re asking here.

  3. Barbara S.

    One last point: what’s important about the Steps is that they speak to actual human beings about our real weaknesses (and strengths). They speak to what really happens in the world, and what people are actually like. They speak in real and important depth about the nature of the spiritual life (although they speak in very simple terms).

    John of the Cross speaks this way, BTW, in “Dark Night of the Soul.” In the beginning chapters he is offering a very A.A.-like talk about what “spiritual seekers” are like; what errors they make on their journey; what their reactions will be to this thing or that; how they are likely to fail in the beginning of their journey.

    See this page for a great example: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/john_cross/dark_night.vii.iii.html . So this discussion about about the specific ins and outs of the spiritual “journey” (I know some people hate that word, but it really is that) already exists at the highest levels in the Christian Tradition.

    This is what I like about the Catholic Catechism, too – and why I dislike ours so much; it says precisely nothing about the human condition. It’s a complete blank in that respect. What the hell is the church actually FOR? Nobody actually knows. (Of course I disagree with some of the stuff in the Catholic Catechism, but the point holds!)

    Luther knew all this stuff himself, actually; that’s why I think A.A. came out of that tradition: an open acknowledgement of brokenness (i.e., “sin”) is something alcoholics cannot really avoid.

    Anyway, I’d look at A.A. and I’d look at books like “Dark Night.” It’s all empirical, really; to me, that’s the key to it. When I was in A.A., I read Zen koans; same kind of thing, really.

  4. Derek Olsen Post author

    Great thoughts, Barbara–thanks!

    John, that question could be interpreted in a couple of ways, I’ll pick the most obvious to me… “Simple” refers to a life that is deliberately removing itself from some of the inevitable clutter and chaos of modern life which tends to be filled up by Western society’s default settings of commercial-driven materialism (with the dominant message of “you are worth what you consume”) and technological accessibility (with the idea that if you have the potential to be always connected then you have the responsibility to do so). “Organized” refers to the structuring of both material possessions and time schedules. As even a brief dip into this literature will reveal, our relation with our material things has far more to do with our spiritual and emotional states than it does with simple stuff. Again, some of this goes back to the pernicious cycles of consumption required by a commercial industrialized society that requires production to generate profit; some of it connects to other matters.

    Does that help?

  5. Fr. John-Julian, OJN

    The Episcopal Church Annual lists 17 religious orders and 14 Christian communities—all of which have affiliate/oblate/associate programs which call their members to simplicity of life, faithfulness in prayer, liturgical participation, and community support. What more do you want? And these religious orders and Christian communities even welcome those who wish to take Christianity most seriously and actually become full-fledged members of one of them. Why try to invent something that has been sitting there at the edge of the Christian experience for over 1500 years?

  6. John H.

    I’ve arrived at a point that I have resisted for most of my life. I pick and choose the services I attend very carefully, so that I will not be horrified by what I experience and risk a total loss of my faith in organized Christianity. This is something I once railed against mercilessly, and the decades-younger me would not like what he sees now. And even now, I believe that cherry-picking my religion to make sure it suits me is abhorrent. But at this point, I know of no other way to go forward.

    Notably, this means specifically avoiding Sunday services for most of the year. My weekly mass, as frequently as I am able to attend, is a midday mass during the week. I do miss the music and choirs, but I am thrilled that I do not have to hear a sermon or exchange that wretched chitty-chat of peace. (The priest does offer a few thoughts on the readings or the mass of the day, and I very much appreciate that. But there is no sermon in the usual sense of the word.) My other discipline is to chant Sarum lauds and vespers on the commute to and from work each day. It’s not terribly hard to memorize the ferial office, and I have a little print-out of the seasonal propers to use at the red lights.

    This, to me, is the ultimate simplification. I know what works, and that’s what I do personally and what I seek out communally. “Keep it simple, stupid”, or KISS, is the rather vulgar way of saying it. I don’t like that phrase, but I acknowledge the sentiment.

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