Saturday, March 27, 2010

True Simplicity -- Practicing Simplicity in the Quotidian

True Simplicity pages 91-94 get more into the practical details of how to do simplicity. We've already acknowledged that a focus on God alone is the only way to be truly simple -- without flattening depth, without being complex in our simplicity.

In regard to that, Chesterton is acute as always, when he says:

A man approaches, wearing sandals and simple raiment, a raw tomato held firmly in his right hand, and says, “The affections of family and country alike are hindrances to the fuller development of human love”; but the plain thinker will only answer him, with a wonder not untinged with admiration, “What a great deal of trouble you must have taken in order to feel like that.” High living will reject the tomato. Plain thinking will equally decisively reject the idea of the invariable sinfulness of war. High living will convince us that nothing is more materialistic than to despise a pleasure as purely material. And plain thinking will convince us that nothing is more materialistic than to reserve our horror chiefly for material wounds.

The only simplicity that matters is the simplicity of the heart. If that be gone, it can be brought back by no turnips or cellular clothing; but only by tears and terror and the fires that are not quenched. If that remain, it matters very little if a few Early Victorian armchairs remain along with it. Let us put a complex entrée into a simple old gentleman; let us not put a simple entrée into a complex old gentleman. .... I will have nothing to do with simplicity which lacks the fear, the astonishment, and the joy alike. I will have nothing to do with the devilish vision of a child who is too simple to like toys.
Simplicity is of the heart; it's a focus on the unum necessarium. As Jesus said, it is not what goes into us (broadly speaking here, we could apply that to our environments) but what comes out (that is, our attitude to what we have around us).

But Dietrich von Hildebrand articulates the problem of how to live simply in the face of a complex world.

Yet, is it not the will of God that we should apply ourself to the manifold tasks which are inherent in life and which every day carries with it? Even the hermit of the desert cannot wholly eschew a modest diversity of daily tasks; how could we, who are certainly not all elected to live as recluses? Surely, the primacy of the unum necessarium cannot dispense us from our several duties concerning our fellow men, our profession, our daily bread and so forth? Much as we may recognize that pre-eminence of the unum necessarium, is not our life essentially subject to the multiform system of great and small agenda, compelling us to divide our attention and our interest?
He answers that we must bring everything to one denominator, which is Christ. How is this accomplished? By considering and judging everything in light of its relation to God. This is probably like St Paul's "in eating and drinking, and in everything, do all for the glory of God."

First, we give up everything sinful or that leads us to sin (this second part may vary from person to person)

Second, we avoid things that though not sinful, have a tinge of worldliness and distraction to them. It is possible to be involved in those things without sin, but better to be cautious. He mentions certain glossy magazines, beaches and glamorous restaurants, some movies. He says they have an "impudent, frivolous and trivial" atmosphere about them.

Thirdly, we avoid things that while not frivolous and worldly, are yet "superficial and ephemereal". Example might be the more thrilling and less substantial type of novel, or certain kinds of parties that aren't actively harmful but tend to lead people into too much and the wrong kind of talking. Also shallow, bewitching pleasures. He says that these aren't bad in themselves but a lot of the time distract us and keep us on the "periphery of being" more than is compatible with true recollection and inwardness.

Fourthly, and this part has a heading of its own: While the above three categories are not really "goods" in themselves but either indifferent or sinful, there is a category of natural goods. True friendship is one such good. So is pleasure in a truly beautiful work of art or good literature. Scholarly pursuits are naturally good. He says:

"In spite of the natural value of such objectively good things.... we are not justified in unconditionally abandoning ourselves to the immanent logic of those goods. Our direct relationship to Christ, and through him, to God, should radically inform our relationship to all goods and tasks. It is not sufficient to confront everything with Christ and, having decided that a given thing does not contradict Christ, to abandon oneself to that thing without any further qualification.
What does this mean in practice? He does not say, probably because it differs from person to person. The saints talk a lot about "the duties of our state in life". For example, I know I can get so caught up in something in itself good and important -- lesson planning, organizing the closets -- that I let other things slide. Even prayer itself might be misdirected if you were praying in your closet and letting your baby cry with a soiled diaper. It's so complex -- I used to torture myself with trying to decide what was best to do in a given particular moment. I finally decided to let that go and just "practice the presence of God" whenever I had a moment of doubt. I say, "God, are you pleased with this... is this good in your eyes?" or something like that. What I say isn't so important -- it's more the act of casting my glance upwards in the moment. It seems to help with my dilemma, so I'm sharing it in case someone else is like me and struggles with a combination of perfectionism and sloth (sloth, remember, can often disguise itself in excessive industry that ignores the "logos" of the situation, as von Hildebrand calls it).

The bottom line -- after all, I started this blog to remind myself of the weight of the quotidian moment. Every moment, if you look at it in isolation, seems so scattered and quantam, or else repetitious and tedious in sucession. But we know it's not so. One doesn't have to be Christian to take note of the eternal significance of a single blink of time. If that is true for pivotal moments, like the moment that Aidan "coded" just before his transplant, then it doesn't seem unlikely that it is also true in some respect for every moment I type at this screen, or when I am reading the words on a well worn page to my 7th child.

There does need to be a unifying principle though, even in natural terms. My typing or cleaning or talking to my son, are not discrete separable units -- they may be considered separately, but they are united by the fact of being my actions, outworkings of my being. When they involve some other person they take on a richness in being the intertwining of moments in two or more peoples' lives. This is one unifying principle, that of life or will, and that of relationship. But von Hildebrand's claim is that this in itself is too contingent; that this much is enough for animals, but humans are only satisfied with something more than that. A great cause or great love, he says, provides more satisfaction, but yet not enough as you can judge by the fact that people gain their cause or love but find it insufficient, or find it taken away from them -- if not right away, at least, inevitably, someday.