We are actively encouraged to live lives of complexity: bigger, better, newer, more sophisticated are key terms shaping our demands. The Desert Fathers and Mothers and Hermits throughout history have sought to live lives characterised by simplicity, not only as a deliberate choice but usually from necessity. A solitary life in a cave with minimal resources, for example, requires simplicity.
In recent years there has been a massive increase in interest in “simple living” and minimalism, not only as a means of becoming more ecologically responsible but also as a means of striving to become liberated from mass consumerism and materialism. The number of books, documentary programs, websites and blogs in this area are extraordinary – and increasing.
In the spiritual life, the principle of simplicity is applied essentially to reduce distractions – distractions away from the essential purpose of the spiritual life, distractions from the meaningful use of time, distractions which may redirect attention and energy into the world.
Simplicity refers both to things and to processes. I need, as far as possible, to possess as few things as necessary, and things that are as simple as possible and which simplify my life. My actions likewise need to simply my life and not to distract from my essential purpose or to waste my time.
The principles that might be applied in applying the principle of simplicity include:
In choosing my possessions, I am required to ask: what do I need? In some cases, this is easy. Do I need a large screen television in every room? In other cases it may be less so. Depending upon my occupation (including that of Hermit) I may need IT resources, I may need a library. “Need” is, of course, different to “want”. Likewise, in deciding on my actions, it is what I need to do, rather than what I want to do or what I could do; necessity is the general rule.
2. Resource utilisation
Am I engaged in responsible stewardship of resources, both long and short term? Am I being responsible in my use of my resources, of the resources of my community, and of the resources of the environment? Even in matters as basic as the choice of clothing such questions arise. The use of cheap, imported clothing may be wasteful because it is not durable, and it may have been produced unethically in sweat-shop conditions using environmentally unsound technology. Short-term financial advantage may be outweighed by long term utility and environmental responsibility. Baking bread at home has a great appeal but is it responsible resource use? Might it not be better to buy bread from a small local, family-owned bakery thereby also contributing to the good of the community?
Am I making the most efficient use of resources, including my time?
Am I making the most effective use of resources, including my time?
As ironic as it may sound, in the modern world planning for a simple life needs to be undertaken with care and with the aid of science. Some things that sound “simple”, and may appeal to an ideology of simplicity, fail basic tests. Washing dishes and clothes by hand has an appeal to the principle of simplicity. However, the dishwasher and clothes washer I use enable me to wash dishes and clothes not only more quickly, but in a significantly environmentally better way: they both use less water and less energy and less detergent than hand washing – yes, there have been scientific tests on this! – as well as washing more efficiently and effectively. In the case of clothes, an appropriately chosen washer will also do less damage to the fabrics and give clothes a longer use life. So the “obvious” choice – do it by hand – is not the ecologically or technically “simplest” choice.
Likewise, using a computer as a writing instrument is simpler and more ecologically sound that writing or typing on paper – check the environmental costs of paper production, even for re-cycled paper.
Simplicity does not presuppose some Luddite opposition to technology. As with the examples of the dishwasher and the washing machine, technology may enhance simplicity. A computer, a television and a DVD player may serve as excellent aids to education and the enhancement of my spiritual life. As tools they are whatever I choose to make them: distractions and deviations, or means to beneficial ends.
In the symbolic life of the Hermit, what might be thought of as manifest simplicity is also important: that is, being seen to live simply as an example to others. Such a principle is seen in what has been known as “plain dressing” – that is, wearing simple, durable, functional clothing not defined by or adjusted to the trends of fashion. The concept of “plain dressing” has a long history, notably with groups like the Quakers and the Amish. Unfortunately, in some cases it has led to a preoccupation with a particular style of clothing that, in the modern world, is not so much simple as eccentric.
Adapted from the evolving “Rule of Life of the Hermitage of St Cedd”:
“The Hermit has adopted voluntary simplicity. The Hermit will therefore live simply, reducing expenditure, consumption and the acquisition of property to a bare minimum, thus providing a testimony to the Evangelical imperative of simplicity of life, and adopting an intentional approach to living. This life will seek to minimise the Hermit’s ecological footprint as a measure of his demand on the Earth’s ecosystems.
Simplicity will include plain dress, a religious practice in which the Hermit will dress in clothes of traditional modest design, sturdy fabric, and conservative cut. It is to be used to show humility and to preserve separateness from the rest of the world while not seeking to attract attention to the Hermit as an individual.
The Hermit will not wear any distinctive clothing or symbols within the Hermitage except such as may be required for the recitation of the Hours or the Celebration of the Divine Liturgy and other Services. The Hermit may wear the rason or galabeya (cassock) and the shamlah (prayer shawl) during prayer and the recitation of the Hours and will wear the appropriate vestments for the Celebration of the Divine Liturgy and other Services.
The Hermit will not wear any distinctive clothing or symbols outside the Hermitage except when required to do so to participate in Church services or to fulfil his Priestly ministry.
In ordinary daily life, within and outside the Hermitage, the Hermit will wear plain clothing that is indistinguishable from that which is worn by the poor of his neighbours (unless required to wear more formal clothing for the purposes of work to sustain his life), and will as far as possible wear nothing that might distinguish him from those neighbours or draw attention to his eremitical vocation.
Any sign of the Hermit’s vocation (for example, a pectoral cross) should be concealed except such as may be required for the recitation of the Hours or the Celebration of the Divine Liturgy or Priestly ministry within or outside the Hermitage.
Simplicity will also include plain diet in which the aim is to consume nutritious but simple and economical food. This will include adherence to the Church’s tradition of fasting and abstinence.
However, the Hermit is responsible – in terms of food, medicine, hygiene and physical activity – to ensure that his physical well-being is sufficient to enable him to live the eremitical life and to maintain his physical and psychological health.
The Hermit’s life of simplicity life will seek to maximise self-sufficiency and sustainable living while making use of appropriate technology. It will also include an intentional reduction in the use of resources like electricity, gas and water, in the production of waste (especially in food), and in the careful and intentional use of recycling, and the disposal of non-essential resources to appropriate charitable causes.
Regardless of the Hermit’s financial situation at any given time, he will seek to live as one of the poor of his neighbourhood, ensuring that he does not seek to distinguish himself in terms of religious, financial or social status. The Hermit will thus seek to be, as far as is possible, “invisible” within the community in which he lives.”
For readings on simplicity, see:
For readings on minimalism, see:
For plain dressing, see:
For manifest simplicity, see: