Simplicity and Freedom
Simplicity is freedom.
Now there are different kinds of freedom. There is civil freedom, which rests upon the shoulders of good governance; and there is spiritual freedom, which is independent of human authority, all powers, and every circumstance. Both kinds of freedom are gifts, but we are only guaranteed, according to our will and God’s grace, one of them.
Because of my civil freedoms I can walk from one side of the United States to the other, provided I have the means and the desire. I can live where I please. I can vote. Civically, I am free. My simplicity, or lack of simplicity, has no bearing on this freedom. There is a deeper, more lasting freedom that is spiritual and that rests wholly on my simplicity. (I am not here speaking of the initial and lasting freedom that Christ’s death and resurrection purchases for us.) Mark Twain once said, “The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” You and I are offered freedom, and whether and how we respond to this grace is, by grace, our choice. Some make less of it than others.
Consider the parable of the sower in Matthew 13. The sower scatters without bias, gives without favoritism. The message of the Kingdom is not received equally, however, because of the soil that it falls upon. In the parable, the soil, not the sower (presuming God’s prevenient grace), determines the seed’s reception. The freedom that simplicity purchases for us is reflected in the fertile soil. We are given the choice of how we will respond, and the grace to choose well, but often we relinquish our freedom quietly and with little ado. We trade our birthright to appease our stomach.
Saint Francis of Assisi was fertile soil. He understood and embraced freedom by embracing poverty, chastity, obedience, and even foolishness; he embodied simplicity. A man who owns nothing, willingly, can lose nothing. A humble man cannot be conquered. In his simplicity Saint Francis was completely free to love completely. Now few of us perhaps are able to live in such radical simplicity as he did, or indeed as Jesus did. We are foxes and birds; we have our dens and our nests. My wife and my children prevent me from wandering off into the snow in nothing but a hair shirt. But within the scope of my necessary and normal obligations to my family lies a nearly limitless horizon of the freedom found in simplicity. I too can live simply by holding all things loosely, with open hands. Such simplicity detaches me from this life; I am released from the stranglehold of the world’s worries and wealth’s lure. I can live in the following manner, as the Secular Franciscan rule puts it: Going from Gospel to life and life to Gospel. So that when I am walking toward home on a winter night and someone steals my coat, I give pursuit so that I might also offer him my shoes. That is freedom. There is joy. Jim Elliott said famously and rightly, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
The discipline of simplicity offers us freedom in exchange for chains; it offers life. It removes the stranglehold of the surrounding thorns that we might be fruitful, as God desires.