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Simplicity of Life

How to cultivate a humble, detached lifestyle

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In the early 20th century, popular imagination was alive with the idea of setting foot on the South Pole. British explorer Ernest Shackleton had twice attempted the undertaking and had twice been repulsed by the brutal Antarctic environment. Preparing for a third attempt, he carefully studied all previous expeditions, which he discovered fell into two main categories. Some teams packed heavily, with equipment for every contingency. They were well-stocked but slow. Other teams sacrificed all for speed, packed lightly and hoped that their pace would offset the added risk. These latter expeditions fared better than the well-provisioned ones.

Christians have a destination of far greater importance than the South Pole. Like Shackleton, it would be wise to study the lives of those who have made this journey before. They testify that those who travel lightest, travel best. Accumulated wealth and possessions do not follow us in death. In the colorful words of Pope Francis, “a shroud has no pockets.”

It’s not that material goods are bad; they are manifestly, even theologically, good. God has provided us with a wonderfully abundant world in which we can be nourished, clothed and sheltered. Through God’s providence and man’s ingenuity, we can move about easily, communicate with one another and appreciate so many forms of beauty. We can foster relationships, cultivate a love for nature and enjoy wholesome entertainment. Mozart’s symphonies, Murillo paintings, baseball games, Charles Dickens’ novels, family dinners and airplanes are all good things.

So how do we, as diocesan priests, navigate these waters? How do we travel lightly without rejecting the basic goodness of material things? I think we can consider the question under three headings. First, as stewards. Our possessions should be ordered for the work of ministry. Second, as witnesses, ordered to the holiness of our people. And third, as disciples, ordered to our own holiness.

Stewardship

A helpful principle in our priestly life is this: nothing is actually our own. The goods of the Church, and our own personal goods, are meant to help us do the work of spreading the Gospel. In this light, I think there are five principal expenses to which we priests should pay special attention.They are the five C’s: car, clothing, computer, cellphone and chalice.

First, a decent car. The thing shouldn’t be flashy, but it has to work well. It has to get us to the hospital when someone is dying. It has to start reliably so we can do our work.

Second, our clothing. Priests should not look like slobs. We should be bridges, not obstacles, for our people to encounter Jesus. Clothes should be neat and attractive, but like the cars, no need for flash.

Third, our computer. It should not consume much of our time fixing it or making it work. Technology should serve us, not the other way around. We should get a decent computer and keep it in good condition until we need to get a new one.

Josemaría (Josemaria) Escriva de Balaguer
Portrait of Josemaría (Josemaria) Escriva de Balaguer (1902-75), founder of Opus Dei. Stefano Bianchetti /
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Fourth, cell phone. I dislike my cell phone as much as the next guy, but I also realize that it is a pretty important way that people can get in touch with me. We should get a decent phone that does what we need it to do, and does it without a lot of fuss.

Fifth, our chalice. Jesus did not rebuke the woman at Bethany who spent so much money honoring him with her “pure nard.” When it comes to the things of God — chalice, chasubles, and the like — we should not be stingy. He is worth every penny.

Unnecessary expenses have a way of creeping into our lives. Luxuries, superfluous spending, meals out, expensive vacations and other creature comforts are prime culprits. St. Josemaría Escriva offered a helpful standard by which to judge our expenses: Would a father of a large and poor family make this purchase? That is precisely what we are — fathers of a large and poor family. We should get good quality things that will last, and take care of them.

And then there are all the thousand small ways that we show our spirit of poverty — turning off lights when we’re not using them, taking care of furniture, cleaning up after ourselves and so on. A clean rectory, where broken things are repaired, where worn out things are replaced, where elegance does not mean luxury, are marks of a well-ordered simplicity of life. The virtue of poverty is made up mostly of small, hidden actions like these.

Witness

When Christians exemplify a detachment from earthly goods, they are a prophetic witness against our materialistic culture. When Christians are grasping and possessive, they dramatically undermine the credibility of our faith to nonbelievers. This is all the more true of a priest whose material simplicity is a powerful witness against the consumerism so rampant today. It is a sign that we have set our hearts on Jesus, not on the goods of this world, and that our faith has concrete repercussions in our lives.

Those in consecrated life commit themselves to follow Jesus’ poverty as a clear witness for the rest of us. Theirs is a powerful eschatological witness, a reminder of a life beyond this one. Diocesan priests, while not under a vow of poverty, contribute to this witness as well by their simplicity of life. The vow of poverty made by a religious is a bold statement, but our promise of simplicity has a quiet boldness of its own. We are called to love the world and the good things in it — and yet remain free from them. We need the naturalness of a layman and the radical detachment of a Carthusian. Like other Christians, we are to cast the light of Christ on the things of the world, transforming and converting them into instruments of the Gospel.

In a certain respect, diocesan priests can be even more effective than that of a religious because, like our people, we too navigate the complexities of modern life. A secular priest who lives simply will not be ashamed to raise money for apostolic enterprises. He will be able to meet the gaze of any potential benefactor, confident that he is inviting the donor into a worthy endeavor and offering him a blessed opportunity to spread the Good News. Such a priest can do so because he is simply asking those donors, in fact, all his people, to live the same spirit of detachment that he himself has marked out.

This is not always an easy thing to do. Dr. Samuel Johnson commented to his friend upon seeing a castle and its wealth, “These are the things which make it difficult to die.”

Material goods and comforts have a way of worming their way into our desires. How pleasant is the slide toward mediocrity! We start by looking forward to our day off not as a chance to spend time with brother priests, friends and family; not as a chance to take a “desert day” of prayer; but as a chance to unwind with a few drinks and a steak dinner. Vacations become more and more lavish. We begin to dream of our next flashy gadget, or elaborate hobby or a decked-out car. Our heart can attach itself to just about anything other than God — books, fine wine, even things used in the sacred liturgy. We must live in such a way that we are detached. Our people must see that we have not placed our hope in the things of this world.

Simplicity of life is an extremely important witness, especially today when trust in priests has ebbed to a seemingly new low. A wise priest once told me that our people will forgive a priest anything except living in luxury. There is something premeditated and deliberate about it, something so contrary to our supernatural vocation. With the instinct of faith, our people know that a priest taken up with material goods will, sooner or later, lose his fire and compromise his preaching. He will cease being an effective witness.

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Discipleship

Finally, the simplicity of life in the priest is for his own growth in holiness. In the story of the rich young man, he went away sad because he had many possessions. Jesus did not ask him to sell his possessions because they were bad, but because they were hindering his progress to God. Things become cheap substitutes for God. Every one of us is poor, radically poor, in the presence of God. We are all mendicants, beggars, undeserving recipients of God’s gifts: life, faith, grace, everything. This is true of every disciple, and all are called to a deep humility before the majesty and generosity of God. Riches can so easily anesthetize the trials of life, and even the approach of death, which are intended to cleave us more intensely to God.

All the more is this true of a priest, especially a celibate priest. Celibacy is intended to open a void, to create an ache in our soul, which can only be filled by God. Nothing on earth can actually fill that void, but our fallen human nature will try, and often try through the passing pleasures of material goods. One of the great dangers that face a celibate priest is trying to satisfy the ache of celibacy with something other than God. This is why simplicity of life and celibacy go hand in hand; when one starts to erode, the other is not far behind. The envy and covetousness that regrettably afflict many priests are often the preambles to even greater falls.

One source of our rampant clerical scandals, I believe, has been the relative wealth of priests in Western countries. Material wealth dampens zeal, cools the fire of charity and makes us more risk-averse. It drains the relish from prayer. It makes us anxious and robs us of peace. It feeds our pride and makes obedience more onerous. And it gives time, emotional space and opportunity to temptations against chastity. A priest who has compromised himself in his promise of simplicity is more likely to compromise himself in his other promises too.

Joy of Poverty

When St. Peter tells Jesus that they had left everything to follow him, Jesus promised that no one who has “given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come” (Mk 10:29-30).

The joy of poverty is, in the end, the freedom of the Gospel. Simplicity of life frees us to serve, since through it we practice good stewardship and clear away obstacles to our ministry. It frees us to be witnesses, since, through it, we proclaim that men and women are made for more than earthly goods. Most of all, it frees us to love, since through it our hearts are set loose from earthly ties and we can give ourselves wholeheartedly to our people, to our brothers, to our family and friends and to God. It is a precondition for holy and joyful ministry and will win for us “in the age to come eternal life.”

FATHER CARTER GRIFFIN is the rector of St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington, D.C.

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An Examination

Our detachment must be radical. True, there is a great deal of latitude in how a priest lives out his simplicity. But the detachment can broach no compromise. Perhaps some practical points of examination may be helpful:

Priests in our country receive generous salaries. Do I tithe at least 10% of my income? When I receive a gift, do I give much or all of it away?

Do I get good advice on the amount of money I should set aside for old age as a way of relieving future financial strain on the Church and not as a “nest egg” for retirement?

Am I entitled? The People of God love their priests and often want to shower them with gifts. Someone slips us an envelope with $200 or a kind family invites you to stay at their palatial lake house with a speedboat. It is easy to slide into a mind-set that we actually deserve — and then expect and anticipate — such attention.

How do I feel when someone loses or accidentally breaks something I own? If there is any anger in that reaction, it may be due to some attachment.

Do I complain when I don’t have enough of something? We should relish the opportunity to grow in detachment when we are missing even “necessities” in life.

Do I consult with someone for larger expenses? It can be a spiritual director or another brother priest, someone who can help us be more objective in our purchasing decisions. This is an act of humility that works powerfully against material attachments.

Does my simplicity of life “pinch” a bit? If we live a comfortable life without any real renunciation, then we probably aren’t living the simplicity of life as well as we ought. “He lacks everything,” St. Bernard said, “who thinks he lacks nothing.”

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