Simplicity (May 2019)

One of the hallmarks of Friends is supposed to be simplicity. Along with peace, truthfulness, equality and the belief that God speaks through ordinary people, simplicity is a characteristic of Quakers. Or at least, that’s what we say.

Once upon a time, it was probably true. Friends were distinguished from the rest of society by the way we dressed, talked and lived. We wore plain clothes – no lapels or useless cuffs for men, no ruffles or fancy hats for women. Quakers wore sober colors – gray, black or brown. We spoke bluntly, and didn’t mince words.

What started out as simplicity, though, turned into a passion for uniformity. Members were criticized and even disowned – tossed out! – for failing to live according to the standard. Eventually, Friends rebelled against the plain clothes, dropped using “thee” and “thou” language, and allowed modern conveniences, music and other unheard-of vanities into our homes.

But the urge for simplicity has never quite gone away. Many Friends still feel drawn to live with fewer possessions. We sense that the way we live outwardly affects our inner lives.

In part, the appeal for simpler living is an appeal to common sense. We simply don’t need a great deal of what we are urged to buy, and we can be quite happy without many things. Given the poverty and misery in much of the world, it only makes sense to “live simply, so that others may simply live.”

Simplicity is often contrasted with wealth, with having lots of money and lots of things. A better contrast would be with greed. There may be nothing wrong with owning many things; what is wrong is the way we accumulate them, the effort we spend protecting them, and the waste we make of them.

At our best, Friends refuse to judge others, but judge ourselves first. For example, one query from New England Yearly Meeting asks: “Do you regard your possessions as given to you in trust, and do you part with them freely to meet the needs of others? Does your daily work use means and serve goals which are consistent with the teachings of Jesus?”

Plainness in living leads to plainness in speech. People often use empty clichés and “weasel words” to conceal what they feel, to flatter powerful people, or to make what’s said sound more important. We need to refuse to cloak what we mean, and speak the truth in words that even simple people can understand, because truth is holy.

For those of us who find ourselves entangled in non-simple lifestyles, the road to simplicity may seem impossible. Short of a miracle, we think it would be inconceivable to change, to let go, or to cut back. That may be why our cousins, the Shakers, sang:
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be…

Simplicity, for most of us, is a gift from God. It’s something we can’t achieve on our own. Like all of God’s gifts, we need to pray for it. We need to try to live up to it in the small matters of life first, so we can receive the greater and more difficult gifts of simplicity as we go on. Little steps toward simplicity and plain living lead to larger ones.

  • Joshua Brown
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