Among the many popular trends holding sway in our culture is that of minimalism, or simple living. It is inspired by the belief that less is more; that happiness is not found in a lifestyle of constant consumption or attachment to material possessions, but in a clearer, more spacious, simplified existence. And there is solid ground to believe that living simply is enhancing people’s overall well-being and mental health.
However, beneath the psychology of the movement and the memes that come with it, we can probably discern a spiritual impulse. Why? Because, at its root, minimalism is an attempt to put values first and “stuff” second. And, if we consult some of the great thinkers in the Catholic tradition, it is the elevation of values that is at the heart of true and spiritual simplicity.
This is the perspective of Dietrich von Hildebrand, the German moral philosopher whose legacy involves a sustained resistance to Nazi ideology. In his book Transformation in Christ (1948), von Hildebrand tells us that one of the things the Gospel calls us to is simplicity. Not just an external, materially simple existence, but an inner simplicity that he defines as an ‘inward unity of life’.
For von Hildebrand, the search for simplicity is, at its heart, a search for an integrated existence – the seeking of an inner harmony of soul. In this sense, it isn’t so much the opposite of complexity as it is the opposite of disunity or distraction. Simplicity is the opposite of that restlessness St Augustine speaks of in his Confessions, the feeling of being scattered, lost, and at odds with ourselves.
The way to properly integrate ourselves, he says, is to bring our whole lives to bear around one supreme value or one common denominator. This value is what gives our life continuity and wholeness; it helps us see through the competing interests, demands and claims made on us throughout our life to what is most important. Insofar as we embrace this supreme value, our inner lives will find an order and harmony that guides us through the complexities of everyday life.
If this sounds a bit abstruse, it’s not. We already know what this looks like: it looks like the person who has truly fallen in love, whose love is not distracted by other possible suitors but has now been brought to bear around the beloved. The value of the beloved is what integrates and orders their whole existence. It also, von Hildebrand says, looks like the hero:
The heroic man is simple, and in his heroic act becomes the simpler. Every heroic act is the victory of a dominant aim over a multitude of petty ties and distractions.’
Every great heroic saga involves the story of someone whose trivial and comfortable world has been shattered by the intrusion of a higher call and a higher purpose.
Just think of Luke Skywalker, whose ordinary existence on the planet Tatooine is abruptly ended by the higher calling placed upon him to become a Jedi and resist the Empire. Or think of David, the young farm boy who is called upon to face down the giant Goliath in Israel’s hour of need, and, eventually, to become king. In both of these cases, a hierarchy of values is recognised, and what is least important is subordinated to what is most important.
In following that call, the hero discovers a true, spiritual simplicity.
Dietrich von Hildebrand embodied this in his own life when he left his home and his career in Germany to build resistance against the Nazis in Austria. The one thing he feared most was that, were he to stay in Germany, he would be forced to compromise his conscience. He made sure he didn't have to.
The simplicity Christ calls us to is of this sort, von Hildebrand says, but with an important caveat: there is nothing in this world – no natural good, no natural value – that could possibly satisfy the desires of our heart, even the desire for simplicity. In the end, to devote ourselves completely to a good of the created order – no matter how good it is – is to exhaust ourselves, and, more to the point, idolise the good in question. What Christ does, on the other hand, is reveal himself to be the supreme value around which our lives should turn; he is the living water ‘welling up to eternal life’ that has the power to nourish and refresh us, instead of simply exhausting us.
While speaking to Martha, Jesus explicitly identifies himself as the only supreme value:
You worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one’ (Luke 10:41).
He also intimates it in the parables of the treasure and the pearls, stories of people who stumble across something of such immense value that they sell everything they own to possess it (Matthew 13:44-46). What Jesus embodies, really, is the intrusion into our world of a higher world; the breaking in of a higher kingdom, and the revelation that human life has a calling placed upon it that is divine. That we were made for glory and to share in the glory of the divine life (John 17:20-26). That the attitude of the disciple is to be the attitude of the lover and the hero.
Since Lent is a time for simplicity, a time to return to the very fundamentals of our faith, maybe one of the things we could do is reflect on what we consider to be our supreme value, the ultimate turning point of our life. And if it’s not Christ, how can we make it so?
Christian Bergmann12 August 2022
Fiona Basile10 August 2022