Tuesday, 18 November 2014

My Rule of Life: Simplicity

When I was in my early twenties someone gave me a biography of Francis of Assisi. I was so struck by his astonishing and unreserved commitment to Christ, expressed in his openness to absolute poverty, that I had to know for myself whether that kind of life was really possible and what it might be like. So I gave away almost everything I owned and lived in radical simplicity for two years.

Almost everything? Well, I kept as little as I needed to live day by day. A couple of changes of clothes. Bedding. Towel, soap and toothbrush. Three or four books. Plate, knife, fork, spoon and saucepan. A bicycle to get to work. Probably a few other things, but that was about it. No furniture: I slept on a borrowed mattress on the floor. Once during those two years I had to move house; I carried everything I owned except the bike in a rucksack on my back. Moving house took: ten minutes to pack, fifteen minutes to cross town, ten minutes to unpack. Thirty five minutes from start to finish.

I learned a lot during those two years, not least that the Arctic explorer Richard E. Byrd was right when he wrote: "I am learning ... that a man can live profoundly without masses of things." (I picked up that quote from Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline, which has an excellent chapter on simplicity. If you haven't read it, you should).

I learned to love simplicity in many ways: as an alternative to the materialistic frenzy of modern society, as an aesthetic, as an exterior expression of interior silence.

My life is very different now; I'm married with four children, and it doesn't seem reasonable to expect them to live out of a rucksack! So we have furniture, and pots and pans, and I drive a car (a small and old car, but a car nonetheless). But my wife also values simplicity, so most of our furniture is second or third-hand, and we cycle and walk a lot when we can. Our home is very amenable to small people, since there's not much of value that can be broken. And our kids seem to have picked up the idea that life doesn't need a lot of stuff and junk to make it full.

Even so, I keep asking myself: how can I simplify? Do I need all I have right now? If not, why am I holding on to it? (Or is it holding on to me?) Once you've been bitten by the simplicity bug it's hard to shake it off.

How about you? What's been your experience of simplicity? How do you simplify? Do you find it easy, or a struggle? Does it even help you to try? Let me know!

Image: Icon of St Francis at Launde Abbey (Chris Webb)

6 comments:

  1. Chris, how old were you when you began the two year journey? What was the biggest internal battle you faced with in reducing your belongings to those of a backpacker?

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    1. I guess I was about 21 or 22. It was certainly easier then than it would be now, as I just had less stuff to start with. The hard part was getting rid of things in the first place; living with little proved surprisingly easy. But the biggest internal battle while I got rid of stuff (which I did over a very short period of time - a couple of weeks) was the sense of insecurity that created. I would honestly find myself looking at the strangest things (a teapot, or a sweater, or some tapes of music) and feeling that it might somehow not be safe to try to live without those things. Weird!

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    2. Thanks. I'm not laughing (well sort of) at "weird" but it reminds me of a scene from the movie The Jerk. Don't know if you've seen it.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2X3vVMdh-s



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    3. [Grin] I haven't seen that one, but as a Steve Martin fan I'll certainly be looking out for it. Now, tell me where I can find the sequinned jacket he wore in Leap of Faith and I'll bend the simplicity vow to buy one ...

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  2. Living in a small house has been helpful but I have managed to fill it to the brim. Books are the hardest to get rid of but also my kitchen ware. I love cooking and so my kitchen cabinets are full of cookbooks, spices, bakeware....In short, I probably need to move just so I can do a thorough clean-out!

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    1. You know how they say work expands to fill the time available? I think in the same way clutter expands to fill the space available... I do wish, though, that I could come and clutter up your house a little more for an hour or two and catch up with you guys over coffee. Missing Colorado today - sigh!

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