Saturday, June 25, 2016

Laudato Si: Sunday Reflection #44... Simplicity and prayer

Did you grow up with Grace and Gratitude? My years of working in our family church supplies business ensured that I did. Grace (circa 1918 by Eric Enstrom/Rhoda Nyberg) is a portrait of a man praying before his meal, and Gratitude (by Jack Garren in the 1960s) is the companion picture of a woman in a similar posture.

What I always liked about these two was the simplicity of the images. They seem to say that if you can live in gratitude and try to be aware of God's grace -- even if you don't have many possessions -- you have enough.

Which fits with the theme of this week's section from Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, which is entitled Joy and Peace (paragraphs 222 to 227. It can be accessed by clicking here and scrolling down). This section of Pope Francis' letter to the world is all about choosing to live more simply, which is, of course, my favourite topic.

Less really is more these days. Choosing simplicity is downright subversive and counter-cultural in a society that has been brainwashed into believing that if we don't buy, buy, buy, the economy will die, die, die. What our brainwashers have failed to notice is that excessive consumption has brought our world to its present ecological problems... the overemphasis on buy, buy, buy leads directly to die, die, die for too many of our ecosystems. In paragraph 222, Pope Francis and his writing team remind us that
Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that "less is more". A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment.
This makes me think of Christmas, the big consumer holiday of the year. When our children were little, we quickly learned that if they received too many gifts, things got lost in the shuffle and were under-appreciated. So we cut back on the gifts, and our little ones were just as happy. More stuff does not equal more happiness. As noted later in paragraph 222, choosing a simpler existence "allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack."

"In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have," say Pope Francis and friends in paragraph 223 of Laudato Si. The entire paragraph is just excellent (read it for yourself!!), and seems to echo wise teachers from the past... I'm thinking in particular of Richard Gregg, a follower of Mahatma Ghandi, who summed up Ghandi's practice of Voluntary Simplicity (in 1936) as follows:
Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition. It means singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life. It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions. It involves a deliberate organization of life for a purpose. (Quoted in Mark A. Burch's book, Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for people and the planet. (2000, ISBN 0-86571-423-1) pp. 9-10.
I love the line about restraint in some directions which can lead to a greater abundance of life in others. Isn't that what our consumer-driven society is really looking for -- abundance of life? But we mistakenly think our possessions are what brings us joy. If you don't know what I'm talking about, I invite you to consider three high points in your life -- the times you felt most joyful and fulfilled. Then note who you were with, what you were doing, why you were so happy, and what, if any material items were required for the experience. We do this exercise in Simplicity Study Circles all the time, and it's always interesting to note how few consumer items are actually required for the happiest moments of our lives.

"Even living on little, they can live a lot," says Pope Francis in paragraph 223, and of course he is talking about all of us when we find joy and satisfaction

  • in relationships,
  • in serving others,
  • in using our talents,
  • in enjoying or creating music or art,
  • in relating to nature,
  • in prayer.

This brings to mind another old song on YouTube, which kind of says the same things using a musical format...

Paragraph 224 reminds us of the personal, societal and environmental imbalances created by 1) consumerism, 2) an overemphasis on autonomy, 3) a lack of faith in our Creator, and 4) the belief that our feelings are the best indicator of "what is right and what is wrong."

Instead, we need to find inner peace, says paragraph 225, the kind that is connected to simplicity, to care for the environment and to working for the common good. Because so many of us fill our lives with so much noise and frenzied activity in our pursuit of being good people who are doing good things, we forget that less is more when it comes to spirituality. We can't enjoy God's gifts to us if we don't make the time to appreciate them. We really won't find peace if our possessions and activities are doing violence to God's creation somewhere behind the scenes.

"We are speaking of an attitude of the heart," Pope Francis says, "one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone [or to creation, I would add] without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full." Our culture is too much like the rich young man in the tenth chapter of Mark's gospel, worried about our possessions while Jesus is looking at us with love -- but are we too tied up in our stuff to notice?

In an attempt to encourage this "attitude of the heart", Pope Francis has recently begun something of a campaign to remind people to pray in thanksgiving before and after meals -- paragraph 227 has been appearing in church bulletins lately. Yes, maybe some of us need to get back to the basics of simple mealtime graces before we can attempt more serious ecological reforms, but I was hoping for a more challenging campaign -- like perhaps encouraging us to try a year of living really simply -- buying only what we need, or finding ways to cut our use of energy by 20 or 30 percent, churches included. (Note to Pope Francis and all the other bishops out there: I'm also still waiting for places of worship to have regular sermons about saving our environment...) But maybe eventually those mealtime graces will lead us to a more respectful "attitude of gratitude" -- and remind us of the importance of prayer and meditation for keeping in touch with the Source of all life as we work toward the more difficult challenge of seriously reducing consumption for the sake of creation.

I know I haven't moodled much about the importance of prayer in these Laudato Si reflections, probably because I feel the urgency for action to return our sister, Mother Earth, back to health before it's too late. But the very first Sunday reflection was about the encyclical's A Prayer for the Earth, which I've posted at the end of every reflection since in the hopes that my readers pray it with me every weekend. Prayer is also necessary in the work Pope Francis is calling us to do -- it helps us to live in hope, to keep our eyes fixed on God's love for the great web of creation, and inspires us to work for the common good of all of creation.

So for the week ahead, let's do like our Grace and Gratitude people at the top of this moodling and give some attention to our spiritual practices. Do we remember to give thanks for our food? Do we offer some time and attention to Christ, who looks at us with love even when we are too busy? Let's simplify some spaces in our lives to make room for the richness of life Christ promised in my favourite verse of scripture, John 10: 10b -- "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."

A prayer for our earth

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.


(A prayer for our earth and all quotations from Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home © Libreria Editrice Vaticana)

Next up: Rebuilding a culture of care

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