Upon reflecting on the arrangements for clothing and footwear in this chapter it may be possible to sense a kind of sparseness, but not of a barren kind. Instead, this sense has more resonance with the simplicity of lifestyle that a lack of excess can bring. This simplicity of dress, both in quality and quantity, as well as in its sharing, has the potential to free the soul a little more from care and to encourage a non-attachment to even the essentials of life.
Benedict, in his wisdom, realises that the essentials are important. And he also knows that the essentials can become the unnecessary focus of our desires. Desire is the ‘I want’ of the ego. It can be full of possessiveness, impatience, insecurity, demand – and far from love.
Benedict provides simply (some today might say frugally) and includes in the practical running of the monastery a kind of fail-safe for excessive desire around the essentials of clothing and footwear. Our happiness need not be be dependent on the nature of our apparel. Our apparel simply clothes us. Happiness, instead, is a fruit of a human life being faithful enough to its spiritual roots. Excess has the potential to distract us from these roots.
Today the essentials, simply because they cannot be lived without, are the focus of a sustained encouragement of desire. Clothing and footwear today are fashion industries that deal in status and anxiety management. The consumer identity so encouraged in us has its epicentre in what we see as essential. If it is essential, then we must have it and what seems essential can be very loosely defined these days as essential.
…anything more must be taken away as superfluous.
If our lives are practically simple then desire has fewer places to manifest as attachment. There can be poverty in having too much if this too much has us holding too tightly to possessions, attached to them. An overflow of stuff (and their maintenance) can divert care and attention away from the here and now that has the relational at its heart.
Many of us are relationally poor amid what we possess. As the African proverb says ‘many cows mean many worries.’ Fewer cows (and their equivalent) mean less worries and potentially more attentiveness to the ones we love and the God with us as this love. It may be easier to ‘love’ a plasma TV, however it is certainly not as fulfilling.
At the heart of the human and relational is the Divine. If we are not giving attention to this relational reality then we are not attending to the God in this reality. After all The Gospel of Luke has Jesus saying ‘the kingdom of God is among/within you’ not your stuff (Luke17:21) *. And the rich young man cannot break the ‘relationship’ he has with his riches, a break that is part of the process of letting go into the freedom of growth in communion with Divine Love (Luke18:18-23). We all have things we hold too dear and so place them between us, others, and the divine life.
To put it simply, an uncluttered life (both externally and internally) has a real chance of experiencing the depths of divine communion in God. The Rule, in its wisdom and practical clarity, is faithful to this spiritual truth. External simplicity serves the among you of Luke 17:21 and internal simplicity serves the within you. And both affect the other.
Fewer things just for me can become a sharing with others. Benedict realises this. Sharing with others, however, can be an affront to the modern ego. How many people, for example, will go to the charity shop for clothing rather than the clothing store? Who wants last year’s fashions, or things someone else has worn before them?
Sharing of course can go beyond possessions. What about our time, our knowledge, our resources? What about our very selves? The reality of sacrifice as a giving of ourselves lives on in a marriage, the family, in our workplaces – anywhere that there is a project, a reality, a group, and a situation that is bigger than ego and asking for our participation. Benedict knows this and trains us in a yes to it through the sharing of essentials.
A lack of excess and a sharing of what is available can encourage faith. Keeping what we might consider essentials for ourselves, especially when one is part of a family, a group, or community, can be a form of faithlessness. If we have little faith in the other or ourselves to be generous, then what does that mean for any faith we may have in the divine, in Christ, and the mysterious providence of God?
God is about the new, always encouraging us onwards into deeper relationship with others and ourselves. The experience of divine communion is in this moving deeper. Letting go of the old and receiving the new is an internal reality for anyone engaged in this spiritual and human journey into God. As we let go of fear to live in love we can safely let go of excess. Christian meditation, as a contemplative practice, empowers us in and with God as we let go and risk sharing.
* The Greek word entos can be translated as both among and within.