What Does Christ Mean by 'Simplicity'?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Dr. Robert Stackpole is working on a book project and will return to column writing in the coming months. In the meantime, we're reposting the following column that first ran in August 2009.

One of the faithful readers and correspondents of this column is a man named Thomas, from Houston, Texas. Several months ago he sent me yet another excellent question, and I apologize to him for taking so long to get an answer to him. The question was this:


There are many meditations [in the Diary of St. Faustina] about St. Faustina needing to learn "simplicity." What does Jesus mean by the use of this term? For example, St. Faustina writes in entry 335: "Once, when I saw Jesus in the form of a small child, I asked, 'Jesus, why do you now take on the form of a small child when You commune with me? In spite of this, I still see in You the infinite God, my Lord and Creator.' Jesus replied that until I learn simplicity and humility, He would commune with me as a child."

Well, Tom, I suppose the first clue to what He meant is the fact that He connected "simplicity" with being "childlike." The world of a happy and healthy child is pretty straightforward: full of trust (in God and his/her parents) and wonder (at all the beauty and mysteries of creation). A child like this is rarely torn by competing allegiances, or tormented by anxiety and stress. The child's world is simple: obey those whom it is your duty and joy to obey, for you can trust them, and in that context, be free to explore this wondrous and magical world we live in!

Grown-ups tend to be much more complicated people. We have conflicting priorities. We agonize over what to do. We are anxious about the future. We try to serve God and "mammon" at the same time and put our trust in both at once (see Mt 7:24). We let ourselves be pulled apart in many directions.

But gospel simplicity is the gift of an undivided heart. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard used a similar phrase for this, "purity of heart," when he wrote: "Purity of heart is to will one thing." To will whatever God wills, and that's all. Not to try to serve two masters, or three or four. To have just one King on the throne of your heart.

The opposite of singleness of heart is what the Bible calls "idolatry." Have you ever wondered why God put all those warnings in the Bible about worshipping false idols? We tend to think that those passages do not apply to many of us today - after all, who among us in the modern, scientific-centered western world is really going to bow down and worship a golden calf as if such religious statues actually had divinities residing in them!

The Catechism of the Catholic Churchtells us, however, that idolatry is a much more subtle, and widespread problem than that:

Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. It remains a constant temptation to faith. Idolatry consists in divinizing [i.e., treating as one's highest allegiance and top priority] what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc. ... Idolatry rejects the unique lordship of God; it is therefore incompatible with communion with God (2113).

The result of having a false center to our lives is that such a false god tends to multiply: Since no idol can bring us fulfillment or peace of heart, we tend to run after more and more of them, and end up worshipping many gods, with an endless civil war in our hearts between them as to which one gets to reign in our hearts as king at any given time (e.g., what will I care about most this year? Money? Pleasure? Power? Drink? Drugs? Work? Play? Sex? Keeping fit? Keeping up the garden? Or just keeping my nose in everyone else's business?). Whatever we care about most from day to day is what we really worship, and as that changes from day to day, week to week, month by month, even hour by hour, it tears our lives apart. The Catechism reminds us:

Human life finds its unity in the adoration of the one God. The commandment to worship the Lord alone integrates man and saves him from an endless disintegration (2114).

Moreover, simplicity of heart is not "simple-mindedness." Very unintelligent people can lack all simplicity, all singleness of heart, and let several things vie for top priority in their lives every day: making a buck, getting a girl, being well thought of - in addition, perhaps, to going to church on Sunday! But as C.S. Lewis once wrote:

Christ says: "Give me All. I don't want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half measures are any good. I don't want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don't want to dull the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked - the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours" ...

The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self - all your wishes and precautions - to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call "ourselves," to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be "good." We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way - centered on money or pleasure or ambition - and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is precisely what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. ...

It's hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder - in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely just being an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad (Mere Christianity, Book Four, chapter eight).

By the same token, a very intelligent and highly educated person can possess, at the same time, by God's grace, a simplicity of heart. Saint Thomas Aquinas, the patron saint of university students, is a good case in point. He was so simple and unassuming in manner and in speech that his fellow theology students called him "The Dumb Ox." When his sister asked him one time what she needed to do to become a saint (no doubt expecting a lengthy and learned reply), he simply gave her a two-word answer: "Will it." When he was dying of fever in a Cistercian abbey on the way to the Ecumenical Council of Lyons in 1274, after he made his final confession, his confessor came out of the room in tears, saying that Thomas's confession had been like that of a child of five.

Let us remember that this is the same Thomas Aquinas whose Summa Theologiae spans dozens of volumes, and is considered the most in-depth and comprehensive presentation of the Catholic Faith ever written.

So, whether you are prince or pauper, highly educated or high school drop-out, what matters is that we learn to "will one thing": to simplify our lives down to what Jesus would have us to do and to be, and nothing more - because nothing else is needed! Saint Alphonsus Liguori put it like this in his treatise on Conformity to God's Will:

The true lovers of Jesus Christ love only that which is pleasing to Jesus Christ, and for the sole reason that it does please Him; and they love it when it pleases Jesus Christ, where it pleases Him, and how it pleases Him. ... This is the real drift of what is meant by the pure love of Jesus Christ; hence we must labor to overcome the cravings of our self-love, which seeks to be employed in those works which are glorious, or that are according to our own inclinations.

Finally, allow me to recommend a book in which gospel simplicity of heart is beautifully on display: The Way of Divine Love by Sr. Josefa Menendez. Josefa was a visionary and a contemporary of St. Faustina, born in Spain but living her life as a religious in the Society of the Sacred Heart in France. The whole book is one long exhortation and example of singleness of heart (by the way, it bears the Church's nihil obstat, or official approval that it does not contradict Church teachings, and a letter of commendation from Cardinal Pacelli, who later became Pope Pius XII). Jesus said to her:

Leave yourself in My hands, Josefa. I will use you as seems best to Me. What of your littleness and weakness ... no matter. ... All I ask of you is to love and console Me. I want you to know how dearly My Heart loves you, how great are the riches it contains, and you must be like soft wax that I may mould you to My liking.

Josefa's response to Christ's outreach to her was simple and single-hearted:

Would that the whole world knew the secret of happiness. There is but one thing to do: love and abandon oneself. Jesus Himself will take charge of all the rest.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at questions@thedivinemercy.org.


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