Treasuring Simplicity

Orthodox Christians treasure simplicity. We venerate St Anthony the Great, and the countless monastics who followed him into the desert, forsaking the distractions of a sophisticated lifestyle for a place where they had nothing to worry about except following Christ and fighting the devil.

We venerate the holy martyrs, who from the very beginning through the twenty-first century give up everything, even their lives, just for the sake of Christ.

Then we look at our own busy lives, and feel that something’s not right.

At least I do. This stuff bugs me all the time.

I’ve seen different, too. I grew up in East Africa, in the deserts of Northern Kenya where folks didn’t have quite as much. A lot of folks, in fact, were (and are to this day) honest-to-goodness nomads. They carry their houses on the backs of their camels. That’s how little they have.

How I do romanticize that life- that simplicity! Out on the open range, nothing but you and the desert and God. How wonderful it was!
Boy herding goats in North Africa
I was a kid, though. My life was wonderful because Mom and Dad loved me, not because we lived in the desert. My life was simple because my mind was simple. Because, you know, I was a child. We moved away when I was twelve.

Good thing I have family friends who lived in Northern Kenya for nearly three decades, all the way until 2011. I asked to Skype with them, to see if things really were the way I remembered.

(Spoiler: they weren’t.)

Tim and Susannah Kelty were Evangelical missionaries working with people, called the Borana, whose lives were often very rustic. The two of them lived much more simply than they do now in North Carolina. On village visits, they would bring their tent, bedding, just enough food, and not much else. The people they worked with had even less.

Where is life simpler, I asked them. Here, or there?

“Here!” says Tim. In Kenya, they didn’t have running water at home. It had to be hauled. In North Carolina, you can drink right out of the tap. That makes life a lot simpler.

I can identify. Shortly after our son was born, my wife Daphne and I lost running water in our apartment for most of five months. We served at the time in Mwanza, Tanzania as missionaries with the Orthodox Christian Mission Center. Imagine life with a newborn- using cloth diapers- and no running water. It was really complicated. Survival, in fact, took up so much of our efforts that we had little left over for ministry.

On the other hand, Tim and Susannah’s life in Northern Kenya- and our lives in Mwanza- were simpler. “America,” said Tim, “breeds discontent. There’s more to buy here. You’re bombarded by a lot more stuff.” Life is simpler when you’re not overwhelmed by the constant noise of North American life.

We who live in a wealthy environment, Susannah explained, have to learn to practice simplicity as a spiritual discipline. There are things that train us. Things like tithing, like fasting, like setting aside time to be used as a Sabbath away from the cares and demands of daily life. “There are things I could do,” she said, but as a spiritual discipline “I choose not to do them, because of a higher commitment.”

So, we try that. We Orthodox particularly like fasting.

I’ve only ever learned one thing about fasting.

Three years ago, I was invited to visit friends in a village about two days’ journey from Mwanza. It was a beautiful time, and I was provided with all I needed. But I, like my hosts, had nothing but what was needed. I had enough to eat and enough to drink. But not nearly enough to fill my belly or quench my thirst.

By the third day, I was fantasizing about food and drink. I texted a friend back in town telling him exactly what drinks to stock in the fridge for my return.

So, that was a little fast not of my own choosing. I did terribly. But every now and again, I would remember that my soul hungers and thirsts for God in the same way that my belly kept itching and my throat kept tickling. If only I could be as aware of my soul and as attentive to its needs, as I am to my body!

Now that we live in Canada, our family never has to be hungry or thirsty for a moment. Our environment gives us tremendous control. Who needs God when you have Tim Hortons?*

This control, said Tim, can cause us to be less dependent on God. Borana Christians have to trust God for sustenance. God is much more real to them because they have more opportunity to trust. Trusting Him is more in your face. Tim recalled a trip he once had to make on a road that was rumored to have land mines. How did he do it? “Totally trusting God.”

Having little else to depend on, then, Borana people are more attuned to spiritual forces. “But are you trusting in the wrong God? You could be fearing Satan and trying to appease him.” Being aware isn’t enough. “You can be clued in” to the reality of spiritual things, “and not know the Savior. Look at Islam. They’re very aware of God’s sovereignty and power, but there’s no relationship.” No relationship with Christ. “Being aware and being related are two different things.”

Tim mentioned a friend named Bwana Loni- literally “Mister Cow,” because he really loved livestock. Although poor, his trust in God seemed absolute. Many times, believing God had told him to take a long journey over a dangerous road (with no vehicle and no fare), Bwana Loni would go to the highway and pray, “Lord, I need a ride.” He’d get a ride. If God wanted him to go, God would provide. “He had incredible trust,” said Tim, “in God providing his needs.”

Overloaded bus on dirt road in North Africa

Would it be different if Bwana Loni had money? “I hope not. Poverty shouldn’t force trust in God. A rich person needs the Lord just as much as a poor person. The key thing is a relationship with the Lord. Bwana Loni can have more things and still have a relationship. Is he walking with Jesus?” Lifestyle doesn’t determine that.

I put a question to Susannah: Is it good to live simply?

“Yes. It definitely is good to live that way. Shift your security from surrounding yourself with material things to relationships. Although life is harder when you don’t have machines and other stuff, you spend less time having to maintain and protect these things.” You have more time and energy for relationships. Our lives, she maintained, are complex because we surround ourselves with layers of possessions and activities. We devote our lives to protecting and caring for these things, rather than devoting it to others.

Here’s where I’m haunted by the words of Christ. “Sell all that you have and give to the poor.” “Take nothing for the journey.” And I venerate great heroes of the faith, ascetic fathers and mothers who did shed all worldly attachments and possessions so that they could simply follow the Lord. Here’s where I start to feel guilty and uncomfortable about how luxurious (compared to others I know, compared to Christ’s plain instruction) my own life is.

I tried it, too. For years I slept on the floor, not wanting the burden of owning a bed. I spent winters in an unheated house. I lived off of rice, beans, and homegrown vegetables. I commuted to work by foot or bike. For two years in Tanzania, I handwashed all my clothes. (I was lousy at it.) Boy, good for me, right? I did all that stuff and survived.

Barely.

At one point, in late 2011, my attempts at a bare-bones lifestyle exposed me to a nasty case of malaria. I recovered all right, but with my immune system so weakened that it succumbed immediately to pneumonia. Pneumonia that sent me to the ICU and nearly killed me.

If my bravely austere little lifestyle had killed me, I would have died for no good reason. Not a martyrdom. Not risking my life to minister to others, or to bear witness to the glory of God. Not even to “live simply that others may simply live.” I would have died trying (and failing) to prove to myself that I could do it, to satisfy my silly ego. I would have died discontent.

“Godliness with contentment,” quoted Tim from the Apostle Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, “is great gain.” (Chapter six, verse six.) “Contentment and simplicity go together. To be content with what we have, to me, is great gain. Isn’t that similar to simplicity? Contentment is a gift from God, man. Contentment is a serious thing to have.”

Contentment in Christ is what could have kept me from pursuing simplicity as if it were the one thing needful. “Contentment means you’re at peace where you’re at. If you’re too into simplicity, you can be very discontent. You can always get simpler. How many shirts do you really need? Do you really need a shirt?

“One last thing! The key is how we use what we have. You can have a simple lifestyle and be a very ungodly Christian. Or you can be a wealthy Christian and be very hospitable. It’s how you use what you have. Love,” Tim concluded, quoting St Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, “seeks not its own.”

*A popular restaurant

Photos courtesy of Tim Kelty

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James Hargrave is a stay-at-home dad in Abbotsford, British Columbia.
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