Anne de Gruchy looks at complexity, simplicity and the interplay between the Quaker testimonies
Why is simplicity so complicated and how do we define it? This question arose repeatedly during my 2016 Eva Koch scholarship at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre.
For my research I was privileged to conduct one-to-one interviews with twenty-six people – mainly Friends, aged from their twenties to seventies, from a variety of backgrounds. ‘What comes to mind when I say the word “simplicity”?’ I asked. Friends were often more sure about what it was not: complicated, ritualised, cluttered, getting hung up on material things, a weakness, conflict or extravagance.
In Testimony: Quakerism and Theological Ethics, Rachel Muers talks about ‘negative testimony’ – ‘testimony against’ that developed in resistance to patterns and structures of life. Thus, early Quakers were advised against wearing wigs (which showed pride) or the swearing of oaths (which implied ‘a double standard of truth’ Advices & queries 37).
Today, Friends felt the testimony involved: ‘leading a simple moral life’, silent contemplation, thinking ‘more carefully’ about what is important and commitment to only these things, practical lifestyle changes such as decluttering and owning only what we need, a simple belief in God and spirituality, political action, and ‘being aware of what we’re doing to the planet and not overconsuming things so that there’s more for others’.
The difficulty of interpreting and acting out simplicity was a common theme. One example given was that when we decide to buy ‘ethically’ we need to research how things are made and transported; another that we should find businesses that share wealth with their employees. Having so many choices makes you feel ‘stuck’ said one Friend, and too much money overcomplicates things. What is sufficient, and does motivation matter? George Fox himself defended William Penn for wearing a wig because he lost his hair through smallpox and needed warmth.
The Oxford Dictionary’s definition of simplicity is: ‘the quality or condition of being easy to understand or do’; or of ‘being plain or uncomplicated in form or design’. The theme of ‘clarity’ was important to Friends. For one, simplicity involved ‘the distilling of knowledge… taking a lot of information and making it into something kind of manageable’. Elaine Prevallet, speaking of both simplicity and God in her Pendle Hill pamphlet Reflections on Simplicity, says ‘one sees it more clearly when not looking directly at it’.
The 1803 Extracts from Advices of the Yearly Meeting asked early Quakers to ‘keep to that plainness and simplicity in apparel, speech and behaviour, into which the Spirit of truth led our forefathers’ amidst concerns they would be led from ‘the simplicity and plainness that becomes the gospel’. Early Quakers like John Woolman found their values led to complexity. ‘If anything, Woolman’s simple living and single-eyed knowing makes his world more complex’, Rachel Muers says, because ‘he cannot allow his immediate wishes or partisan interests to… limit his field of vision and responsibility’.
One Friend pointed out that businesses Quakers used to be involved in, such as banking, are no longer simple because of multinationalism and globalisation. ‘Our sophistication and complexity are self-destructing,’ noted Richard Rohr in Simplicity: The Freedom of Letting Go. Another Friend said: ‘Do not mistake the simple solution as necessarily the right one, because life is complex.’ One mother, overwhelmed with clutter, a busy lifestyle and a child with multiple needs, found creative solutions in time out at Meeting and sitting quietly with her children as they slept.
Connecting the inward with the outward
Tuning in to God helps outward decisions become simpler. In Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity, Catherine Whitmire says that her life began to simplify as she ‘learned to listen within and to focus my time and energies on what I discerned to be God’s will instead of my own’. As a result, ‘changes that had seemed difficult and complicated were suddenly clear’.
‘Simplicity is something that you find out of complexity… there is no easy shortcut,’ one Friend told me. ‘What, in a way, we’re doing in meditation/contemplation/Meeting for Worship is trying to clear out all those kind of addictions… distortions… we have in relation to life.’
Silence was also important to Friends in helping ‘turn down the noise’. For one, the ‘simplistic, silent, expectant’ environment at Meeting for Worship helped him to ‘tune in’.
A corporate challenge
Translating spiritual leadings into action also affects communities. In Simplicity, Richard Rohr describes a discussion with a friend about why so many communities fold, suggesting that ‘they had a hard time integrating spirituality and commitment to social justice issues’.
The title of Pam Lunn’s 2011 Swarthmore Lecture, Costing not less than everything, appears in T S Eliot’s Little Gidding, drawing on the fourth step of humility in the Benedictine Rule. She challenges us to respond to our ‘planetary emergency’, saying: ‘The crucial and underlying question for us as Quakers is: are we content to be merely a support group for people on their individual spiritual journeys, or are we able to rediscover solidarity as people of God?’
Quakers should be ‘keeping the balance between a radical questioning and a weighty group that has respect and depth’, one Friend told me, emphasising the importance of our history and traditions.
Simplicity cannot be separated from other testimonies, and Friends noted links with sustainability – often seen as a fifth Quaker testimony. Many participants prioritised concerns connected to this, including transport, production methods and energy-generation waste. In Testimony, Rachel Muers concludes that, although sustainability has the hallmarks of testimony because it’s ‘collectively owned’ and a ‘settled result’ of Quaker discernment and decision-making, it actually links with simplicity, and that environmental concerns do not present a new set of practical imperatives.
One Friend said that the separation of the testimonies feels ‘false’, but they serve the purpose of expressing to others what matters to us as Quakers, defining corporate concerns. Jonathan Dale, in a talk on ‘Economic Justice and the Sustainable Global Community’ at Friends House in London, noted the paradox that although ‘each great issue, whether inequality or sustainability or true democracy, seemed unrealistically Utopian on its own, now, taken together… they reinforce each other’.
Ultimately, it is the relationship to truth that highlights what simplicity asks of us – a connection mentioned by several Friends. ‘Speaking truth is a manifestation of simplicity,’ one said, ‘if you find a truth you then have to live by it.’ And another: ‘We’re maybe not looking at the simple life right – we’re distorting it.’ She thought hard and added: ‘It’s more about what’s inside of us and coming out, rather than what’s outside of us and coming in.’
You need to login to read subscriber-only content and/or comment on articles.