Choosing Simplicity – Br. Keith Nelson

Matthew 6:24-34

The life to which Jesus calls us is essentially simple. In what does that simple life consist? The simple life – the life of the kingdom – consists in the abundant awareness that everything we receive is a gift that we did not earn or purchase; in the recognition that life itself is the first of all gifts; in the trust that our basic needs will be met; in the generosity that allows us to be the means by which God meets the needs of others; and in the capacity to surrender our inevitable craving for what we do not need.

Worrying is one behavior that leads to increased complexity of life, the labyrinthine complexity of misdirected anxiety. But this particular admonition not to worry is made more specific by a very clear statement: You cannot serve God and wealth. The incapacity to surrender our craving for what we do not need results in service to the wrong Master. And the tiny links in the chain with which that Master binds his unsuspecting devotees are worries. Restless hope of acquisition on the one hand, and undue fear for the security of what we have acquired on the other, results in a zig-zag of interior energy moving in the wrong direction: away from God.

As men who live under vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience, we have committed ourselves to “striving first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” in a radical way. On an external level, this particular version of the Christian vocation entails much letting go and doing without: of spouse, children, a household of our own, and a significant measure of individual autonomy, to name only the most significant sacrifices. But as we know very well, these things comprise only the outermost concentric circle in a life of progressive dispossession for the sake of the kingdom. We discover whole hordes of interior possessions, guarded tooth and nail by dragons who feed on our thoughts. In short, we are tempted to worry all over again – perhaps even to justify our worry spiritually.

This is not a new struggle. In the late fourth century, the monastic theologian John Cassian soberly observed that it is impossible to stop the basic momentum of our thoughts, including the energy of what we would today call anxiety. He writes:

[The] activity of the heart may be compared to millstones, which the swift rush of the waters turns with a violent revolving motion. As long as the waters’ force keeps them spinning they are utterly incapable of stopping their work, but it is in the power of the one who supervises to decide whether to grind wheat or barley or to grind empty husk.

In the same way, the mind cannot be free from agitating thoughts during the trials of the present life, since it is spinning around in the torrents of the trials that overwhelm it from all sides. But whether these will be either refused or admitted into itself will be the result of its own zeal and diligence.

Cassian, like Jesus, points toward an essential facet of our vocation as Christians: working toward becoming agents rather than victims of our interior life. As “loving, disciplined, and free” men, Jesus calls us to grow in the daily and hourly choice to grind the wheat of trust rather than the empty husk of worry.  We are human beings, not goldfinches or irises. We will experience anxiety. But our anxiety need not define us in the least. We are defined by the liberating service of God.

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  1. Randy LaRosa on June 15, 2021 at 11:08

    Thanks to Covid ,My life is much more simple and brings me closer in touch God .

  2. Elizabeth Hardy on June 15, 2021 at 10:46

    ‘the tiny links in the chain with which the Master binds his unsuspecting devotees are worries’ Brilliant. Exactly what I was letting him do to me this morning – over a tech issue if you can believe it. I know that is not the abundant life my true Master wishes to gift to me. Thank you so much for re-orienting me this day Br Keith. Elizabeth Hardy+

  3. John McCausland on June 15, 2021 at 09:38

    Once again holy words of deep wisdom. A gift indeed.

  4. James Doran on June 15, 2021 at 08:18

    “Interior Dragons” is an image, and a spiritual and psychological concept, that will stick with me, and I hope, help me choose what grist to mill (another helpful analogy).

    Interior Dragons would also be an awesome name for a punk-rock band.

    • Marilyn Bergen on June 15, 2021 at 10:57

      I second the name of “Interior Dragons”for a punk rock band.
      It is a helpful image for one to consider as well for those spiritual and psychological forces within us.
      Thanks to Keith and James!

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