Contracting Worlds

A funny thing has happened recently – my Quakerly studies and thinking about simplicity have collided with my dad’s evolving care needs and his move into residential care, and I find that I am in solidarity with my father’s contracting world!

It is a hard thing to have to move away from your home and all that is familiar into a single bedroom within a communal setting – especially when you are a private man used to your own company and that of your little dog. It is harder still to make the move when you don’t understand or accept the reasons for it because of the effects of Alzheimers.

It has been an emotional time for all the family. My father has been assessed under the Mental Capacity Act and it has been acknowledged that he needs 24 hour care and the safety and support a residential care setting can give. Dad has agreed that the residential setting concerned should be the brilliant nursing home we have found here in Nottingham – near to me, his eldest daughter, and not in Dorset where he lived before. This does not mean that he is in agreement with the decision, but he has now accepted that he is staying and his anxieties have moved on to what will happen to his house and his possessions.

I cannot tell you how weepy and pathetic the whole process has made me. I understand the system well, having worked in mental health and dementia care for many years, but there is nothing that can prepare you for how it feels to have to make life choices on behalf of your own father. Even though our family is in full agreement about the best course of action to support dad and to give him the highest possible quality of life given his needs, it doesn’t stop that wrenching gut when you know that all he wants is to sit by his patio door in his favourite swivel chair and look out over the Blackmore Vale again.

So dad’s world is contracting. His Probus and 41 Club visits have been replaced by ones with a dysfunctional daughter – taking the dog for a walk by the canal or going to a classical concert in a city he remembers fondly from the times when I was a student here. Waxed up ears no longer require trips to the GP with a carer, but can be dealt with ‘on site’ (‘at home’, I should say) by one of the nurses at the care home. If he wanted he could chat to the many articulate and friendly members of ‘the family’, but, as I said, my father is a private man.

Having to reduce your possessions to what will fit in one room is a challenge, and has really made me consider what has value in life. Dad is unable to recall much, but together we are working out a hit-list of things he does not want to do without. He is not a sentimental man, but most of what will remain actually has a high sentimental content – photographs of the family and dad’s dog, soft toys that he has become attached to, railway books and CDs of favourite music even though he no longer plays these, some furniture from his house.

Dad’s situation set me to thinking how I would handle an enforced downsize – assuming my brain still worked more-or-less normally – and I came to the conclusion that it is about making positive choices rather than negative ones. What are the things that I would really value and need? What would sustain and uplift me? It would surely involve considering what I would like to take with me rather than what to leave behind. We are back to the old chestnut of that quote from William Morris: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’

But it is more than that. When our world contracts it comes down to the relationships we have with both other people and ourselves – and, of course, God. My dad’s relationship with his daughters and his local friends has largely determined the level of care and support he has had in recent years. Familiar faces, even though names are long-gone, are welcome and reassuring. Routine, and a sense of self within it, helps to anchor him in a new place.

I have spent a lot of time recently considering what simplicity means to me, and I am perhaps moving away from it being to do with possessions (although what we own, and how much, is of course important and reflects our values in a world of huge inequality) and moving towards making space for that connection with God. Centering prayer and meditative practice provide a deep grounding that immediately feels simple – it is emerging out of this into the world that proves more difficult. For me the knack is to keep that sense of simplicity, of an integral connection to God, in everyday actions and activities.

So here our worlds join up again. A simplicity that connects us to God and drops away the importance of possessions and places. Old age and ill health may result in a contraction of our world, but in doing so it makes us focus on what is really important in our lives and maybe, just maybe, helps us to connect more intensely to God in the process.


Playing ‘musical furniture’ in dad’s new room – trying to find the most relaxing and practical arrangement – only to end up back at the original layout half an hour, and a lot of puff, later.


The intense joy of singing with others at a recent joint concert with another community choirs.

© Anne de Gruchy


Simplicity: A Personal Response

During the summer I spent time as an Eva Koch scholar at Woodbrooke – the Quaker study centre in Birmingham. I was researching the subject of Simplicity, which is a Quaker Testimony alongside Peace, Truth and Equality. This is the final article in a series of six articles that I wrote based on my research and the one-to-one interviews I conducted. These articles have previously been published in the Friend magazine.


Reflections on my time studying Simplicity as a 2016 Eva Koch Scholar at Woodbrooke

The leading to explore simplicity was there in my life long before I knew about the existence of the Eva Koch scholarships at Woodbrooke. A few years ago my uncle left me an inheritance; a generous amount that allowed me to buy myself a new house and rent out the one I had been living in. Although this sounds wonderful, I am a Quakerly type and I began to feel uncomfortable at having so much whilst others had so little. I began to think about simplicity.

Simplicity is a testimony that on the surface is easy, but which has great depths underneath. As soon as I began to talk to people and to read more widely on the subject, it plunged me into a much wider exploration into the spiritual roots of my unease. I began to understand better the links between spiritual and material simplicity, and to realize that the questions I needed to ask were not simply about whether to give away some of my material resources or change my lifestyle – I needed to spend more time listening to God. As Harvey Gillman said in A Light that is Shining, ‘life cannot be separated into categories of “sacred” and “secular”.’

After posting a couple of blog entries about simplicity, I spotted a Quaker acquaintance’s Facebook link to the Eva Koch scholarships. ‘Is this for you?’ she asked. So here I am, sitting in the sunshine in the Woodbrooke gardens, reflecting on what this period of research has meant to me.

My research has included conducting interviews with 26 people. This has been a privilege and a joy. Perhaps it is the unexpected ‘outcome’ of my work – that the connections and insights arising from the interviews had an intrinsic value for me, and also, it appeared, for the participants. Many Friends expressed gratitude for the opportunity to talk about what simplicity meant to them and felt that it helped address issues they were exploring in their lives. The openness and honesty people entrusted me with has really moved me. I hope this process of transformation will continue through into the workshops I am developing. As one Friend said, the testimony of simplicity at an individual level is about ‘having relationships that are less distorted’ and at a wider level ‘it’s about seeing society as it really is without the kind of prejudices we normally bring’.

To some extent I can list the things I hope to take away as a result of my time looking at the testimony of simplicity. These include the intention to:

• Focus on quality not quantity and to do this through a process of discernment, following the leadings that God gives me. Not being afraid to let go of other activities in my life.
• Make the time I have with people count: listening, giving attention, engagement. Relationships and community matter.
• Make more time for God! This may involve deleting the Facebook App from my phone!
• Not look too far ahead – focus on current activities and trust in God for future direction.
• Continue my commitment to regular meditation/centering prayer.
• Reduce the things that I own and simplify my financial arrangements, but letting this arise naturally from an internal spiritual discipline.

This is all good, but I am aware that once I’m back at home I am likely to let my headspace get out of control again and to overthink the way forward. It reminds me of an analogy given by one of the interview participants: the image of a snow-globe – ‘if you live a simple life those snowflakes aren’t bubbling around… It’s kind of Quakerish… the Light can shine through,’ she said.

Another tool I have been given is the possibility of moving away from words as a means of communication and knowing people. While I was at Woodbrooke I joined a ‘Dance of Connection’ course. We danced the Five Rhythms as developed by Gabrielle Roth – a form of dance that is intensely linked to our inner selves and freeing ourselves to expression and change. We got to know each other so intimately and quickly through dancing together, and it was hard to return to a world of speech and words afterwards. Somehow this felt like a simpler way of knowing people than making conversation.

Typed words also felt inadequate to express the wonderful variety and depth of the ways participants described simplicity during the interviews. Some of my favourite phrases and words included: ‘whittling to the bare bones’, ‘linear’, ‘beauty’ and being involved only with things that ‘come out of a centre of stillness, and a centre that is held in God’. I also responded to the idea that speaking truth is a manifestation of simplicity. In the end I represented these artistically, with coloured lettering and shapes flowing around the central word ‘simplicity’. It was a creative and spiritual process that felt at home with the theme of simplicity itself.

I have also been given other resources on my journey. One of these was the recommendation of the book A Simplified Life: A contemporary hermit’s experience of solitude and silence by Verena Schiller. This is a beautiful and evocative book that really spoke to me. It was written by a nun who spent decades living in silence as a hermit in a tiny hut on the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales. She clearly evokes the draw of the coastline and its islands to monks and hermits across the ages, and describes her lifestyle and the landscape around her with a deep humanity and spirituality.

Schiller says that as a result of her eremitic life ‘the artificial barrier between outer and inner begins to dissolve in an ordinary, everyday sense, bringing a deeper awareness of unity. Life simplifies.’ Yet it is not the idea of an isolated or simple lifestyle that speaks to me in this book, it is the way Verena describes the leadings that brought her to this lifestyle from her community of nuns, and also the way she is later led to change her anchorage to one nearer to a village as she moves into older age. There is a process going on for her that takes years to come to fruition. She is aware of God’s calling to a different way of life but she waits on this for the time to be right. She does not fret or hurry.

I suspect that having done this scholarship will be life changing, but, like Verena Schiller, I need to ‘sit with’ the leadings I have and let them mature until the way forward is clear. ‘Clarity’ is a word several Friends used when describing simplicity, and seeking it is necessary if any changes I feel led to make are to be successful and sustainable. I’m having to hold back the part of me that wants to jump into the unknown – I feel at one with Henry Thoreau in Walden when he says: ‘I do not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight and the mountains.’

This article first appeared in ‘the Friend’ on 11/11/2016

© Anne de Gruchy


Quakers and Radical Simplicity

During the summer I spent time as an Eva Koch scholar at Woodbrooke – the Quaker study centre in Birmingham. I was researching the subject of Simplicity, which is a Quaker Testimony alongside Peace, Truth and Equality. This is the fifth in a series of six articles that I wrote based on my research and the one-to-one interviews I conducted. These articles have previously been published in the Friend magazine.


Has the Quaker approach to simplicity has become lukewarm?

Simplicity is not an easy testimony. For a start the roots and meaning of the word are unclear. Early friends urged plainness of dress and speech, printing and distributing testimonies ‘against excess in these things’, and in The Priests Fruits Made Manifest George Fox asked of the wealthy clergy ‘are these marks of a Christians life?’ But what does it mean to live out the testimony of simplicity as we understand it today?

Frances Irene Taber, in the 2009 Pendle Hill Pamphlet Finding the Taproot of Simplicity, talks about how the first generation of Friends did not have a testimony for simplicity, instead focusing on stripping away ‘superfluities’ that got in the way of what they experienced as true. ‘It is this radical process of stripping for clear-seeing which we now term simplicity’ she says. In the 1850s, when Friends in Yearly Meeting debated plain dress and speech, people began to speak about being simple in inward ways as well as outward.

Amongst the Friends I interviewed the testimony meant a range of different things, from ‘taking away the surplus’ to seeing the world as it really is, avoiding distorted relationships, and challenging injustice. Some struggled with the testimony, one Friend saying this was because it’s a personal challenge and less easy to see how to change ‘without being very radical’. For one Friend it meant taking what’s happening in their spiritual life and putting it at the centre. These processes chime with ‘stripping for clear-seeing’, but do we act boldly or are Quakers, as one Friend suggested, ‘not radical enough’?

What do we change for simplicity?

I asked participants what changes they had made in response to the testimony of simplicity. Half said their lifestyle hadn’t changed. These people recognized Quaker values as important but said they fitted or chimed with their existing situation before they encountered Quakerism. One Friend said the testimony ‘just seems to be so in keeping with my beliefs’, another that ‘this is what I’ve been doing anyway, all my life.’ A Friend who previously lived in a religious community felt his life was already simpler than Quakers. Only one participant said they had changed their life significantly, describing it as a ‘Quakerly challenge.’

So how were Friends applying simplicity today? Some wanted to dispel the stereotype of a rural life of self-sufficiency or isolation such as lived by Henry Thoreau, famously outlined in his book Walden. The answers given weighed towards the practical, the most popular being: buying less, shopping ethically, using charity shops, travelling on public transport, not owning a car, avoiding flying, and mindful spiritual practice.

Some Friends felt guilt that they should be doing more. For Jonathan Dale, guilt has a positive part to play: ‘If we do not see, or feel, any need to change our conduct, from where will the motivation come to change it?’ he asks in his 1996 Swarthmore Lecture Beyond the Spirit of the Age. He goes on to say that we need not fear guilt, but instead ‘receive it as a messenger of Truth’.

Dale appears to exemplify the testimony in action. He moved with his family from an affluent suburb to the inner-city estate in Salford where he worked, saying ‘…we need to share something of what poverty and marginalization mean if our faith is to be real’. In Quaker Social Testimony in our Personal and Corporate Life (Pendle Hill) Dale explains that the decision to move took ten years due to fear of theft, violence and vandalism. Ultimately, though, he feels the experience was ‘an opening and a liberation’.

Social activism is not for everyone

Of the 26 people I interviewed, seven expressed a dislike of, or disinterest in, activism and politics. ‘There are other ways of getting your voice heard,’ one Friend said, pointing out that ‘lifestyle is the biggest witness you can do.’

Many Friends combined action with a spiritual focus. When asked about the spiritual implications of simplicity, about two fifths of participants spoke of contemplative practices such as meditation, reflection, yoga and non-attachment. There was also an appreciation of the Quaker form of worship and silence.

From the 1930s to the1960s American Quakers seemed particularly concerned about the rise of consumerism and some issued a strong call to a simple life. Pendle Hill output included pamphlets from Mildred Binns Young who wrote about her choice of a life of ‘functional poverty’ and Richard B Gregg’s 1936 essay The Value of Voluntary Simplicity. Gregg acknowledged that ‘voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition’ and described a conversation with Gandhi who advised him against giving up his books ‘in a mood of self-sacrifice’, saying: ‘Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you’. This echoes George Fox’s advice to William Penn concerning his sword: ‘wear it as long as thou canst.’

These accounts remind us that even radical external simplicity originates with something inward – a process of discernment and attentiveness to the leading of God/the divine. One Friend said that ‘the root of everything is the spiritual side’ and another that ‘I don’t really separate spirituality from living.’ ‘Spiritual discipline is important’ another Friend reminded us.

Activist, radical, Quaker?

The role of political action/activism causes discord. ‘It’s the only area that some people… in Quakers feel they’ve got the excuse to wag the finger’ one Friend told me; another felt there’s a Quaker problem of ‘activists criticizing navel-gazers’ and ‘spiritual people criticizing activists’. Personal choices are political one participant pointed out, saying a simple life is about economics – who has and who has not – and using resources wisely.

The younger adults took a more radical stance, seeing the need for a cultural shift and for radicalization to be ‘normalised’. One was interested in ‘anarchist’ and ‘bottom-up’ peace-building and activism. He had lived in several forms of community and felt it was liberating not to own things. He acknowledged, however, the security net of his middle class family but felt security can also be found through relationship networks. In his experience, Quaker meetings did not support radical simplicity and he felt that comfortable middle-class Quakers have lost their radical edge. Another said that to ‘not choose work’ is also radical. A third felt a ‘religious moral imperative’ to ‘live in solidarity’ with the people Jesus called ‘the least of these’: ‘I have everything to lose… from challenging that system, and of course everything to gain from being in greater solidarity with the entire rest of the world.’

Are we practicing ‘safe simplicity’?

It is a luxury to be able to choose ‘voluntary simplicity’ and many are forced to live complex lives juggling insecure work and responsibilities for dependents. One Friend spoke of ‘safe simplicity’ versus living precariously, saying that rough sleepers, prisoners and people struggling with alcoholism are all practicing simple living, and that ‘there is a dangerous smugness in Quakers.’ She spoke of her working class background, and how Quakers sometimes treat poor and working class people as ‘them’. Forced poverty – an ‘evil’ which ‘should be renounced’ according to Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline – was mentioned by several Friends.

The problems we face are systemic and require imagination and spiritual bravery if we are to address them. ‘Simplicity,’ says Parker J Palmer in his introduction to Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity by Catherine Whitmire, ‘can impel people to plunge into the world’s most intractable problems.’ As Advices and Queries 27 encourages, perhaps we need to ‘live adventurously’ and let our lives speak.

This article first appeared in ‘the Friend’ on 04/11/2016

© Anne de Gruchy


Simplicity: The Twelve Steps

During the summer I spent time as an Eva Koch scholar at Woodbrooke – the Quaker study centre in Birmingham. I was researching the subject of Simplicity, which is a Quaker Testimony alongside Peace, Truth and Equality. This is the fourth in a series of six articles that I wrote based on my research and the one-to-one interviews I conducted. These articles have previously been published in the Friend magazine.


Exploring what we can learn about God and Simplicity from people’s experience of the Twelve Steps.

When I started the series of interviews that I conducted for my Eva Koch scholarship I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect to find such a deep well of spiritual simplicity within the realms of addiction.

One of my very first interviews was with someone who described himself as an alcoholic in recovery, and it was incredibly powerful. His responses to my questions were so strong and clear. ‘But it’s simple…’ he said, time and again, of his relationship with God, spirituality, and material things. This Friend was involved with the Twelve Step programme through Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and it had changed his life. I knew immediately that this was something that I wanted to write about.

Until recently I was unaware of the strong ‘religious’ or spiritual basis of the Twelve Step programme. The stages are outlined in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, written by a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as in the AA ‘Big Book’. The initial steps include: Admitting powerlessness and that our lives have become unmanageable, recognition of a ‘Power greater than ourselves’, and relinquishing lives ‘to the care of God as we understood him’. In Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, Richard Rohr suggests that we are all addicts and puts forward the argument that ‘the Gospel message of Jesus and the Twelve Step message of Bill Wilson are the same message’, comparing each step to aspects of Christian spiritual growth.

So what lessons do the Twelve Steps have for us in practising simplicity?

During my interviews I spoke to four recovering alcoholics, two family members who attended Al-Anon, and two co-dependent Friends who had also done the Twelve Steps. One Friend said that the programme was ‘the place that I found the greatest mental and spiritual simplicity… not within Quakers’ because ‘people come to Twelve Step from a place of brokenness’. He spoke of how simplicity is necessary to address pain, which he felt was often treated as a commodity. A co-dependent Friend talked of recognizing pain and then having to ‘let go and let God’, a simple but also complicated practice she achieved through meditation, in nature, and at Quaker Meeting for Worship.

The Twelve Steps are fully engaged with spiritual simplicity and transformation. Step Eleven seeks ‘through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him’; many Friends described these spiritual practices as part of simplicity. Quaker educators have picked up on these links and one Friend had attended a Quaker Spirituality and the Twelve Steps course at Woodbrooke. She found this very helpful, especially the approach of ‘just for today… I’m going to do…’ as an aid to keeping things simple.

Further to this, Quaker practice has a lot in common with the Twelve ‘Traditions’ by which AA functions; set up to answer the question ‘How can AA best stay whole and so survive?’ (The Big Book). The Traditions state that authority lies with ‘a loving God’ expressed in the group conscience rather than with the society’s leaders. This, together with encountering the ‘God of our understanding’, has an affinity with Quaker theology which doesn’t seek to pin down the nature or language of God, emphasizing God as personally experienced and also acknowledging the group experience of God in a ‘gathered’ Meeting for Worship.

The affinity of experience drew two Friends who had done the Twelve Steps to Quakers. One said: ‘in that complicated world that I came from, being able to have a God or Higher Power of your own choice… was really simplifying to a level that I could get to grips with’. For another the ‘keep it simple’ slogan used in AA also chimed with Quaker practice, although he got frustrated by our tendency to talk and felt Quakers could learn from the Twelve Steps by putting love first, not thinking.

Material and structural simplicity

Alcoholics Anonymous also addresses material and structural simplicity. Tradition Six states that AA groups should never endorse or finance other enterprises ‘lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.’ Tradition Seven says that AA groups should be fully self-supporting and decline outside contributions. AA also decided to have ‘the least possible organization’ with public relations ‘based upon attraction rather than promotion’.

A willingness to forgo prestige or profit to maintain integrity echoes Quaker testimony and experience, especially regarding business and simplicity. ‘Experience has often warned us that nothing can so surely destroy our spiritual heritage as futile disputes over property, money, and authority’ says the Big Book. Surely this has a message for Friends, who often find that running and financing a meeting house, or employing staff, or making funding choices, can cause conflict or distraction from spiritual values.

The dangers of double addiction

There are inherent dangers in a process that has such a transformative impact on people’s lives. ‘Even the much needed Twelve Step Programs have become their own kind of addiction and avoidance of the painful mystery of things,’ says Richard Rohr in his book Simplicity. This echoes the experience of a Friend who attended the Twelve Steps but felt that people had become addicted to AA instead of alcohol and that thus ‘in some way or another it (alcohol) never left their lives.’

Another Friend felt the Twelve Steps could be dogmatic, ‘like evangelical churches’. The ‘all or nothing thinking’ of dry drunks is a problem says Rohr in Breathing Under Water, citing psychological research that showed many twelve steppers were childish, emotionally selfish and grandiose. Rohr likens this to Christians and clergy who ‘never went to the inner room where Jesus invited us’.

Finding the atmosphere at AA difficult, one Friend’s solution came through the book Rational Recovery by Jack Trimpey. She was a Quaker prior to trying and rejecting the Twelve Steps, which she said ‘didn’t speak to my condition’. The book worked because she felt the author ‘came from the same place’ and its message was ‘so simple’.

Transformation, bottom up

Is it somehow easier for people who have hit rock bottom to access God? Rohr seems to think so, saying you will not learn to draw on, or even know the existence of, a larger source ‘until your own sources and resources fail you’.

Friends’ experience of the Twelve Steps illustrates the power of letting go of our own attempts to control our lives and handing this to God, and of a simple spirituality. ‘The most precious thing I’ve been given is choice,’ said one Friend of the effect the Twelve Steps had on his life. But we also need to keep our connection to listening and responding to the God we have found. ‘Many twelve steppers settle for mere sobriety instead of a real transformation of the self,’ says Rohr.

Bill W, who developed the Twelve Steps after a friend passed on his own experience of gaining God’s help to overcome alcoholism, clearly experienced transformation. His wish to share the ‘good news’ is born out of this transformation, and returns us to Rohr’s comparison with the Gospel message. But I feel it’s appropriate to finish by returning to that original interview: ‘Belief is a real powerful thing,’ our Friend said, ‘because it works’.

This article first appeared in ‘the Friend’ on 28/10/2016

© Anne de Gruchy


Simple Living: Location and Lifestyle

During the summer I spent time as an Eva Koch scholar at Woodbrooke – the Quaker study centre in Birmingham. I was researching the subject of Simplicity, which is a Quaker Testimony alongside Peace, Truth and Equality. This is the third in a series of six articles that I wrote based on my research and the one-to-one interviews I conducted. These articles have previously been published in the Friend magazine.


Exploring the influence of culture and lifestyle.

What is a ‘simple life’ and how and where can we lead one? An unexpectedly rich seam from the simplicity interviews I conducted came from asking how people’s cultural background and upbringing affected their approach to simplicity.

In the BBC Radio 4 series Great Lives, Ann Limb suggested that the seeds of the testimony of simplicity were sown in George Fox’s experience and enjoyment of the simple lifestyle of a shepherd. Jonathan Fryer said that Fox ‘loved being out on the moors with the sheep because it gave him days of solitude and reflection’. How do people’s lifestyles relate to simplicity today?

Travelling changes people

Firstly, I found that people who travelled came back changed. One Friend spent three years travelling following a redundancy. He described seeing other people live very simply, through poverty or circumstance, and that they often appeared happy and socially connected with others. It made him feel the truth of ‘less is more’, and when he returned he rented out his house, bought a boat to live on, and disposed of many of his possessions. The remote places he visited affected him: ‘When I left I would say I believed in God but I was always a bit sceptical, but through travelling, through being on my own… it made me feel very different about spirituality.’ His new appreciation of reflective time drew him to Quakers.

Experiencing other cultures

In his 1941 essay The Blessed Community, Thomas R Kelly talks about finding fellowship when experiencing ‘overwhelming seas of love of God’, and that ‘in the fellowship cultural and educational and national and racial differences are leveled.’ In one sense this is true, but we live in a world with huge inequality that has become increasingly visible. Participants who had lived and worked in other places often found that facing these inequalities changed them profoundly.

One person had worked with street children in Kolkata for Tear Fund. ‘When I turn on a tap, even now, I’m thankful it’s clear water that comes out of it not brown water,’ she told me. She feels more gratitude for what she has and now buys fairtrade goods. Another, who worked with VSO in Pakistan and the Punjab, said ‘it changed me fundamentally… I came back and I stripped so much back of my life because I’d seen such extreme poverty’.

‘Very few people can live a true simple life in western industrial societies’ say Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbanska in Inspiring People to See That Less is More (State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures from Consumerism to Sustainability), insisting that the simplicity movement needs to ‘move to a greater advocacy of public policy change’ and praising projects that protect existing sustainable lifestyles from the impact of consumerism.

A Friend who had lived in China and Japan said that living in other cultures ‘forms you as a person’. Another who had worked in Sri Lanka felt they benefitted from being time rich while we are time poor. We also have lessons to learn about sustainability. In Holiness in the Everyday, David Cadman says other cultures, including Aboriginal and Native American, have a ‘treasury of stories and myths’ that show how to live in harmony with the land, requiring qualities like co-operation, generosity, patience and sufficiency.

Quakers in some countries were less engaged with the testimony of simplicity. One Friend lived in Sweden and acknowledged that Scandinavian culture is naturally quite simple, but said that Swedish Quakers don’t talk about these things much. Another lived in Italy where the convinced Friends at his meeting are new to Quaker traditions and in a learning process about lifestyles and testimonies.

Living in community

Several Friends had experience of living in community as a way of leading simple, sustainable lives. These included Findhorn, L’Arche, WWOOF and Quaker communities. Relationships proved the most challenging element for one Friend who cited Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, saying that when living in community your worst enemy will be living with you. Another said living in a religious order, despite a simple physical lifestyle, was the opposite of simplicity intellectually.

Young adult Friends were notably more interested in community living. One lived in Nepal as a child and was affected by seeing extreme poverty. He remembered having simple toys like all the other children but ‘coming back (to the UK) and being bombarded… with everybody wanting more.’ He later lived in a L’Arche community and learnt ‘…the wellbeing of a community is dependent on its embracing of diversity… the person who’s most different from you, like this gentlemen who’s totally non-verbal, he was the one who I needed to be with because he could change me in a way that somebody who had a degree from Oxford couldn’t. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that we’re not somehow malnourished because we’re just all basically middle-class, white, highly educated people’.

Where we live: city versus country

Amidst nature was where many Friends felt closest to God/spirit, whether a city garden or the countryside, but a dichotomy emerged as to whether simplicity was easier in a rural setting or the town. One Friend said that simplicity is nurture and going back to the land as people, another that it is being more in tune with nature – the way people used to live. The past had a strongly evocative hold for people, who shared experiences of relatives who had simpler, more inventive, lifestyles when living through the war years. One Friend regretted the loss of the creative smallholder culture on the island where she lived – changes in land ownership and economics meant she could not afford land or that lifestyle.

‘When you live in a city you are much more likely to get swept into excess and living a more complicated life,’ said one Friend who previously lived on a boat. Several felt the limited choices offered by rural living reduced the temptation to buy, encouraging local barter systems and co-operation and freeing up time. Community was also important. Thoreau’s choice to live in a hut in the woods raised debate, one seeing it as a ‘selfish choice’, another as highlighting the possibilities for others.

Public transport and not needing a car was the main reason participants felt city living was simpler, along with access to cultural events and work. It is human nature for people to move towards cities for work/wealth said one Friend.

Being where we are

Rufus Jones, in Quakerism and the Simple Life published in 1906, says the simple life he advocates is as ‘good for city as for country, and possible for the millionaire or the city sweeper’. Ultimately simplicity is personal to individuals: ‘Not everybody is going to want a smallholding in the depths of Derbyshire’ said one Friend.

However, if we think that we can change our lives by moving to a place with a simpler culture we are mistaken, says Thomas R Kelly in The Simplification of Life. He tried living the ‘quiet life of the South Seas’ but: ‘I found that Americans carry into the tropics their same mad-cap, feverish life which we know on the mainland. Complexity of program cannot be blamed upon complexity of our environment… Nor will simplification of life follow simplification of environment.’

Wherever we live, Advices and Queries 41 reminds us that ‘a simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength’; something to be reached, says Rufus Jones, ‘not by a bound, but by steady obedience to the well known principles of the moral and spiritual life’.

This article first appeared in ‘the Friend’ on 14/10/2016

© Anne de Gruchy


Simplicity, Time and Technology

During the summer I spent time as an Eva Koch scholar at Woodbrooke – the Quaker study centre in Birmingham. I was researching the subject of Simplicity, which is a Quaker Testimony alongside Peace, Truth and Equality. Testimonies are like codes of conduct – a kind-of blue-print of the values and insights – and resulting actions – that we aim to live our lives by. This is the second in a series of six articles that I wrote based on my research and the one-to-one interviews I conducted. These articles have previously been published in the Friend magazine.


Exploring the impact of technology and the importance of making room for God in our lives.

What are the barriers to leading a simple life? I asked the participants in my research this question and was surprised to find that social media and technology took a distinct back seat. Far and away the biggest concern was trying to practice simplicity with a husband, wife or partner whose values did not sit comfortably alongside the respondent’s own. Second came the pressures of society – the ‘norms’ we are expected to follow and having to go ‘against the flow’.

Where does technology sit in our thinking about simplicity?

For most people I spoke to, technology provides a tool that we need to use appropriately. The internet and computers were seen as having many benefits: keeping in touch with family, learning a language, buying groceries online, finding information, satellite navigation, emails as a form of record and communication and an aid to memory problems. ‘It’s simplistic to say that Facebook is bad,’ one Friend said, ‘human existence is about relationships and a lot of these things are about relationships’. One older Friend, though, found the assumption that everyone has access to the internet was ‘a real burden’, and limited her options.

Technological advances such as washing machines were also generally accepted as making life simpler and saving time. Simplicity is ‘not doing without a fridge/living in a mud hut in the middle of nowhere’ said one Friend. Technological progress is a positive thing, another felt, ‘we are meant to be inventing, meant to be curious’.

The importance of time and focus

One Friend I spoke to had returned to washing things by hand; this felt simpler, she said, even though it took longer. Perhaps this was because she gave time and attention to the task. In Holiness in the Everyday, David Cadman suggests that to change our way of being we need discipline and to accept a slower pace. The greater challenge of simplicity is not to do with possessions but ‘the right use of the gift of time’ said one person in Twelve Quakers and Simplicity.

Making time is important. For one Friend simplicity involved reducing the number of contacts and complications in her life. ‘Having time to be’ is part of simplicity said another, enabling spontaneity and making room for God and other people. By simplifying her life this Friend found that she interacts with her neighbours more, and is open to listening and hearing what other people say and want.

Friends acknowledged the tendency of technology to ‘suck energy’, and limited its use by, for instance, keeping computers away from the lounge, deleting the Facebook app on their phone, and using a weekly podcast to catch up on news. In his book A Sustainable Life, Douglas Gwyn says: ‘We read about different religions and learn new spiritual techniques, for example, through books, the internet, and other outward resources. But ultimately, these resources only scatter our attention, intention, and energies, leaving us exhausted and lost.’

We need to employ such technologies as help us towards our goal ‘without distracting’ says Martin Cobin in Workers in God’s Mine: Maintaining Simplicity in a Society Preoccupied with Technology. Cobin returns us to the territory of discernment, of identifying those ‘few concerns’ that God asks us to be faithful to as outlined by Thomas Kelly in A Testament of Devotion.

Avoiding technological ‘utopia’

A Friend who attended Quaker Quest told me they had discussed whether George Fox would have had an iPhone; their answer was ‘yes’ – he might have used it as a tool but not own the latest model. Most people I spoke to had older versions of technology, resisting the pressure to upgrade. One Friend had chosen not to buy a smart phone at all because mining the minerals needed to make them was fuelling war in Congo.

Some Friends spoke about the cultural and peer pressure their children and grandchildren were under to have the latest technology; however young adult Friends had generally chosen to limit the technology they used, although this isolated them amongst their friends. One was challenged because she felt that most technology is environmentally unsound yet ‘the level of social exclusion you’d experience as a young adult not being on any kind of technology is daunting to say the least.’ She spoke of the conflict between the ‘ecological soundness of it and being part of the (political) conversation’ and sometimes had ‘screen-fasting’ days.

In his essay Technology and Simplicity in The Hidden Door, Mark Burch talks about our ‘enchantment’ with technological progress and how many people are ‘technological utopians’. My interview participants appeared to resist this trend and concur with Burch’s view that we need to bring mindfulness to our use of technology. Burch goes further, saying society needs to explore how technology’s role might change in order to serve simple living.

We should also ask: Does technology increase our joy? Joy is one product of experiencing the ‘Eternal Now’ according to Thomas Kelly in A Testament of Devotion. Writing in the early 1940s, Kelly said the era was one of ‘this-sidedness, with a passionate anxiety about economics and political organization’ and that this was causing people to ‘neglect the Eternal Life springing up within our “ordinary experience of time”.’ Is technology taking a similar role today? As one Friend told me: ‘my mobile phone doesn’t make me happy… It does complicate my life, to be on Facebook… and to have all sorts of ways of people contacting me at my fingertips’.

Media and a sick society

Friends were uncomfortable with the media. It ‘confuses people’ said one Friend, because it can ‘get the weightings wrong between the traditional wisdom and the need to make it controversial.’ Another disliked the pressure of advertising and said that you ‘could very easily get swept away by the forces of the media… that you need things… and that to be happy your life should be more complicated almost’. In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster says: ‘The mass media have convinced us that to be out of step with fashion is to be out of step with reality. It is time to awaken to the fact that conformity to a sick society is to be sick.’

But fashions do impact on us and lead to changes in the ways we learn and practice spiritually. Douglas Gwyn writes about how Rex Ambler based his Experiment with Light meditations on a mix of George Fox’s advice and methods used by psychologist Eugene Gendlin. ‘Living in an era dominated by technology and technique, many today find a series of steps more helpful than the traditional Quaker palette of evocative images and metaphors’ says Gwyn.

Framing the problem of distraction

A Friend in his late twenties felt sad that young people appeared to feel there is something better going on elsewhere, constantly looking at their phone rather than experiencing the moment, the here and now. ‘I’m so fortunate I grew up just (before) that time… all this social media stuff became so in your face, it’s now like kids are hard-wired to it from a young age.’ He said that it is when he feels unable to ‘express himself to the full’ in ‘more powerful ways’ that he uses Facebook most, becoming addicted to it even though it doesn’t nourish him.

Thomas Kelly says that ‘the outer distractions of our interests reflect an inner lack of integration of our own lives.’ It is hard to believe that attentiveness, slowness, silence, and compassion will improve our wellbeing, says David Cadman, but we have to learn to ‘let go and dwell in the Divine with an open heart.’

This article first appeared in ‘the Friend’ on 07/10/2016

© Anne de Gruchy


Complex Simplicity

During the summer I spent time as an Eva Koch scholar at Woodbrooke – the Quaker study centre in Birmingham. I was researching the subject of Simplicity, which is a Quaker Testimony alongside Peace, Truth and Equality. Testimonies are like codes of conduct – a kind-of blue-print of the values and insights – and resulting actions – that we aim to live our lives by. Over the next six weeks I will share with you a series of articles that I wrote based on my research and the one-to-one interviews I conducted. These articles have previously been published in the Friend magazine.


Looking at the complexity that goes hand-in-hand with 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 Eva Koch scholarship at Woodbrooke.

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.’

Complicated simplicity

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 lead 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.

Interconnected testimony

Simplicity cannot be separated from other testimonies, and Friends noted links with sustainability – often seen as a fifth 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 his 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 it’s 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.’

This article first appeared in ‘the Friend’ on 30/09/2016

© Anne de Gruchy