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.
SIMPLICITY: A PERSONAL RESPONSE
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