Becoming Simple

“I give you thanks, Father, lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding, and revealed them to infants.”
Matthew 11:25

In his notes concerning this verse of Matthew’s gospel, Daniel Harrington, SJ, writes:

infants: The nēpioi are Jesus’ disciples who hear him and perceive his significance. The term is similar to “little ones” as a way of referring to Jesus’ followers. Despite their lack of social standing and expertise in religious matters (the domain of the wise and understanding) the “infants” perceive and understand.(The Gospel of Matthew, p.167)

Harrington singles out as characteristics of the “infants” who perceive and understand the love and work of God when they see it their “lack of social standing and expertise in religious matters.” Perhaps we need to ask ourselves why it is that social standing and expertise in religious matters so often become obstacles to recognizing the truth, to understanding what is truly important in life and the revelation of God as it comes to us “in the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life.”

From the beginning of our lives, we experience a tension between our own original identity and the need to conform to the demands of our social and cultural situation. How we identify significance in a human life is largely determined by the pulsations of the culture into which we are born and by which we are formed. These pulsations are both socially and temporally determined. So, for example, at a certain time and in certain sub-cultures the priest or minister was a revered and all-powerful figure. In many of those same cultures today he or she is often seen as suspect and marginal. The path which most of us follow in life is something of a hybrid of directives from our cultures and from our own personal aspirations and inspirations. We know that the health of a society can be measured, at least in part, by the “social mobility” that it allows its members. Almost every culture and society, however, has castes or classes whose mobility is extremely limited. There are “untouchables” in almost every society, albeit more subtly lived out in some than in others.

In my generation in the United States, we were brought up with the myth that in our country one can be whatever one wants and puts one’s mind to. My parents’ hope for me was that I would be, somehow, a member of the professional class, something they were more than capable of but never had the possibility to achieve. I can remember well the deference they would afford to the doctor or lawyer or teacher. These persons had a certain significance in the culture that my parents did not. Their profession was, in large part, their social identity. When I chose to enter religious life, my parents were at first quite conflicted because this life was relatively unknown in their world and so had little or no social standing.

The ideals and pulsations of a culture are important aspects of our formation. If they, however, become the dominant considerations for us, we can find ourselves hopelessly dissociated from our unique originality and life call. To be an “infant” in the scriptural sense is, whatever our social “status,” to live our life as God has given it to us and not to lose our life by attempting to find it solely in the ways that our culture and society ratify. It is the Christ form in us that can perceive and understand the Word as it comes to us. If, by attempts to be successful by conforming to the values of our culture and society, we have lost our very selves, then it is impossible to hear and understand the truth.

The current political environment in the United States is illustrative of the confusion that is wrought by leaders who have no idea who they are. Confusion reigns when it is impossible to connect words and actions to reality. Simplicity in speech is born of wisdom; complexity is born of duplicity and ignorance. When a person is put in his or her place and, therefore, knows their place in the world, they speak and act directly and simply. “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Mt. 5:37)

This is true in our own lives as well, in gross and in subtle ways. For me, one of the more subtle manifestations of my failure to be an infant in the gospel sense is when I confuse my ideals and my thoughts about those ideals with my actual life. This is where I personally experience Jesus’ challenge to beware of becoming a scribe or pharisee. The great wisdom traditions, the great religious faith traditions are one of humanity’s most treasured gifts. These have developed over the millennia as a repository of human wisdom and a way to become distinctively human as we are called to be. The way they offer, however, is not primarily cognitive. It is, of course, important to try to understand the teachings and to make connections among them. Yet, they are primarily a way to be practiced. “”Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt. 7:21)

For many years I attended Sunday liturgy in a large urban parish. Many times as I would walk out of the church at the end of mass, I would see so many and diverse people kneeling in prayer. As it was a university church, many, of course, may well have been students or professors at the university. But there were also people from all walks of life, including those who had come in from their lives on the street. As I glanced at them, I saw them in communion with God, praying with what looked to me to be their whole heart, and soul, and mind, and strength. I realized at these moments that all my study and all my thoughts could not of themselves bring me to such a moment of prayer. What could do so was my own poverty and humility, my need and deep desire for God. There is no theological prerequisite for this, only a living in the truth of who we are.

The simplicity to which Jesus calls us is not in opposition to success and intellectual growth. It is possible for all of us, as long as we don’t forget our true place, that is, who we really are. As we struggle to become someone and to learn more, we inevitably, for a time, become more complex. Recently a friend said to me that one definition of maturity is the ability to hold in one’s consciousness the complexity of his or her own life. This is undoubtedly true. It is possible, however, to become simple as we do this. The one who knows we are complex, and who holds that complexity before God, becomes, over time, simple. Meister Eckhart speaks of our human condition as he reflects on Psalm 62:11: “One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard: ‘Power belongs to you, God, and with you Lord is unfailing love.'” Eckhart points out how God speaks one, but we hear two. We are complex. But where we live with God in truth, we are simple. Our rational-functional capacity struggles to understand, to make sense of life, while our spirit grasps the reality of the whole of reality as one.

Because we always hear at least two, all of our attempts to understand life will always be complex. Yet, beyond all that “frantic effort” God speaks one; God holds us all in being. Where we are truly one, that is where we are simple, we can know, not primarily with our minds but with our spirit, that all of us, all of life is being held (is “be-held”) by God.

It was only with great effort that I was able to take direction, for I had never become accustomed to speaking about my soul and I didn’t know how to express what was going on within it. One good old Mother understood what I was experiencing, and she said laughingly during recreation: “My child, it seems to me you don’t have very much to tell your Superiors.” “Why do you say that, Mother? “Because your soul is extremely simple, but when you will be perfect, you will be even more simple; the closer one approaches to God, the simpler one becomes.” The good Mother was right; however, the difficulty I had in revealing my soul, while coming from my simplicity, was a veritable trial; I recognize it now, for I express my thoughts with great ease without ceasing to be simple.

St. Therese of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, Chapter VII

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