Thursday, June 17, 2010

Simplicity 5

The July-August 2010 AARP Magazine arrived today. The cover touts an article: "Live Simply, Be Happy: You can be rich with less". This looks right down my alley. So I turn to page 38 and start reading the article "The Leap to Cheap": "Spending is so old school. With the economy forcing folks to live more simply, self-proclaimed cheapskate Jeff Yeager cycled across the country to meet some of America's thriftiest people. The surprise: They've invented a better way to be rich." The graphic is a goldfish leaping from a bowl with lots of stuff in it to a bowl with a single branch of rather elegant orchids.

It is soon apparent that the article is a trailer for Yeager's new book. He tells a story of people living on less and doing it better, by getting what they really want ("an Architectural Digest-gorgeous ranch-style house" paid for in cash) and skipping the rest. He relates the death of National Thrift Week (in 1966) and how that relates to our long-term national spending spree. He tells of a family who make a pretty good income ($80,000) but moved into a smaller house and stopped buying so much stuff and discovered each other. He interviews the authors of Your Money or Your Life, who make the sensible observation that less can be more. The example is the Hummer. (Note to self: reconsider the Hummer purchase.) Many of us can all spend 20% less and not feel it. A guy in Pennsylvania rents out half his condo, spends very little, and gives a lot (a lot in this context is 15%) to charity. Speculation on whether being "cheap" isn't so stigma laden now. It ends with a good sentiment: "We have enough right where we are, and we realize that is a gift most people don't ever choose to receive."

So you don't need to read the article.

The premise of it is pure American materialism: Do something so you can have more. In this case, it's spend less. But the goal is More.

Is More wrong? Well, no. If you don't have Enough, then More is good. Lots of people need More. In many parts of the world, people have objective, actual material needs: food, shelter, medical care, education, sanitation, to say nothing of a cleaner environment or a safer society.

But what if you have, on an objective level, Enough? The most radical lack cited in the article was clothing dating back to the Jimmy Carter era. Wear it till it falls apart. I'm for that (as my friends know). For a person who in fact has a decent place to live, food every day, medical care, an education, what might More be? The article hints at it: closer family life, ability to help others, satisfaction with the life we already have.

I certainly don't expect the AARP Magazine to be spiritually profound. But what it hints at is, in fact, where our More can come from if we adopt the sensible advice this article peddles. Of course, once we have Enough in objective terms, we can always move the line! I have known plenty of well-off people who thought they were borderline poor, especially at parish pledge time. But if, instead of redefining what our needs are to include our wants and fantasies, we begin to practice other disciplines than getting stuff, More can be very good. Other disciplines like paying more attention to each other. Like giving more to causes we believe in and spending time being personally involved with them. Like turning off the gadgets and being quiet. Like reading the scriptures, like praying, like regularly saying the Daily Office. Like spending time regularly in meditation. When we do these things, unexpected doors open, and a world of spiritual possibilities begins to unfold itself for us.

Like learning to love the poor. Like being poor. "Blessed are you poor" says the Lord in Luke. And if we have a hard time with actually being poor, then pare the stuff down and learn to be poor in spirit, as Matthew recommends. The poor are the ones God loves. In the Scriptures, the rich are given gifts to be used and responsibility comes with it, and they don't often come out of it with their hands clean. So being poor is not a bad thing in God's eyes, but a good one.

Is living simply just another way to get stuff, this time spiritual instead of material? Or is it a way to clear the space out in our lives and let something new and wonderful begin to grow? In other words, is living simply just another way to keep myself in the center, to get my rather elegant branch of orchids, so much more aesthetically pleasing than a junked up fish bowl, or is it a genuinely transforming choice? May it be the second.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The summer begins

OHC finished its annual meetings, which we call Chapter, on Sunday. We had the better part of a week together. It always begins with the Finance Committee, which I chair. That committee collates complete financial reports from our four monasteries and from the OHC Corporation, and considers the proposed budgets for the coming fiscal year, which for us runs from July 1 to June 30. We consider the financial statements and budgets of the monks not in residence as well. There are four of them. And there are always other matters to consider. It is a lot of work, and the work doesn't really stop till Chapter is over. I was quite tired when we rolled it up on Sunday morning. Fortunately the following few days are light. We will re-emerge into full engagement on Thursday.

My summer looks pretty lightly booked for once. The House of the Redeemer does not have Board meetings in July and August. The next big event at the monastery will be the Long Retreat here, from July 28 to August 6. That is always silent, and we all look forward to being monks together in the strict sense. I will take some vacation time in August.

I have always had projects for the summer, and this year is no different. I am hoping that the lack of other major responsibilities will let me catch up on some major reading, and even perhaps some writing. At the moment I am reading Diarmaid MacCulloch's Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. It moves along at a pretty brisk trot, but for that reason reads well. I sense that it is selling well, and may well open up the history of Christianity to a wider audience than is customary for that subject. I have acquired a number of specialist studies in the history of monasticism, in Anglo-Saxon studies, and in late antiquity and as I read them, I will share them with you. They are not to everyone's taste, but some of them may deserve a modest push.

Perhaps in reaction to the stress of getting ready for Chapter, I have over the last few weeks read more murder mysteries than usual. When I was ill for three weeks or so this spring I read (in some cases re-read) as much P.D. James as we had around the place. It is interesting to read an author in bulk, as it were, especially if one has had some training in literature. She has patterns. After the third book, I knew that she always kills off a second important victim a little more than halfway through. The guessing about the identity of the next victim was almost as much fun as guessing the murderer.

Br. David Bryan had a DVD set of the television series of James' novels which he loaned to me, and I watched them as well. Roy Marsden is wonderful as Adam Dalgleish. But at a certain point a different director or team took the project up, shortened the adaptations, and generally messed with the formula, as is probably obligatory with new teams. At any rate, in one of the newer series Dalgleish's hair, which had been quite consistent to that point, changed. It was awful. I noticed that in the next one he was back to the original wig. There is some fodder for a meditation on the pointlessness of change for the sake of change there.