Simplicity I – Holy Week

Lent is a call to simplicity. We are called in this season to simplify our lives. In the Gospels, Matthew and Luke, the first beatitude is: “Blessed are the poor (in spirit)”.

On Maundy Thursday, the altar is stripped of all its vestments and vessels to remind us of Jesus’ suffering and humiliation at the hands of the soldiers upon his arrest. This ‘stripping away’ was a negative –

Indeed, don’t we look upon “poverty” as something bad? In our remembrance of Jesus’ passion haven’t we come to look with suspicion on anything in our lives of faith that smacks of this kind of ‘stripping away’ in our lives?

Because poverty means we are in a state of doing without something we feel we need. We may even equate a poverty of spirit with self-rejection, self-abasement, self-denial.

Therefore we have quite naturally focused our efforts on righting the wrong. We pursue social justice and serving the needs of the poor.

Yet, for me, something remains unattended, inadequate, in our doing more.

In this Lenten call to simplicity, am I not also called to ‘strip away’ all that which distracts me from being truly present? Will I truly pay attention to whatever circumstance of life in which I find myself – rich or poor? Am I not also called, alongside others – rich and poor – to return to an awareness and appreciation of what is essential?

I have appreciated the opportunity during past Lenten seasons to simplify and try to shed peels off the proverbial onion of my life – peels that represent inordinate desires, stuff and lifestyle choices that are really not that important, especially for my physical, spiritual, mental health. It’s good from time to time simply to pay attention to what I normally do without thinking – my routines and regular decisions in life, my automatic emotional responses to certain situations, the stuff I purchase without thinking.

Can the way of poverty, then, also be a positive force? Especially, too, as we hear the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, declare that what he wants is a “poor church serving the needs of the poor.” Surely he doesn’t mean a poverty that is self-denigrating, self-rejecting – but rather a kind of poverty that strips away all that is really unnecessary and frankly only reflects our ego compulsions, our desires, our obsessive behavior.

And perhaps there isn’t a better time to reflect on the question of spiritual poverty than when things aren’t going all that well in life? When taking a step back and assessing where our lives are going is warranted. Maybe you find yourself in a particular bind, or facing a challenging situation with someone, a difficulty that has presented itself now. Before going on the attack and blaming others — even God — what may God be calling you to “let go of”?

Every time a sports team begins to lose games, over and over again, I hear the same thing from coaches when they’re interviewed and asked why their team is losing; often they say – “we have to get back to basics, doing the small things right.” Simplify.

And, it’s also about getting back to basics in our prayer with God. I can’t think of a better way to acknowledge among very diverse Christians our bond of unity, than to affirm the role of prayer in our common practice of faith.

And not that we must pray the same way. But simply in our communion with God who connects with us in our hearts: as we listen, as we wait, as we praise, as we lift our hands and hearts, as we use words even as words aren’t always necessary, as we reach out in prayerful action in the name of Christ. Prayer – getting back to basics. Doing small but meaningful things from the heart. Modern day contemplatives say that the best way to prepare yourself for prayer is by small acts of kindness.

Which doesn’t necessarily always have to be expressed in great deeds of social action. The action can be a small, unselfish act by a young child. Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like a little child you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Macrina Wiederkehr in the book, “A Tree Full of Angels” beautifully illustrates this truth and our need for simplicity, simple prayer, simple action; in short, child-likeness; She wrote:

“One special moment of beauty that stands out in my mind I experienced in a bus station …. I witnessed a little girl helping her brother get a drink at the water fountain. Attempting to lift him to the proper height turned out to be impossible. I was just at the point of giving them some assistance when quick as lightening she darted over to a shoe-shine man, pointed to a footstool he wasn’t using, dragged it to the water fountain, and very gently lifted up her thirsty brother. It all happened so fast and it was so simple, yet it turned out to be a moment of beauty that became a prayer for me. So much to be learned from such a little moment. Perhaps what touched me most [she concluded] was her readiness to seek out a way to take care of the need without waiting to be rescued. It was a moment of beauty: a small child with a single, simple heart.”

Lent culminates in this Holy Week as we hear the stories again of Jesus’ arrest, suffering, torture and brutal death on the cross. The reality of death is one we naturally want to deny, to put off thinking about – because its unpleasantness and mystery can unnerve us. No wonder not even many Christians care to worship on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday – and wait then to rejoin the worshipping assembly on the joyous exuberance of Easter morning.

And yet, it is through the unpopular way of simplicity and this most simple reality of our mortal dependence on God that we can now know and experience the glory, love and eternal victory of God in Jesus. Without Good Friday there can be no Easter. May our Holy Week observance be a blessing for us in the simplicity of our prayer and being. May the difficult yet simple journey to the Cross and through the Cross open the way for us to eternal life, and make us aware of what is truly important. May the example of Jesus give us the courage to let go when we need to. And receive the forgiveness freely given.

For our health. For our well-being. For the sake of Jesus. And those in need.

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