And What Does Simple Living Mean To You?
by Emma Mitchell, Cap Corps DC 2022-23
This time last year, I was applying to year of service programs. Every week a
different interview or interest call or short essay due-date was on my schedule. A lot of the same talking points came up in every one. Why do you want to do a year of service? What is the role of faith in your life? What are your strengths and weaknesses?
I can’t remember which of those interviews it was that this question was asked, but I remember sitting on the carpet of my college apartment, holding the phone to my ear and hearing the voice on the other end say brightly, “Okay.. next question… Emma, what does simple living mean to you?"
I gave myself a second to compose my answer– my interviewer had assured me at the beginning of the call that over-the-phone interviews often have awkward pauses– and after a moment, I replied, “Simple living is prioritizing what you already have, before going out and seeking something else or new or exciting to fill your cup. It’s like… giving value and respect to the people and gifts that are already right there… in front of you.”
I remember being a bit surprised at my own answer– I don’t think I had ever put this definition into words before, but it felt right. As the phone interview, and the long application and selection process after that, continued, I kept this answer in my heart as something I was grateful to have learned during that Spring season of uncertainty.
Now, in Lent, so many months later, I’ve been thinking once again about simple living. While I struggle with wrapping my mind around Lenten sacrifice, I understand that part of the spirit of Lent is to give up things that are not “bad” or “immoral” in and of themselves (chocolate is not inherently bad! nor music!) but nevertheless may, in your life, distract you from relationship and conversation with God. Lent encourages us to simplify, embracing the uncomfortability or ennui of giving up something you enjoy, and rediscovering the presence of the Divine which has always existed as an undercurrent in our lives, and now may become more visible.
As I try this Lent to simplify and recenter my life around that which is most important, I’ve realized that the moments in this year that best capture my idea of simple living haven’t been those of giving up an afternoon coffee, or deciding to not buy anything at the thrift store, but quiet moments where I was invited to lean into the awkwardness of the present and the beauty that can be found within.
At our beginning of the year orientation, at the Alverno retreat center, our house friar, Brother Mike, led us in prayer. The words he used to begin were new to me then, but now familiar to me as he begins many prayers the same way. “Let us begin with a moment of silence to listen to God.” Sitting on a couch with my fellow volunteers who still felt like strangers, I breathed in the smell of ash in the fireplace that lingered from the night before, and the musk of the log-cabin walls which had hosted so many people– Capuchins, aspirants, volunteers– before us. And I realized that I was not alone with strangers, but in the presence of God, accompanying each one of us as we began this new chapter. While the scripted prayers of the rosary or litanies are easy to surrender to, especially when our minds and hearts are tired, perhaps even more simple to is recognize when there is no need to speak, for God speaks every moment of everyday in our hearts and in His Creation, in the mysteries of every unfolding moment.
In Fall, the brothers at Capuchin College kindly allowed my housemates and I to
start going over to their chapel on Thursday nights for an hour of Eucharistic Adoration. While I was grateful for this regular prayer time, these Thursday Night Adorations were difficult for me. I complained to my housemates that I was used to Adoration with praise and worship music, and the silent Adoration we were doing caused my mind to wander and the hour to drag. Though as the weeks went on, I grew accustomed to the quiet peacefulness, my mind wandering less and less. Months later, we were joined in our Holy Hour by a visiting priest who kindly offered to play some praise and worship songs
for us, and while he was an excellent musician, I was shocked to now find the music distracting to my prayer. The simplicity of kneeling in front of the Eucharist, listening to only the soft clanging of the pipes in the old Cap College walls and the cars driving by outside, was grounding and centering to me, in a way that it hadn’t been before.
As the months got colder, I started catching a ride to the metro with my housemate Tessie in the mornings. Listening to music in her car and chatting about what we looked forward to or dreaded at our respective worksites brightened my mornings. Then, after our winter retreat at the end of January, we decided to slightly alter our routine. Now, we chat as we pack our breakfasts and lunches in the kitchen, and then, when we get into the car, we pause our conversation and take the five minute car ride to sit in silence, no music or radio, and pay attention to how God is turning our hearts to meet the day. After the whirlwind of getting up and rushing out the door to try to not make Tessie late (although I often fail), the experience of sitting still and not speaking or listening to anything, even for just five minutes, is a stark contrast to the rest of my morning. I get to pay attention to anxieties, hopes, fears, gratefulness about my day that had been resting quietly in my heart underneath the chaos of the everyday. After our short meditation, Tessie and I commit to intentions for the day, to keep us mindful of the extraordinary which may be hidden in the ordinary we experience that day.
A few weeks ago, some of my housemates and I watched a documentary on Mother Teresa, recommended to us by one of the Capuchin postulants in Philadelphia. I was struck by the description of Mother Teresa that, when encountering someone, she would see them as if there were no one else before her but them. She saw the face of Christ in every person she encountered and served, and let nothing distract her or draw her away from that person in front of her. I have been trying to take this worldview into my own life, trying to imagine Christ before me when I see the people at my placement site, both clients and my fellow staff members, and my friends, my family, even the strangers I pass every day in the city. While I am far from the incredible mindset of Mother Teresa, I am grateful for this new example, and perhaps aspiration, of simplicity in encounter and human relationship, that I have learned from her.
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking you are not living simply enough. Certainly this year, while our stipend is not large, I still feel far from the people I encounter at the social service center where I work, who depend on us for their meals and clothes, for hand warmers to get through the winter and cups of water to get through the summer. My own privilege, security, and comfort is so apparent to me every day, that sometimes when calling friends from home and talking about how my year is going, I find myself saying, “Well… we’re not really living that simply.” I hear similar sentiments from other volunteers, or even from the Capuchin friars sometimes; a guilt that we could be, should be, doing so much more than we are. But one important lesson from this year that I have realized this Lent, is that while commitment to material poverty and self-sacrifice can certainly bring one closer to God, it is no replacement for a mindset of simple living.
It is in gratitude and humility that I have tried this Lent to rid myself of distractions and invitations away from the uncomfortableness of the real, and instead turn my eyes, my ears, and my heart to what is already right in front of me– the Eucharist, sitting peacefully before me every Thursday evening– conversations with my housemates, waiting patiently to be invited into the air as we laugh and cry and grow together–the faces I see at work, people wanting someone to see them, and respect them by not looking away. While I still am confident in the definition of simple living that I came up with a year ago, I never could have imagined how exactly those ideas would manifest in my year of service. I pray for the Grace to finish this Lenten season, and this year of service as a whole, continuing to meet what is put in front of me with joy, honesty, and always always gratitude, and I give thanks for all that I have learned and experienced these months that have passed since last year’s Lent.