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Simplicity: A Multiplicity of Meanings and Practices

By Emma Condori-Mamani, Quaker Life intern

Quaker testimonies are summed up in the acronym SPICES: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality and Stewardship. Friends give living meaning to each letter of this acronym. I recently spoke with five Friends to learn more about how we live the testimony of simplicity. Abigail Pratt-Harrington, Leigh Eason, Stephen Angell, Jestimore Musombi and Lois Jordan (left, from top to bottom) shared with me insights that reflect deeply how Friends are living out this testimony that is so important for them — a testimony that affects both inner life and outer world.

Early Quakers believed in the testimony of simplicity because it was about seeking deep spirituality. Today, Friends reaffirm the notion that simplicity helps us focus on God. “As in the past, it draws us back to spirituality,” said Angell, professor of Quaker studies at the Earlham School of Religion. Young and old Friends alike yearn for time to communicate with God in stillness. For Friends it is not enough to read and hear about God, but we want to talk with and feel God all of the time.

At an individual level the role of simplicity means being awake in your spiritual life. Simplicity creates space for you to grow spiritually grounded in God, since simplicity cuts out all the distractions. Eason, a writing student at the Earlham School of Religion, said, “Simplicity moves all things out of our way so we can see God.” Friends can live out the testimony of simplicity by “consciously living a simple life, and giving time for spiritual practices such as reading the Bible or just going for a walk,” said Pratt-Harrington, a young adult Friend. Simplicity may mean setting time limits on how long you watch television or are on the computer. Simplicity clears the mind by giving space to focus on what is important in life — it opens the door for appreciating our family members and those who are around us.

Simplicity reminds us that all human beings are equal in the sight of God. In the love of God, one cannot eat two apples when his/her fellow human being does not have any. Angell pointed out that at many gatherings — yearly meeting sessions or monthly meeting potlucks or the Peace Forum at the Earlham School of Religion — “Quakers only have a simple meal of soup and bread.” Friends are challenged by the fact that when one is surrounded with many things, one must think about what one will do with them. This is why Friends should just have enough to meet their needs.

Musombi, a Kenyan Quaker pastor, stated, “Friends are not materialistic; they don’t go for material things.” Friends in African and Latin American countries carry out the testimony of simplicity in their lives as much as Friends do in developed countries. In surrendering to God daily they pray for equality, for peace and for love all over the world. In the new life in Jesus Christ they use time for the glory of God and not for vain activities. They do not miss worship services, spiritual retreats or gatherings. They avoid excess in material things, since focusing on material things affects their personal spiritual life. If God blesses them with fruits of a good harvest, giving them more than they need, they share with those in need. These Friends who are part of the third world have developed and show the same concern about simplicity in their spiritual journey as John Woolman did. For Woolman, faith was to be lived out in word and deed. In other words, as Angell shared, “What I do is what I do believe.”

In today’s world Friends testify to simplicity by being less worried, making their lives less complicated and enjoying what God gives them in life without excess. Pratt-Harrington expressed concern that in today’s world many people get lost in buying or having material possessions and going fast in many different directions, so people do not know how to be happy. If early Friends called themselves “Children of the Light,” Friends today are called to shed light for others regarding simplicity.

Friends also relate the testimony of simplicity with environmental concerns. Living one’s life simply preserves natural resources. For example, Pratt-Harrington does not drive her car very often to consume less gas, and buys second-hand clothes so fewer products can be produced. Nature is a gift of God to enjoy and we are to fully live in it. “Appreciating nature and treating well the soil and water is a starting point for practicing simplicity,” said Jordan, a retired teacher. The fact that we live in a world where millions of people are born daily reminds Friends to care for the earth today and for the future. From turning off the lights and electronic things, recycling, choosing fair trade or thrift stores for shopping, catching rain water for watering the plants, to eating locally produced foods, we can help bear witness to the world.

Simplicity also affects us at the corporate level. In a faith community simplicity brings believers closer to each other because it creates room for sharing in the process of building the family of God. “It frees you to have time for relationship with other people,” said Jordan. For Friends “the Light of Christ within” means the freedom to love and be loved. Learning and practicing simplicity abound when believers fellowship together

The testimony of simplicity is integrated in all the other Quaker testimonies as well. By practicing simplicity daily we also practice social justice, seek consistency and integrity in our words and deeds, build and live in community in the love of the Lord and value the whole creation of God.

Emma Condori-Mamani is a student at the Earlham School of Religion and is serving as an intern with Quaker Life for the 2011-12 school year. Emma is a member of Holiness Friends Yearly Meeting in Bolivia.