On Simplicity

One of my very favorite spiritual hymns is the Shaker hymn that we now call “Simple Gifts.” The lyrics are plain, and they are plain for a reason: the song is about finding joy and pleasure in the simplicity of hard work, and in finding a relationship to God in the toil of uncomplicated life. Here are the lyrics, and a version of the song sung by Alison Krauss (whose voice is clear and rings out like an angel’s) accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend, we will not be ashamed,
To turn, turn, will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right

I’d like to take a moment to appreciate the breathtaking beauty of this version of the song. It is as perfect a rendition as I believe is possible. Firstly, in a song about simplicity, there are exactly two brilliantly balanced instruments: Krauss’ gentle voice, and an austere cello. It is the quintessence of simplicity, and the harmony of two sounds intertwine almost as if they are playing each other.

As for the lyrics, I find great comfort in them. Sometimes it feels as though my entire life is more complicated than it ought to be. Sometimes, in fact, it feels as though the entire world is more complicated than it should be. I occasionally think that the old way of doing things can be the best way, and that a simple way of living can be the most fulfilling. I am inspired by minimalist movements that seek to uncomplicate and disentangle our lives some unnecessary pursuits that often seem to get in the way of our joy: vitriolic social media, material possessions, consumerism, and unbalanced relationships are just a few examples.

They say that if you chase two rabbits, you won’t catch either. I don’t necessarily think that this means that we can’t pursue aspects of our lives but one at a time. In this context, what I think this means is that while we may have more than one pursuit at a time (e,g. careers, romance, God’s light) we must pursue each of them wholly and simply and with one mind and our best intentions. And, I think, our best results can only be had when we pursue them in the context of pursuing God’s will and understanding what His plan for us might mean.

In the book of Proverbs, it’s written that “A pretentious, showy life is an empty life; a plain and simple life is a full life . . . The lives of good people are brightly lit streets” (Proverbs 13:7,9). When I think of such a simple life, and simple pursuits, I can feel the stress which weighs down my shoulders slough off.

I can feel clear, and light, and free of expectations.


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