This time of year often leads me to reflect on simplicity - in finding the beauty in the the small and ordinary. The flash of summer is gone, which sometimes makes me sad, but it is also a time to settle into cups of tea and warm blankets and good books as the days get cooler and shorter. However, what really draws me to thoughts of simplicity are the feast days, the days in my church where we remember and honor holy people who have gone before us. I wrote of this before as the "community of many loves", the eternal community of both the "saints" we have known in our lives and those we know by history.
On October 1, we remember Thérèse Martin, a young girl growing up in France who traveled to see the pope in hopes of getting permission to enter a convent at age 15, a wish that was eventually granted her. She suffered a number of severe physical, emotional and spiritual ailments before she died of tuberculosis at age 24. One would not expect such a short and uneventful life to have a great impact on the world and yet "the little way" of St.Thérèse of Lisieux, sometimes referred to as "the little flower", did just that. The simplicity of her total commitment to love is deeply moving, especially when one considers how much she suffered in her short life. She wrote:
"Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love."
Then, today, on October 4, we remember Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone (His father called him "Francesco" and we know him as St. Francis of Assisi), who is also revered by Catholics and non-Catholics alike around the world. His story includes being born into wealth and casting it all aside to live a life of poverty and devotion to God. He is remembered for embracing lepers, people he had previously shunned as did most people in his era. He gathered a small group of brothers who lived simply, joyfully and single-heartedly for God. He wrote:
"...we must be simple, humble and pure. We should never desire to be over others. Instead, we ought to be servants who are submissive to every human being for God's sake. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on all who live in this way and persevere in it to the end. He will permanently dwell in them. They will be the Father's children..."
Yet, with all of this deep reflection on simplicity, I find my own life feeling anything but simple. (One bit of evidence supporting this feeling is that it is now October 8th, four days after I started writing this little essay.) In the intervening time, there has been more to do than I could fit into the hours available. There were many patients to see, documentation to complete. There was conversation with a dear friend who lost her mother unexpectedly and with another whose elderly mother is a great challenge. There was an oil change that turned into a $500+ expense. Dishes to be washed, garbage to be taken out, plants to be watered. As I listen to my litany of activities, I realize that I do not regret any of these events, nor do I regret that I still have many more things waiting to be done. My list of things to do is not what keeps me from feeling, as the holy ones did, a joyful simplicity in life.
No, it is not the list. It is me. It is me rolling all of these things over in my mind, as though what things I had to do in the past and those I need to do in the future were terrible burdens. They are not burdens. They are the living of my life. I go back to the words of little Thérèse, where she talks of scattering flowers, the flowers being each little thing done out of love. It doesn't matter if there are five little things to do - or twenty-five, if each is done with love. The simplicity lies in the fact that every moment has the possibility of becoming love, with every activity (hard or easy, big or small, unwanted or wanted) being one more expression of that core of Love I am invited to carry within me. Like Thérèse, I can be scattering flowers ... even as I type this...
Another thought came in my reflections on simplicity, especially as I remembered my friend, Francesco from Assisi. He was known to have a great love of animals, to the point that he could communicate with them as the members of his family that they were. My life is often full of computer screens and microwaves and books and automobiles. But since I have taken up the camera, I find myself noticing the little creatures who share my urban terrain. I love trying to catch them with my camera so that I can invite them further into my life view. And I have noticed that, the longer I've been doing this, the more connected I feel to them in their lovely simplicity. I open a door or raise a window shade and catch myself exclaiming: "Hi there, little friend!" to the squirrel looking at me from halfway up the tree. His little life is in sync with the Creator, as he eats and gathers and scampers without complaint. I watch and I start to recognize how I too was made to live in harmony with the One who made me and provides my every breath ...
Of all of the animals, I must admit that there is a special place in my heart for sparrows. There is a rather long-ish story behind that but I shall share the shortened version. When I was in college, a creative instructor of mine wanted to demonstrate an awareness technique to a group of us. She posed the question, "If you could be any animal, what animal would you be?" I knew immediately that I wanted to be a butterfly. As we were invited to play out our roles, I delighted in "flying" from one person to another (my "flowers") and (secretly) delighted in my colorful wings. At that time, of course, I did not know that a major emotional upheaval was around the corner for me. (This is where the story could get really long, but won't.) As I was talking over my anguish with an older friend, the story of my butterfly image came up. My friend said something very wise to me, though I didn't like it at the time. He told me that butterflies were too fragile. I needed to be something else. What else could I be but a butterfly?! Because I knew I liked to "fly", I considered birds and thought maybe I could be a dove. My friend rejected that and I knew he was right. I could not just pick out a symbol of peace to find my own inner peace. I needed to find me. After sleeping (fitfully) on it for a night or two, I knew. I was a sparrow. I would be a tiny bird chirping and flying through life. (And a sparrow does not fall to the ground without the Father knowing it - see Mathew 10:29 - a great consolation to me at the time.) I told my friend and he beamed his approval. Sparrows, he told me, had great endurance, staying through the winter while the other birds went south. That confirmed it. I had to surrender my glorious butterfly-color to become a common brown bird, a bird that would endure through the cold winters of my life and the lives of those I encountered. And yet my little bird self could still soar through the heavens...
My spirit-brother Francesco, like many beloved people of old, has had many stories told of him. Because he lived so long ago, it is impossible to sort the "truth" from some of the legends. But legends often contain much truth and so I will share one. Francesco and his companions were walking near the town of Bevagna when he saw a large number of birds off in one direction. He left his brothers for a short while, telling them that he needed to preach a sermon to the birds. Rather than flying off, as birds typically do when humans approach, these birds remained in place, as though waiting for him. This is the sermon we are told he preached:
"My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in every place give praise to Him; for He has given you freedom to wing through the sky and He has clothed you... you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests. And although you neither know how to spin or weave, God dresses you and your children, for the Creator loves you greatly and He blesses you abundantly. Therefore... always seek to praise God."
And so, let us go forth, scattering flowers, loving all of creation, with simple hearts full of gratitude.
(Just for a little smile, click on the arrow to view my short You Tube video, captured without skill through a window, since the birds won't sit still for me. Don't expect anything funny or spectacular, just a simple moment in time.)