There is a simplicity that many of us Catholics have lost, including yours truly. I would like to share and discuss it with you my brothers and sisters. As I read through so many posts and threads on the SSPX dialogue with the Holy See and the forthcoming Apostolic Constitution on the reunification of the Traditional Anglican Communion with the Catholic Church, I notice that we tend to get stuck on details. I’m not saying that details are not important. On the contrary, if I were sewing a new habit for me, details are important. It’s the details that makes my habit look Franciscan and not Augustinian, for example.
Yet, when I read the writings of the Fathers, especially Augustine; the mystics, especially Francis, Teresa and Catherine; the doctors, especially Thomas, Bonaventure and Francis de Sales and many other holy men and women who have preceded us, as well as those who are alive among us, we can see in their lives a simplicity in how they carry themselves daily.
Augustine wrote hundreds of books and sermons. But his life was very simple. It was very much unlike his writings. He had one concern, to rest in God, to posses that which he loved and love that which he possessed. That was the sum of his life. All of his writing were for the purpose of explaining God’s presence in human history and man’s journey to God.
Aquinas was the most simple of men. History tells us that the poor man was so huge that they had to carve a semi-circle at his place in the refectory so that he could sit at the table. Why? Because he was obese. He loved food. He had a wonderful sense of humor. He loved his friends. He and Bonaventure spent most of their lives together at the University of Parish, teaching and writing. They were often at odds on many things, especially on the writings of Augustine. While Bonaventure saw Augustine’s great love and wrote from that point of view, Aquinas saw Augustine’s great logic and began from there. Yet, these two men who are giants in the Church’s theological life spent more time arguing and driving each other crazy than they did writing. They were great friends. They loved each other very much. When Bonaventure set out to write the biography of St. Francis Aquinas visited him at the Franciscan friary. Finding Bonaventure rapt in a state of ecstasy in deep dialogue with Francis of Assisi, who was already dead and canonized, Aquinas said to the friar who opened the door, “Leave the saint to write about his saint.” On his death bed he asked his Dominican brothers to burn his writings referring to them as “straw.” Aquinas realized that it was not the finer points of theology that had allowed him to reach the end of his journey and prepare him to enter into glory, but it was love. Thus he is able to recognize love when he sees Bonaventure in rapture.
Teresa herself travels through Spain founding reformed Carmelite houses. She spent hours writing her theology books, as did Catherine and later Therese of Liseux. But these women summarized their lives in one simple idea, to do all things with great love. When Teresa of Avila was found praying for Judas Iscariot she was criticized for it. She calmly turned around and said, “I too have betrayed him.” She understood that all of us are traitors and none of us is worthy of God’s mercy, yet God is merciful because he wants to be, not because we have earned it. Her whole life is about finding God’s mercy in quiet and in poverty. Catherine spent her life preparing for her wedding, which she called the Spiritual Nuptuals. Therese entire life was about preparing to reach heaven so that she could shower the world with her roses.
I’m left to wonder if we spend too much time on the details of daily Christian living, worrying about them, trying to fix everything, trying to make everyone tow the “orthodox” line. I’m wondering if we read what the Church teaches almost looking for flaws in the writing, while missing the central message of what the Church tries to tell us about God and man.
In this day and age, we seem to have an over abundant of self-made theologians. But do we have an equally large number of simple men and women like these heroes of the faith? These men and women did not take what they wrote and said as seriously as they took the challenges and consolations of everyday life. I for one have great admiration for poor Aquinas and his love for sweats, Teresa’s love of music, Francis de Sales great joy among children, Therese’s love of theater, Francis of Assisi’s great love for his brothers and Bonaventure’s great love for his kitchen.
How many people know that Bonaventure gave up being a Cardinal, because it interfered with his duties as the dishwasher in the friary? These are the great signs of simplicity. Imagine being a doctor of theology, the superior general of the largest religious order in the world, a cardinal of the Roman Church and worrying about the fact that you the superior of your house has assigned you to wash dishes after meals, thus giving up the cardinalship, the post as superior general, and your post as professor and writer of theology at the university, because the dishes are waiting for you.
But I am moved by the simplicity of these great men and women and how grounded they were in the blessings of every day life. It was through these simple things that they proved their great love for God and neighbor. This simplicity was their path to the perfection of charity, not their great writings or thoughts. Feel free to comment.
Br. JR, OSF