On Simplicity

Flashback photos from our January trip to Egypt. My husband photographing me by the Red Sea. Photo by Ben Robinson.

I’ve been savoring Richard Rohr‘s Simplicity, lingering over the pages for nearly two years (you’ll notice my nightstand rarely changes).

Sometimes I’m embarrassed by my lack of speed when it comes to free reading, but Rohr’s is a book that has been so meaningful to me that I’ve read it repeatedly and with frequency, often returning to chapters after months away, yet feeling as though they’ve gained new meaning with the passing of time.

I had never even heard of Rohr before I came to China.  

I picked the book up at a closing sale in Colorado, a couple days before we left the country.  And in this new one, I rediscovered the contemplative life and the radicalness of Jesus’ life.

Greeting minority Christians in Yunnan, Nov. 2011. Photo by Leslie Santee.

Rohr writes passionately on the importance of women’s leadership in the Church today, on the great wisdom to be found in great humility, and on the simplicity of letting go.  A couple days ago I sat with an intelligent Chinese friend of mine, a woman with great gifts for ministry and leadership in the Church.  She mentioned a fascination with Catholic spiritual formation, and I immediately brought up Rohr’s name.

And then it occurred to me that after two years of reveling in this wisdom, it was nigh time to pass it on.  I’d leave this little paperback with my friend, hoping it would encourage her to share her gifts, hoping that as Rohr believes and has led me to do so as well, that out of contemplation comes action.

Inside a mosque in Cairo. Photo by Ben Robinson.

And so I’ve been tearing through these last few chapters with newfound vigor and appreciation for Rohr’s teachings.  Rohr writes,

I think this is the clear meaning of the story in chapter 25 of Matthew: the people were suddenly to discover Christ in the least of their brothers and sisters, and not just in other charismatics, not just with other evangelicals.  Otherwise, all you have is collective self-love.  Then the group is, so to speak, just an extension of my own ego.  This is evident in the need to use the same Christian jargon as I do, so that we can be together.  But this isn’t the freedom of the children of God.  Such people will never unite or reconcile anything, because their life at the bottom keeps getting smaller and smaller.  Real Christians are able to discover and love Christ in the not-me, the totally other–but this always means taking a step beyond previous boundaries…

I chose the story of the rich young man to demonstrate the change we seek has to be very concrete, very immediate, and very practical.  Otherwise it’s an intellectual thing.  Jesus asks the rich young man to move from here to there–and he meant economically.  For most of us this means turning to people who are different from us.  This the only thing that can liberate us from our egocentric attitude.  Maybe this means that as younger men and women we go to the elderly, or maybe as healthy persons we go to the physically and mentally handicapped, or if we’re homophobic we work in an AIDS hospital…

I believe that circumstances change us, not sermons.  We’ve changed when we’ve moved to a new place and when we expose ourselves to the truth of a different standpoint, one that’s not our own.  What else is metanoia, or conversion, supposed to mean in the New Testament?  It means to go to a different place; and this practical step will see to it that our growth as Christians is something real, something earthbound.  Otherwise there is always the danger that our so-called love of Christ will be just a disguised love of self.

–Richard Rohr, Simplicity, p. 154-155

With parents in Yunnan province. Photo by Leslie Santee.

Although I’ve been a Christian for decades, this transformation of living in a different place, seeing the world through different eyes, and being faced with a new reality, has taught me more about God than many of those years combined.  And as Rohr suggests, it’s the freedom of letting go of what I thought I knew, and seeing Christ in the least of these, and in those who were formerly strangers, that has made all the difference.

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