Simplicity is one of the Quaker testimonies, one of the things we aspire to. When I was invited to write on the topic of Simplicity, I reflected on what I understood by that term, and found it difficult to come up with a definition, at least a positive one. I could think of plenty of negative ways to define simplicity – what it is not or what it avoids. It seems to me that simplicity involves an avoidance of ostentation, affectation, extravagance and clutter. But how can we think of it in positive terms? I think it’s the Occam’s razor thing – a seeking after, an awareness of, a contentment with, the essence, with the essential.
In Quaker terms, simplicity finds expression in a whole range of ways, first of all in our theology. Quaker theology can be summed up in just two statements: every person can have direct experience of God, without need of any intermediary (though we baulk at specifying just what we mean by ‘God’), and that there is that of God in every person. And that’s it really.
In terms of our worship - we sit together in silence. You can’t get much simpler than that. We have a simple organisational structure, without ministers or hierarchy. Administrative responsibilities are taken on by individuals for limited periods and then handed over to others … simple. Traditionally, we have simplicity in our architecture, furniture and mode of dress – though I want to come back to the dress thing later. If you haven’t seen the Quaker meeting house in North Adelaide, it’s worth a visit and certainly exemplifies the notion of simplicity.
Quakers have also traditionally espoused simplicity in speech – aspiring to plainness and directness: ‘Let your nay be nay…’ which reflects the commitment to speaking the truth as we see it - unvarnished at times, with all the challenges that can bring.
Most of these things are fairly clear and established. What is more problematic is a commitment to living simply; a simplicity of lifestyle. For me that means a mindfulness of, and a carefulness about, what we use of the earth’s resources, and how we use them. And I’ll come back to that later as well.
At times in our history Quakers have got rather carried away with the seeking after simplicity. At earlier times, art, music, colour, celebration, fun, were all seen as unnecessary, and indeed harmful, clutter which distracted from the serious purposes of life. I think they got it wrong. I think they mistook austerity for simplicity and I don’t think they’re the same thing at all. I don’t think simplicity needs to be stern or drab. I think it can be joyous, vibrant and colourful. Today’s Quakers don’t see art and music and such as incompatible with simplicity (and we have artists, musicians, actors among our members). Fortunately, we now see those activities as ways of reaching a deeper and richer spirituality which can bring experiences of profound simplicity.
I’d like to return now to the idea of living simply. Quakerism has a way of asking challenging questions, but of seldom providing pre-packaged answers. And if ever it seems to be doing that, I think we should be wary. We must be careful not to accept old answers to perennial questions.
If I want the answer to the question ‘How do I live simply?’ I need to ask how do I, Kerry O’Regan, a 60-year old Quaker woman, working fulltime, and with a myriad of interests, living in Adelaide, Australia, at the beginning of the 21st century, live simply? Whatever the answer is, I am sure it is not wearing plain grey clothes and a funny hat that I refuse to take off and calling everyone thee and thou instead of you. That would be ostentation and affectation.
This was an answer for the very first Quakers, but even in their own lifetime, it ceased to be The Answer. Margaret Fox, a very important Quaker indeed, in her late 80’s decried the young ones unquestioningly taking on the conformity, the uniformity, of that early answer. She said of it ‘This is a silly gospel’. There is a danger of mistaking the form for the spirit, and as Margaret Fox said about that, ‘It is the spirit that gives life’. We must be wary of creating and worshipping golden idols, even if we clothe them in Quaker grey.
So there is no Answer to the question ‘What does it mean to live simply?’ If we accept simplicity as a value to aspire to, and I do, we cannot hope to just once ask the question ‘How?’ and find a once-and-for-all answer. For me, now, I ride a bicycle to work, I mostly choose not to eat meat, I buy my clothes from op shops, I contribute to third world aid. But that may not be the answer for others or for me in the future. It’s a question we must continue to ask and re-ask as Quakers, collectively and individually. What does simplicity mean for me, for us, living at this time, in this place, in this society?
I have indicated some of the ways the principle of simplicity finds expression in Quaker structure and practice. I asked the question How can we live a life of simplicity? and told something of my answer to that question for me, now. I cannot give you The Answer to that question. The most I can do is invite you to ask it of yourself. And continue to ask it.