We Franciscans talk a lot about simplicity, and sometimes people are not quite sure what we're getting at. Occasionally, I don't think we're all that sure - I know I've often wondered whether I really knew what I was talking about.
In our Third Order Principles the Third Aim is to live simply, and it goes on to speak of Francis' own vision of Lady Poverty, and how we in the Third Order "show ourselves true followers of Christ and of St Francis by our readiness to live simply and to share with others." And it's true that this lies very close to the heart of what being a Franciscan actually is.
And yet, every time I read the Third Aim, I find myself looking for the passion with which Francis took Lady Poverty as his bride, and not quite finding it. I had wondered whether, at least in my own case, that didn't mean that the Third Order was somehow second best; that I had somewhere along the line missed my vocation to the First Order, where I would, I hoped, have found this passion I've always, somewhere in my heart, longed for.
As so often happens, Thomas Merton cuts through the haze: "Give me the strength that waits upon You in silence and peace. Give me humility in which alone is rest, and deliver me from pride which is the heaviest of burdens. And possess my whole heart and soul with the simplicity of love. Occupy my whole life with the one thought and the one desire of love, that I may love not for the sake of merit, not for the sake of perfection, not for the sake of virtue, not for the sake of sanctity, but for You alone. For there is only one thing that can satisfy love and reward it, and that is You alone." (New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions Press, 1961: p. 45)
And that, for me, is what lies at the core of all this thinking about simplicity, as in a sense it lies at the core of penitence. What is required is just to remove what gets between God and myself. And what does get between us? Stuff. Whether it's material stuff or emotional stuff or spiritual stuff, it's my stuff. God doesn't deal in stuff: he deals in himself. He is what he has to give us, and as Merton says, only he will satisfy our final longing.
Simplicity, then, is just removing stuff from between God and me, leaving me free to love him, and want him; free to be open to him. As Jesus said to Martha, "you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing..."