Circling back to simplicity

Deeper Communion

February 22, 2024 | Opinion | Volume 28 Issue 4
Cindy Wallace, Justin Sun, Anika Reynar & Ryan Dueck | Columnists
Photo by Koolshooters/Pexels.

I’ve been thinking about simplicity. Are today’s Canadian Mennonites committed to faith-motivated simple living? Am I?

I first encountered the spiritual discipline of simplicity 20 years ago when I read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. I had grown up in fundamentalist Baptist churches that were legalistic about what our minds needed to believe and what our bodies needed to avoid. Reading Foster freed me to imagine a different way of understanding discipline—not as a series of rules but as a set of practices that engender flourishing and freedom.


In his chapter on simplicity, Foster writes about a non-anxious relationship to possessions. He writes about sharing generously, refusing to be motivated by status and seeking first the kingdom of God. I’d never heard church folk talk like this about Jesus’s teachings on wealth, but when my partner Josh and I stumbled into a Mennonite congregation in Chicago in 2006, I was delighted to find Anabaptists who did.


We spent five years exploring the intersections of Mennonite and New Monastic disciplines of living with joyful simplicity so that others may simply live, to borrow Gandhi’s apt words.


Over the years, simple living has become for us a spiritual discipline bound up with ethics. Reduced overconsumption benefits the planet, opts out of sweatshops, allows us to engage in mutual aid and makes room for other things in our lives.


We have learned to wear clothes until they wear out, then mend them and wear them some more. We have learned to avoid disposable items, to slipcover ancient couches with painters’ drop cloths, to cook lentils, to lend out our car.


Our mentors have modeled non-attachment to wealth. They have showed us how to share what comes to us with unselfconscious openness and filter purchase decisions through our values. (Our values include books, so we buy a lot of those. But we share them!)


Of course, we do all of this imperfectly, and different seasons of life introduce new challenges. For example, life can get so busy that ordering items online with next-day shipping feels like the only answer. What does it mean for a life to be so full that it seems my only choice is to support a corporation I consider unjust?  


Perhaps even more to the point, I’ve been thinking about the fact that I can have minimalist closets and make admirably few purchases while still overscheduling and overconsuming— news, entertainment, social media, distraction upon distraction, worry upon worry.


A lot has changed in my life and in the world since I first read Celebration of Discipline in 2004—which also happens to be the year Facebook was invented. Now, I’m a full-time working parent, not a blissfully single-minded undergrad. Social media and smartphones and 24-hour news cycles have infiltrated our lives. Our very attention has become a commodity, and we’re conditioned even by our entertainment to believe the answer is always more. Simplicity, especially a spiritual discipline of simplicity, feels more countercultural than ever.


Are other people wrestling with this? Are you, dear fellow columnists and readers?


Foster’s book was first published in 1978. Picking it up again, I didn’t expect him to address these challenges, but he does: “Any of the media that you find you cannot do without, get rid of.” He means TV and newspapers, but the message feels just as relevant now. More broadly, he advocates for a life that prioritizes slowness, stillness, relationship and rest against a culture of hurry and worry.


I keep thinking about how to get from here to there, not just alone but in community. What would it look like to re-examine our Anabaptist commitments to simplicity together, here and now? How might it shape our finances, our smartphone use, our schedules, our wardrobes, the very structures of our individual and corporate faith practice? Might it open up more time and space to really see and hear each other? Might it open up more time and space to hear the One Who calls each of us by name?

Cindy Wallace serves as associate professor of English at St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan. She is part of Backyard Church, an MC Saskatchewan house church in Saskatoon.

By Justin Sun

I’m glad to hear of Cindy’s experience with Celebration of Discipline because I also read it, as an undergrad. It was a gamechanger.

I am challenged by Cindy’s extrapolation to include attention. Though I have attempted to live simpler, in material terms, since encountering Anabaptism, inward reflection on my part reveals that my attention has gone the opposite direction. My mind is busier than ever.

In this, I am glad for people like my former professor Gareth Brandt, who introduced me to Foster’s book and who, to me, embodies the heart of many spiritual disciplines. In him, I am privileged to have a living model.

I also wonder whether simplicity evades many not due to lack of personal discipline but because of wider pressures beyond individual control. In my context, I see many struggling with simplicity not due to shortage in conviction or awareness but because our communities and economies are competitive by nature and necessitate complex maneuvering.

Simplicity is elusive when great forces burden people to secure their futures. How does simplicity look for those under the omnipresent 9-to-5 strain? It’s a never-resolving catch-22 of 21st century life.

–Justin Sun, youth pastor at Peace Mennonite Church, Richmond, B.C.  

By Anika Reynar

As I read Cindy’s reflection, I recalled recent moments when I’ve felt anxiety rise in my body, provoked by a full schedule and a seemingly endless to-do list. In the hurry and worry, I long for spaciousness that would allow me to give my attention to the stories and people for whom I care deeply. This longing feels so simple and yet so often out of reach.

Cindy is wise in calling us toward deeper communal discernment of simplicity as a spiritual discipline. I am learning, slowly, that it is only possible to touch these longings, and to hold space for them, in the company of friends. This feels risky.

I fear that naming my anxiety will expose my inability to hold the pieces of my life together. But this is the trap. I can’t do everything alone. When I voice anxiety, I find myself surrounded not by judgment but by care. In community, we practice reminding one another that the answer is not to try harder or to do more.

Rather, the simple things of life—walks, shared food, generosity of time—disrupt the endless doing and invite moments of joyful being. I am grateful for this reminder.

–Anika Reynar, student of religion and environmental management at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. 

By Ryan Dueck

Are other people wrestling with the commodification of attention? Um, yes.

I feel like I’ve been wrestling with this for at least the last decade and a half. Cindy says, ironically, that she first read Celebration of Discipline the year Facebook was invented. It seems like Facebook and all it has spawned has been steadily distracting and dividing and depressing us ever since.

I joined Facebook late and deleted my account in 2020 for precisely the reasons Cindy articulates in her piece. To borrow the words of Catholic theologian Ronald Rolheiser, I recognized I was in danger of, “distracting myself into spiritual oblivion.”

I hunger for the simplicity Cindy speaks of. For a decluttering of my life and my mind. For the discipline to cultivate the habits of the heart and mind that are necessary to live well in the digital age. For the grace to attend more patiently and deliberately to the relationships God has given me. To be more attuned to the voice of God.

Pulling the plug on social media might be a start, but it’s certainly not the end. I have much to learn and put into practice here.

–Ryan Dueck, pastor at Lethbridge Mennonite Church, Lethbridge, Alberta.

Read the first Deeper Communion column:
God on the line


Photo by Koolshooters/Pexels.

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