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The greatness of simplicity

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Spiritual growth requires us to become simpler, like our loving Creator

God is simple, not complex. When I read this assertion by St. Thomas Aquinas, my first reaction was disbelief. Not just surprise, disbelief. First of all, how could the creator and sustainer of all things ranging from subatomic particles to penguins be simple? That seems like the very essence of complexity. Furthermore, if heaven means eternity with God and God is simple, could it be possible that God, and therefore heaven, might be … boring?

Fortunately, I read on. My negative reaction to this assertion of God’s simplicity — which the church has held since the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) — was driven partially by my misunderstanding of simplicity. To be simple means that a thing cannot be divided into parts. A simple thing is pure and unified. A complex thing has multiple parts.

A plated gold piece of jewelry is complex. It’s one type of metal on the inside with gold layered on top. Solid gold jewelry is different. It’s simple. It’s just gold all the way through. To be simple is to be consistent and pure.

This idea of simplicity applies to other things too. In fact, some things can be simpler than they seem. Twelve years ago, our children managed, through a process of manipulation that would impress Machiavelli himself, to persuade us to adopt a stray cat in the neighborhood. For the first several weeks, I experienced the orange beast as a complex combination of incomprehensible behaviors. One minute, she would be affectionate and friendly. The next, she would turn into a homicidal maniac killing small mammals and leaving them on the doorstep to intimidate us.

The girls named the furry assassin Crouton. Over the years, her complex array of behaviors became more familiar. We began to see the patterns, and what once seemed random and disparate became a unity of behaviors that we could anticipate. What once seemed to be a composite thing — one part furry attention-loving companion and one part homicidal monster — became understood as a unified whole: furry attention-loving homicidal monster.

So simplicity isn’t about being basic or boring. It’s about consistency, purity and unity. God is consistent and pure. He is love all the way through.

Though God’s behavior is consistent, we often struggle to detect the patterns, and this can make what is simple and pure seem complicated and even frustrating. It takes time and careful thought to begin to see the patterns. But it takes something else too.

Our fallen nature makes us complicated. Sometimes, we want to be obedient to God and we are able to follow him. Other times, we want it our way and not his, and ignore or defy what he asks us to do. As St. Paul said, “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” (Romans 7:15)

When we think of the world as a disparate, divided array of different things, we think we need to become more disparate and divided ourselves, as if we were a combination of different personalities for different situations. We think sophistication is being able to transition from being one person when we go to church on Sunday to another when we go to work and another when we surf the internet, etc.

Spiritual growth requires us to become simpler. This doesn’t mean naiveté. It means integrity. It means becoming more like our loving Creator, a unified whole.

John the Baptist baptized with water to wash away the impurities that compromise our nature. Before baptizing them, John told people to become more simple and honest with their families and neighbors. No longer could they be duplicitous, one person at church and another at home or at work. They were to be the same person at church and everywhere else.

John promised that those who received his baptism with water could receive another baptism, with the Holy Spirit, from one greater than he. Becoming more simple creates space for the Holy Spirit to breathe life into us so we can become who God means us to be.

Northwest Catholic - April 2019

Deacon Eric Paige

Deacon Eric Paige is the Archdiocese of Seattle's executive director for evangelization, formation and discipleship. Contact him at eric.paige@seattlearch.org.

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