The education of the mystical sense begins in self-simplification. The feeling, willing, seeing self is to move from the various and the analytic to the simple and synthetic: a sentence which may cause hard breathing and mopping of the brows on the part of the practical [person]. – Evelyn Underhill
I would have liked to know Evelyn Underhill. Reading her book, Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People, reveals a wry sense of humor as she communicates deep wisdom. The quote above is a good example.
We are a culture averse to self-simplification. Underhill wrote in the time prior to World War I, and recognized in that era that Western culture was not interested in self-simplification. A century later, that is still true. We analyze everything to the nth degree. The President makes a 20 minute address to the nation and the analysts spend hours dissecting it.
We complicate our lives by both our activities and our possessions. Recently, I accompanied my husband to a business dinner where people around the table were comparing notes on the number of e-mail messages each received in a day’s time. At another gathering, I heard a tablemate describing a kitchen appliance that sounded like some sort of specialized blender. She had not been able to use it because the instructions were so complicated. Whenever I hear advertisements for satellite TV or radio services, I wonder why we really need 200+ options for listening to or viewing media.
What a radical notion—to choose simple in a culture of complex, to observe the synthesis, the interrelatedness of life instead of segregating ideas, music and appliances into singular categories or uses. Imagine how it might be to savor a song, reflecting on its lyrics, enjoying the harmonies or the interplay of instruments, rather than switching from station to station. What if you had a favorite skillet that you used regularly to create many dishes rather than having multiple, single-use appliances that clutter your kitchen and are used infrequently?
To choose simple as a way to connect more fully to God may mean less activity and more solitude, less reading and more silence, fewer words when praying and more listening. This is not a call for undisciplined haphazardness—reading the Bible when I remember to do so or serving others only when it doesn’t conflict with something I’d rather do—but instead is about a disciplined attentiveness to deepening relationship with God through regular silence and solitude and by engaging in activity for the sake of God’s kingdom that may not garner any attention or accolades from others.
Underhill’s observation that self-simplification is the way to open ourselves to greater connection to God certainly would lessen the inventory of many bookstores, reduce the number of Christian conferences and render inconsequential many of the seemingly burning issues that divide Christians, which is why it will not likely be a widespread movement. But I believe she is onto something in her call for self-simplification, however dull and unstimulating it may appear against our ego-oriented culture of more, bigger and busier. Jesus, after all, compares the Kingdom of God to yeast that works its way unseen through a batch of dough, and says we will find his presence in simple everyday sustenance of bread and wine. Radically simple.