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“ 'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free”. The Shaker hymn has always been dear to me; not least because its open-spaced and perfectly poised melody makes such a perfect fit with the spirit of the plain, graceful words.
The concept of freedom being contingent upon simplicity runs counter to the received wisdom of our culture which, acting as the servant of consumer capitalism, would have us believe that it is by acquisition that we attain freedom; that our possessions (and by extension, our purchasing power) are the only indicators of our personal value and therefore of an individualism which has come to be considered as inseparable from freedom.
Bur freedom is far too precious to leave this conflation unquestioned and simplicity far too multi-faceted to be dismissed as a hair-shirt eccentricity of dissenters with leanings towards 17th century radicalism.
To be in thrall to materialism is an obvious defect and one which most people of good faith try to avoid to some degree. For myself, the pre-purchase test “do I need this or do I just want it?” works fairly well in most purely acquisitive situations. But the avoidance of 'cumber' is only part of the struggle to live a simple life.
Perhaps more important is the constant need to re-shape desires and to discern their motivation. 'Keeping up with the Joneses' is both more readily identified and more obviously risible than is the defect of falling victim to 'groupthink' – a state of mind to which we are all vulnerable. Being 'in' with one's personal, social and professional peers is important to most of us and the capacity to know when to step away and seek clarity (the seedbed of principled dissent) is of the greatest importance. The frame of mind and heart which makes this possible seems to me to depend on that particular simplicity which Jesus called “purity of heart”.
That blessed condition is not easy to define but it is unmistakeable when encountered. It sees past self-interest, is immune to manipulation, clear-sighted about weakness and always forbearing - forgiving of others and of self. It is never deluded but neither does it become cynical. If we have known individuals in our lives who display these qualities, then we share in the benison.
But maybe it is necessary to start with questioning our own material temptations in order to clear the doors of perception. It is when I have truly understood that I don't live by bread alone (or by high-tech gizmos and good wine) that I may just get near enough to what Friends call “clearness” to understand my real needs, the needs of my neighbours and the part I must play in answering those needs.
The Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” concludes that it is by “turning, turning, that we come out right”. So during what is left of Lent, I am resolved to rotate in search of true freedom.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet