Kennedy's 'Postcards from
Word studies: Simplicity
Jonal entry 984 | Wednesday, May 17 2006
I never thought of "simplicity" as a spiritual virtue until I got into Fr. Maximos' teachings on "cunningness" in my current reading, Gifts of the Desert: The Forgotten Path of Christian Spirituality by Kyriacos C. Markides, introduced here on Monday. "Simplicity" sounds too similar to simple-mindedness and "simpleton" to think of as a positive personality trait, but in actuality Fr. Maximos says, and enlists the backing of church fathers throughout the centuries, to bolster the claim that even "simple-mindedness" is a good thing. I've known for years that "fools for Christ" are a vital part of Orthodox spiritual history and although I have held them in high regard since first becoming aware of them, it's only now that I've been able to see the connection between that special genre of saint and simplicity. The connection is humility. To become a fool for Christ is to humble yourself radically, and the same effect comes along with practicing simplicity in character and outlook.
Thinking back over my life, there's a sense in which my mother practiced a limited form of this, though I doubt she ever heard it described as "simplicity" or the opposite of "cunningness." When she heard gossip of a scandalous type about people she knew, she would say, "I can't believe So-and-so would ever do such a thing." I, in my worldly wise way, would roll my eyes as if to say she was giving too much credit to the neighbor being slandered; she was being naive. But in the teachings of elders like Maximos, this is simply another application of "judge not." Don't even go there! To think your neighbor is lower than you because she or he would stoop to some folly and got caught at it is to elevate yourself, a form of pride, and such pride is a sure setup to a fall. And not entertaining such thoughts about others is a form of humility.
Fr. Maximos himself in recent years became an example of such humility. When he was nominated as bishop of a diocese in Cyprus, some in the church tried to slander him to prevent his election. Some accused him of homosexuality and one accuser said he had taken him to nude beaches. The monk, in the tradition of elders in general (but, sadly, not in the practice of all or even most Orthodox laity and clergy) refused to speak in his own defense. But when his accuser was asked to point out the monk being charged in the ecclesiastical "court" room, the accuser pointed to some other bearded man in clerical clothes, unaware that Fr. Maximos was not even present. And when the accuser was asked how they got to the nude beaches, he replied that the monk had driven them himself, dressed in "civilian" clothes. All those who knew the monk knew well that he had never learned to drive, so the accusations ended up witnessing to Maximos' fitness for the office rather than its opposite.
The natural response to slander is to build elaborate defenses, usually including ways to refute your accusers and make them look more foolish than yourself. But many elders in the history of monasticism have responded to such charges by saying "it's all true; I am the chief of sinners and am not worthy of honor." It's a radical way of avoiding the temptation to create complicated personality traits.
Yet it almost seems self-contradictory, doesn't it? If the accused knows he's not guilty but is willing to let others think he is, isn't he making himself seem like something he is not? And isn't that "complicating" matters?
Ponder this until we get back next time.
Glossary: Ecclesiastical; of the church.