When asked to speak to the simplicity testimony, Quaker Lloyd Lee Wilson said, “Simplicity is the name we give to our effort to free ourselves to give full attention to God’s still, small voice: the sum of our efforts to subtract from our lives everything that competes with God for our attention and clear hearing.”
You may know that early Friends lived this testimony by wearing plain clothes; eschewing materialism; and living frugal, plain lifestyles. You may have heard that Quakers do not put particular stock in holidays, and this practice is part of simplicity, too. Christmas and Easter are no more holy than another day.
Special rituals, special music, special prayers, special buildings—these things can be of the spirit, but it is because we bring spirit to them, not the other way around. And we must take care that they do not distract us from what’s most important: attending to and loving the spirit, and one another.
In the third century B.C., almost 2,000 years before George Fox conceived of Quakerism, the Greek philosopher Archimedes explored the principle of mechanical advantage in simple machines which is the idea that there are mechanisms that can “set a load in motion,” greatly multiplying any force that is applied to them.
Many simple machines are, essentially, the same device: a body rotating about a hinge. Take the lever: This device is, simply, a bar rotating about a fixed point. This is a strikingly uncomplicated tool, but using it, a person can lift a far heavier load than they otherwise could.
My faith tells me that there is that of God—a spark of the Divine—in each person, including—and this part can be hard—myself. Simplicity means not losing sight of that in the chaos of my everyday life, where there is plenty to try and lift.
When I do live and work from that place—a place of awestruck love for the miracle that is this planet and everything and everyone in it—I am a simple machine of the spirit. Love is the fulcrum, the hinge, the center. I can do more. I can reach farther. I am multiplied.
It is misleading that the word “simple” is used, in another context, to mean “easy.” In fact, I find this testimony the most challenging to live daily.
In our work at FCNL we are challenged and empowered by the simplicity testimony every day, not getting distracted by politics and partisanship, tradeoffs and negotiations that might seem like a quick fix but compromise our most fundamental values. We keep a clear line of sight to our values, and our actions discerned through worshipful attendance to them.
What do we seek? A world free of war and the threat of war. A society with equity and justice for all. A community where every person’s potential may be fulfilled. An earth restored. That’s it. Simple. Not easy. But we know where we are starting from.
We ask: What step today moves us toward that world? Ask. Answer. Act. Again, and again, and again. Persistently. Prophetically. What we are doing is not complicated. It is simple. That doesn’t mean it is not a heavy load. But I truly believe that by approaching our work this way, we are powerful.
As Archimedes said of the lever, “Give me a place to stand on, and I can move the Earth.”
Anna McCormally is a writer and former FCNL staff now on a writing fellowship at Pendle Hill. McCormally shared this reflection during FCNL’s 2019 staff retreat.