Ambiguity attaches to the concept of simplicity…We have done strange things to the very term in the English language. The word “simple” has come to mean insignificant, trivial, intellectually deficient, lacking in good sense, silly. Indeed, something similar has happened to “silly”— it used to mean blessed, innocent, holy, without guile. Perhaps those of us attracted to the simple won’t much mind being called silly. “Simplicity” hasn’t fared a great deal better. Dictionaries only say what it is not, and we understand what it is only by implication — it is not complicated, embellished or elaborate, affected; not deceitful, complex, artificial; not vain, distracted, pretentious, ostentatious.
An exploration of what simplicity means from the Rule of Benedict will assist in understanding the spirituality of simplicity for Benedictines.
One use of the adverb “simply” occurs in the chapter on the oratory, that is, in RB 52.4, where any member, who “chooses to prayer privately, …may simply go in and pray, not in a loud voice, but with tears and heartfelt devotion.” “Simply” means both one can simply enter the oratory AND simply pray. To pray simply means to do so without a loud voice. On the other hand, simpliciter could mean “without making complications, embarrassment,” as in RB 61.3; another possibility is that one could pray “alone, for its own benefit.”
Another occurrence of “simply” is found in RB 61.3, whose immediate context of RB 61 reads as follows:
A visiting monk from far away will perhaps present himself and wish to stay as a guest in the monastery. Provided that he is content with the life as he finds it, and does not make excessive demands that upset the monastery, but is simply content with what he finds, he should be received for as long a time as he wishes. He may, indeed, with all humility [of] love make some reasonable criticisms or observations, which the [superior] should prudently consider; it is possible that the Lord guided him to the monastery for this purpose. (RB 61.1-4, RB-1980)
Twice in this section Benedict highlights that if the visiting monk is content or rather simply content with the life of the monastery and is not demanding, again repeated twice (here in vs. 2 and in vs. 3), s/he should be invited to stay. To be simply content, that is, whole-heartedly given to the life as one finds it, according to Esther de Waal, reflects the attitudes of the primitive community in Acts. There the members of the Christian community “gladly share in the goods of this world, having all things in common and seeking to use them wisely…to be open to the good of all. It is also a sign of being open to God; having nothing of one’s own is to need others, and more than that, to need God.” Such a monk manifests the simplicity of one who depends solely on God and what God provides.
Being open to God, that is, simply content with life, is intimately connected to gratitude. The word for gratitude in Hebrew is hen, meaning “favor” and hanan, “to show favor” and in Greek, charis and charisma. Charis in Greek has many meanings, including grace, outward beauty, favor, kindliness, goodwill, thanks, gratitude, delight, gift, and pleasure. Gratitude in Latin is gratia, the same word for grace or favor. “To show gratitude” or gratiam referre literally means to relate/show/manifest grace, so that being grateful is revelatory of the grace of God in one’s life. To have gratitude or gratiam habere literally means to have/possess/consider grace in one’s life. One can also have a “grateful heart,” that is, gratus animus, which has to do with the fact that the capacity of one’s being is that of grace, favor toward oneself and toward God and others.
Benedict’s word for grace, favor, thanksgiving, gratitude is gratia, which appears six significant times in his rule. In Prologue 31, Benedict writes about giving God credit for how God works in one, when he says: “In just this way Paul the Apostle refused to take credit for the power of his preaching. He declared: By God’s grace I am what I am (1 Cor 15:10).” Similarly, in Prologue 41, he states: “What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace.” A slightly different understanding of gratia appears in RB 5.19, where Benedict relays the consequence for murmuring: “For such an act [obeying with murmuring] it follows that there is no favor.” One might also state that there is no grace in obedience with murmuring, for such an act does not flow from a grateful/grace-filled heart. In RB 20.4, God’s grace is what inspires prayer after the Divine Office: “Prayer should therefore be short and pure, unless perhaps prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace.” In this verse, it is clear that God is the source of the grace that allows for prayer. With respect to the distribution of goods in the monastery, Benedict states: “Whoever needs less should give thanks to God and not be saddened” (RB 34.3). The final example occurs in RB 66.5 concerning the porter’s greeting to a guest knocking at the door of the monastery: “As soon as anyone knocks, or a poor man calls out, [the porter] replies, ‘Thanks be to God’ or ‘Your blessing, please.’” Both of these replies indicate an attitude of one graciously acknowledging the presence of the divine in the guest, by either giving thanks or asking a blessing of the divine one.
Thus, most frequently the Rule of Benedict strongly indicates that gratia is the word for grace or thanksgiving, an act of one who is grateful for all that comes to her from God, the source of the grace. Only once in RB 5.19 is there the sense of one not receiving a favor, because of obeying out of an ungrateful heart, which even here speaks to a lack of gratitude in one’s life for the opportunity to practice obedience, that is, listening and responding from an open-heartedness on the part of a Christian disciple.
Grateful simplicity means a capacity for God manifested in open-heartedness because one relies on God, who is source of grace and provident care. To show grateful simplicity is to rely on the very graciousness of God and to return that gift in how one treats others. We conclude with a prayer for gratitude:
O God, who simply and completely loves us without measure, grant us grateful hearts for our very lives and all who have loved us into life. Bless all who offer an opportunity to practice gratitude, to see your face in them and to minister to their need, for truly we are serving You in them. On our days, when we are tempted to grumble, to see the negative, or to curse the darkness, send the light of your Risen Lord to fill us with love, that we may return in small measure the grace you shower upon us. In your loving name, we pray. Amen.
Sister Jeremy Hall, OSB, Silence, Solitude, Simplicity: A Hermit’s Love Affair with a Noisy, Crowded and Complicated World (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007), 98-99.
RB 1980: Rule of St. Benedict In Latin and English with Notes, edited by Timothy Fry, et al. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1981). Future references from this work will be cited as RB, followed by chapter and verse numbers.
La Règle de Saint Benoît [RSB], vol. 5: Commentaire (Parties IV-VI), Sources Chrétiennes 185, edited by C. Mondésert, introduction, text, translation and notes by Adalbert de Vogüé (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1971) 631.
Esther de Waal, The Way of Simplicity: The Cistercian Tradition, Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series, edited by Philip Sheldrake (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998) 74.
John L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible (NY: Macmillian Publishing Co. Inc./London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1965) s.v. “Grace.”