Craving Simplicity in a Complicated Age
Amazingly relevant today, this message is from the famous 19th-century preacher who also wrote “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
By Phillips Brooks
All life continually tends to complication. It is so with the individual life as it grows up from youth to adulthood. It is so with the corporate life of humankind as it grows more and more highly civilized. Are there any persons who do not look back to their youth and think how few were the things which they had then to do, how uncomplicated were the arrangements which they had then to make, compared with the intricate confusion which fills life today? And where is the community that does not look back with longing to the time of clarity and simplicity in which its forefathers lived only a few short centuries ago?
How passionate sometimes in the midst of the most beautiful and interesting of complicated life becomes this craving for simplicity! The youth leaves impatiently the luxury where he was bred, and goes west to be found in the prairies herding his cattle. The woman turns from the complicated whirl of society and becomes the sister of charity. The king disappears from the throne and his voice is heard chanting in the cloister. The scholar puts down his books and seeks relief in the loveliness of nature or turns to manual toil to reclaim the earth and himself as well. The fresh morning is within the hot bosom of every noon, filling it with aspirations, regrets, and hopes.
But all is not said when we say this.
The urgent question still comes: What kind of simplicity is possible for an individual or a nation that has once left the primary simplicity behind and developed into the elaborate conditions of ripened life? It cannot be the old simplicity back again just as it used to be. The full-blown rose can never fold itself into a bud again. The world is never going to tear down its cities and dress itself once more in bearskins and take to the woods again. And if a person or two leaves the study for the workshop, or the palace for the cloister, we are almost sure that they have carried within them the complication they fled.
For it is also my truth as it is yours. You are a score of things, and life seems to be pulled a score of ways by the conflicting claims of the core of things you are. Your family pulls you one way and your business another, and your ambition another, and by and by one fragment of you is working here and another there; and your self, that core and heart of you which cannot be torn apart by any distraction, is flying and rushing here and there, and trying to regulate and rule these tumultuous kingdoms, and failing always. What then?
No, it is not by any mere reversion to a long-past childhood that any one person’s life or the whole world’s life is to be simplified again. That is all past and over. It never can return. And you do not truly make life simple by making it meager. It is as if you tried to simplify a tree by cutting off its branches. You either kill the tree or it instantly puts forth new branches and the old complication is there again before you know. It is not by excision and rejection the simplicity of life is gained.
But how, then, can it come? Our souls cry out that surely there is a great principle, a great truth, large enough, elementary, absolute, universal enough to enclose and enfold all the fragmentariness of living and make life one. Else how shall we not be distracted by the multiplicity of details?
Here is an example from the ancient community of Jerusalem. When Jesus as a young Jew came into Jerusalem, he found complication flourishing about him. Elaborateness was everywhere. Great, tedious ceremonials occupied the temple service. Long lists of rules and arbitrary laws had overspread the simplicity of the ten commandments. Society was a most intricate system of castes and classes. Thought, as the rabbis guided it, turned and twisted and retwisted on itself in endless subtleties. Every hair had to be split and split again. Every definition had to be defined and redefined a thousand times. There are indications in the Gospels that Jesus was expected to accept the system of things, and to come in among the scholars and teachers and join in their hairsplitting. But the glory of his simplicity was that he refused. He struck this whole mass of complication and elaboration aside and set a few big, broad simple truths and laws back in the place that they had occupied. He bade the rabbis in the temple to reflect the broad sunshine of God’s world.
What Jesus did is what all the great teachers and saviors of the world have done. They have all been simplifiers. The second order of the world’s helpers has been largely made of those who brought in some new bit of helpfulness, and set rules and more rules, and so added to the complication of which the world is full. But the first order of helpful teachers, to which only a few of the greatest belong, has been made up of those who so asserted and illuminated and glorified and made powerful the eternal, elementary truths so that they stood out sufficient and alone—and burnt up, as it were, all the half-lights and pale reflections of themselves of which the sky had become full.
Even in regions which we do not call religious, we recognize this power of the absolute simple to call souls to itself. The health and simplicity of the highest genius is remarkable. Genius of the second rank may be fantastical, complicated, lighted by fitful stars of morbid fascinating brilliance; but genius of the first order, the few very highest souls—Shakespeare, Plato, and Homer among them—speak intelligently to their fellow men and women, and speak knowingly, of what truly matters. They see through chaos to find order in the world. They have felt and known themselves in as true relations to the earth they lived on as its mountains or its trees. And so peace has come to them and through peace, power. Therefore it is that we can all touch upon perpetual simplicity. Therefore it is that we come back to the highest leaders for inspiration time and time again, to rediscover, renew, and humbly hold the simplicity they make known to us. For therein lies the true health of the soul, and may we all come to it.
Phillips Brooks (1835–1893) was known, said the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, for his understanding of individuals of other ways and thought and for his respect for other religious traditions, which gained for him a following across a broad segment of society. His influence as a religious leader was unique in his time. In 1865 he went to Jerusalem and rode horseback from there to “the little town of Bethlehem” to celebrate holy mass on Christmas Eve; he later wrote several hymns based on this experience. His first collection of sermons was published in 1878, and several more volumes followed.