In the fall of 2018, contributing editor Sarah Hamersma and Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest and author of Liturgy of the Ordinary, sat down to talk about minimalism in both our spiritual lives and our modern world. Both candidly reflect on their own failures to live fully countercultural lives marked by minimalism, but also helpfully provide ways that we might rethink the minimalist impulse in ways that still enjoy the goodness of the feast after the restraints of the fast.
Sarah Hamersma: I read your book, Liturgy of the Ordinary, with a friend of mine and loved it so much that I suggested it to the other women that I meet with from church. We ended up reading the book together.
I love how you put a day into slow motion so that we see each piece of it and can really sense its significance. You then link the parts of a day with an element of the Christian liturgy. It struck me that you could also map the pieces of the day onto the spiritual disciplines, including the discipline of simplicity. Richard Foster, a Quaker, has done a lot of good work in bringing back ancient ideas about disciplines like simplicity that have, in large part, died away in the evangelical traditions.
I wonder how you think simplicity pieces together with the ideas you’re bringing to us in Liturgy of the Ordinary.
Tish Harrison Warren: In the book, I try to move through the day, push pause, and—kind of in slow motion, like you said—walk through the formative practices at work in each moment. I was—and still am—an Anglican priest, and I was learning about the liturgy every day as I began the book. And I do have a lot of really overt spiritual practices in the book, like confession, repentance, and reconciliation. But I don’t have anything directly on simplicity. I’ve actually had one college professor email me who said, “I really want to use your book for a spiritual formation class, but you need something on simplicity.” I said, “You’re right. I do. The fact that I don’t just speaks to how bad I am at it.” I do have one chapter where I talk about the industrial food system and our struggle to eat locally and know where our food comes from. But the whole chapter’s framed around my failure to do that and sort of being sucked into the consumer economy and the convenience economy, and so a lot of the book is about my failure at simplicity rather than simplicity itself.
SH: That sounds like my editorial for this issue: It’s all about my failures.
THW: That said, simplicity is a really essential Christian practice, but as consumerism and global capitalism eat away at every bit of our lives and steer our formation, Christians have to think well about simplicity and to think really radically, honestly, and strategically about simplicity.
There’s nothing in the Anglican liturgy that is explicit about simplicity. That’s different, maybe, from the Quaker tradition or certainly the Amish tradition. That said, I have changed a little bit in my thoughts on this over the years because I think being intentional about liturgy itself can be a practice of simplicity, in the sense that there is a kind of consumeristic impulse in evangelicalism that makes every church service novel, every church service entertaining, every church service ramping up—“This is going to be different than anything you’ve seen before.”
There is something about liturgical services where church this Sunday will look almost exactly like church last Sunday, and church the Sunday after that will look almost exactly like church this Sunday. There’s this sense that we do the same things every week, and we do that, just like C. S. Lewis famously said, to learn the steps so that you can stop thinking about the dance and start thinking about your dance partner. There’s this sense that our mind is freed up by not having to be entertained. We can just enter into the liturgy.
Economy of style is part of our liturgical service that preserves room for silence, preserves room for mystery. So I do think there is something to be said about simplicity and the liturgy that I hadn’t explored five years ago.
SH: In your book you said that “the kind of spiritual life and disciplines needed to sustain the Christian life are quiet, repetitive, and ordinary.” I was really struck by that “repetitive” piece because I grate against repetition, but also know how much I need repetition.
THW: You’re preaching to the chief of sinners! I hate repetition. I am all about novelty. I hate doing anything twice, and that comes from a deep insanity inside of me. I deeply need routine.
SH: It sounds like you and I were reading James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom around the same time and starting to think about some of these ideas. When we think about spiritual practices, we should actually think about them as practicing. When you do it again and again and again it becomes practice.
THW: That’s exactly right.
SH: Of course, the culture “outside” of Christianity is excited about simplicity. It’s part of the reason for this issue. As with a lot of things, I think there are some cases where the counterculture puts out a book and then the Christian subculture puts out a book that has a lot of the same lessons in it but with a little “Christian” twist. When they say, “If you de-clutter, things will be better for you,” I believe them. I just never, ever do it. Are they tapping into something spiritual, or do you think that so far the Christian joining of this movement is just more people? Just more people without more depth or more roots?
THW: That’s a good question. I’m reading a book right now, which I love, called The Unsettlers by Mark Sundeen. It’s about folks who are homesteading on farms completely off the grid that have given up money, have given up electricity, have given up cars. It’s this completely radical approach to living. I don’t know if they’re Christians. Certainly, the practices mentioned in the book are not out of any particular Christian tradition. That said, when I look at the way these folks live, it’s inspiring. It’s needed. It witnesses to a different way to be human, I think, without technological idolatry that so many of us have embraced, including myself. I will say that part of the issue here is that I’m more and more convinced that consumerism is so deeply embedded in systems around us and the institutions around us that it’s really the water we swim in from the time we are an infant.
It’s so difficult to resist the logic of consumerism because it’s what we are fed from our earliest stages. And it’s not simply a mindset; it’s our practices and it’s our systems. Even in the ways we try to push back against it, there’s massive systems—global systems—that are pulling us into a consumeristic mindset, and I think the church is absolutely tied into those systems. This book makes an interesting point that we are so formed and controlled by consumerism that the only way we know how to resist it is with alternative consumerism, so that instead of buying conventional food, you buy organic. Instead of driving an SUV, you buy a Prius. But it’s still just alternative purchasing, alternative consuming. Maybe instead of going on your luxury vacation, you go on ecotourism, but there’s still this experience of consumption in it. Right?
THW: I don’t know how to break out of that. I think that I can get in a mindset where it’s very all-or-nothing, and so my options are to go live off the grid on a farm, or live a comfortable American life that just goes gently with the status quo—but with a little self-righteousness thrown in: the grass-fed cattle, or the organic mac and cheese for my kids instead of the regular mac and cheese. Unless all of us are called to give up our jobs and go live with Wendell Berry. And that’s an unresolved question for me. Maybe we are. But if not, what we have to learn is small resistances. Small resistances that are not just alternative consuming but really rooted in thoughtful simplicity.
Simplicity isn’t simple, meaning it requires great effort and requires a lot of intentionality. Simplicity is difficult and requires a lot of practice, like the oboe or basketball. I think these kinds of movements outside of the church are highlighting a very real problem. The question is, how do we make really robust change in our individual lives but also in institutions that can sustain that change over time?
I don’t have simple or easy answers for that, but I think we need to really think about what resistance means. We need small resistances and we need those to be deeply traditioned, deeply institutional, but we also have to figure out how to do this in our individual lives. It’s going to be hard because consumerism is comfortable. And we really like comfort, and we especially like comfort for our children and those we love.
SH: One of the things that I was really convinced of by interacting with your book was the role that my phone plays. You diagnosed this really well. You said that you’d built a habit of a “steady resistance to boredom.” That’s what it is—any time there’s a spare moment, I just let it fill in that moment. It seems to me like if we could reject some of these malforming influences then what happens is simplicity. Even though I wasn’t thinking “what I need is simplicity,” I was thinking “what I need is to focus on good things.” Do you think simplicity could be one of those things like humility where you can’t get at it front ways, you have to get at it sideways?
THW: The front line of simplicity right now is technological simplicity. How do we think well about technology? Because what I’m seeing is that our technical devices are causing an erosion of an internal self, an internal life. Ten years ago if my kid said something funny, I might have told my husband. Now I put it on Facebook. Anything that happens to us, we now externalize, which, I think, erodes an internal self.
Part of simplicity is having a simple internal life. If you have a minimalist home, but your thoughts and your relationships are full of chaos and discord, that is not simple. Certainly, those are related to de-cluttering, which can be an important practice—I don’t want to create any kind of gnostic dichotomy. Your home or your space being a simple space helps to have internal order, but I also think, because of the smartphone and because of technology, we can have very cluttered minds. I saw on a TED Talk yesterday that the average person changes the task on their computer 566 times a day. That’s 566 times that you’re switching your attention.
Cultivating things like attention, practicing boredom, has become, for me, an increasingly important practice—to embrace that three minutes between tasks and to not fill it. Or five minutes, or ten minutes. To wait somewhere without getting your smartphone out is becoming, I think, a very important practice because those were the margins of our life that for all of human history we haven’t even paid attention to. But we’re losing them, and it turns out they’re a really important part of being human. They’re an important part of mental health. They’re an important part of creativity. They’re an important part of resistance to business, to consumerism, to the kinds of things that we’re talking about, to clutteredness in our own minds.
Simplicity is a positive virtue. It’s not just the lack of stuff. It’s embracing the right things with our time, the right things in our life. In that sense, it is like humility. Humility is not just the absence of pride, it is the virtue, even the habit, of viewing oneself rightly and correctly; it’s appropriate self-knowledge. I do think that, in some sense, we approach simplicity not just by trying to get rid of stuff, but trying to pursue things like silence, things like solitude, things like generosity, which will inevitably require simplicity. Things like rest and Sabbath. These kinds of practices all result in a simpler lifestyle, but they’re a positive vision instead of just a negative vision of ridding ourselves of materialistic things. There is absolutely room for the message that we need to get rid of stuff, but at the end of the day, practicing simplicity is not primarily about “emptying out,” in and of itself. That cannot be the telos. It has to be filling up with the right and proper things that will help us to flourish, and so it’s really both. We need a negative and positive vision of simplicity.
SH: The positive vision puts the telos in the right place, helps motivate me to do the first step of the decluttering—because de-cluttering for its own sake has never been enough to motivate me to do it. I know it’s a good idea, but maybe I’m thinking too small about what it is and where I’m trying to go and what the first step looks like.
THW: That’s absolutely right. My friend Bethany and her husband Steven live in a community of formerly homeless people, and they do organic farming and craft and homesteading practices. She often says, “Don’t tell me to get out of my comfort zone. Give me a vision that’s beautiful enough that I’m willing to give up comfort for it.” Because comfort is not a bad thing. Comfort is very, very necessary as a human being, and so the negative vision of “get out of your comfort zone” doesn’t give me anything beautiful enough to be willing to give up comfort for it. There needs to be a vision of life that is beautiful enough that we actually are willing to make real sacrifices. Simplicity will require sacrifice, so we need to know what we’re sacrificing for.
SH: I wanted to see if you had thoughts about how you interact with other people in thinking as you have been about spiritual practices and simplicity. I know you worked on a college campus for a long time. I’ve never left college, so that’s really my home. I feel like young adults are really hungry for the sort of clarity, the sort of moral clarity and visual clarity that minimalism and a simpler approach to life would bring them.
I heard a student just yesterday saying that he had quit Facebook. Students are having real conversations about what they need to just drop and saying, “You know what? I can’t handle it well enough to be moderate, so I have to just quit.” What would you say if you were talking to a room full of students about these kinds of issues? And what do you say, as a pastor, to people you’re shepherding who are struggling with these same sorts of things?
THW: I know students, millennials, that really give themselves entirely to a technocratic vision of the good. But I also know students who have, like you said, totally gotten off of social media because they are trying to think better about what it means to connect with real human beings. We had a gathering of young adults here in my living room, and we were talking about the gifts the church brings specifically to their generation. They said that their small groups and interaction on Sunday are some of the only places in their life where actual embodied human beings gather together in a space to spend time talking with one another. That notion of gathering as embodied individuals has become somewhat of a radical idea. The fact that we gather in person has never historically been part of the church being “radical.” All human beings of all faiths gather. But more and more, just having a space where people gather, especially people of different ages and ideologies, is shocking and very, very uncomfortable if people don’t practice that regularly. It is interesting to me that these cultural critiques of consumerism pop up almost every single generation when that generation hits emerging adulthood, about their mid-twenties. You see that with the beatniks. You see that with the hippies. You see that with the punk-rock movement. You see it over and over again. You see it now with this up-and-coming generation with things like permaculture. Even to some extent things like microbreweries and localism.
But then you spend all this time in school accumulating debt and then you get a job. The culture lines up and says, “All right. It’s time to get a mortgage, and it’s time to acquire more and more stuff, and more and more stuff, and work really hard for it, and get more and more stuff until you die.” I think there’s this sense where people in early emerging adulthood go, “There’s got to be more. There’s got to be more.”
SH: They’re right.
THW: They don’t mean that in a spiritual sense of, “Oh no, there’s got to be more. I need to find my identity in Jesus.” They’re looking at, in Dorothy Day’s words, our filthy, rotten system. Dorothy Day (quoting her mentor, Peter Maurin) said she wanted to help build a society where it is easier for men to be good.
SH: Oh, that’s beautiful.
THW: It’s never easy to be good, so she didn’t mean that in some sort of idealistic way—like “it’s going to be a piece of cake.” But she wanted to see a world where the system was not pushing us further into avarice, into apathy, where the force of culture isn’t pushing us into dehumanizing the people around us. I think it’s interesting that, as people get to emerging adulthood, this often springs up. Then they get a little older, they’ve paid their mortgage long enough that they’re kind of sucked into the system, and it’s really hard. You lose the imaginative creativity to see that things can be different.
I’ve gotten to know the Bruderhof community here, close to Pittsburgh, and that’s been really informative. I mean, I’m not about to don a skirt and head covering and move into the Bruderhof, but I think being around countercultural communities like that is good for me, to be reminded that the way I live is not a given. It’s not the only way to live, and it helps me think differently about my own life choices.
SH: I love the idea of just observing people and realizing that what you think is normal is not normal for everybody. I often say—my friends probably get sick of me saying it—when there’s some newfangled thing, “Everyone in the whole rest of the world and for all of human history didn’t need this.” I think of the incredibly detailed rules of mothering in the United States today and all the things that we’re supposed to do. Mothers all around the world, through all of human history, have figured this out without knowing that you have to introduce a certain food to your baby’s palate in a certain week or they’ll be ruined for life. It’s weird for us to think that what we’re doing is normal. It’s just what we happened to have found ourselves in; it’s the water that we’re swimming in.
THW: Yeah. The motherhood example is a good one. But marketers are smart, so they target a real love and a very beautiful human impulse of mothers to protect children, to want to love their children. It doesn’t sell any books or any kind of baby supplies to say, “Yeah. People have done this for thousands of years, and it’ll probably work out. Love your kids and feed them.” You have to scare people into believing that there’s only one right way of doing this. It goes back to this notion of how consumerism eats everything, including parenting. Right?
SH: Yeah. Absolutely.
THW: One thing I want to encourage young people to do is to wrestle to keep imaginative space, an openness that things don’t have to be exactly the way they are.
When young people are wrestling with these questions, I think we need to preserve that radical impulse of pushing back against the system. But that will require more than mere deconstruction. We need to figure out what it means to construct something beautiful and good, and not just as individuals but as a community. Not just as an amorphous community, but as a church. Part of that is going to be things like the way we use our time, which pushes us back to really simple practices like the church calendar.
In the church calendar, there are spaces for feasting and fasting that teach us the rhythm of abstaining, of simplicity, and then of extravagance. Both are appropriate in their time and in their season. Things like Sabbath. Things like Scripture, even. I know that that’s not often talked about in terms of simplicity, but I think Scripture witnesses to a different kind of preindustrial culture that it’s worth listening to and being disturbed by.
What does it mean in our culture to leave the edges of our field for gleaning? How do we take that and appropriate that for our own culture in a way that makes sense and that’s redemptive and that’s beautiful?