Looking to Christ
A Brief Review of
The Spirit of Simplicity
Jean Baptiste Chautard
Translated by Thomas Merton
Paperback: Ave Maria Press, 2017
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Reviewed by Josh Morgan
The Spirit of Simplicity has a compelling backstory: a 70 year old hidden text written by a famed French Cistercian, Jean-Baptiste Chautard, translated with notes by Trappist (a Cistercian branch) monk, Thomas Merton. In a world of complexity and loudness, simplicity for our lives and souls is compelling and increasingly popular.
The text itself is short: 114 pages of content, including 14 illustrations of monasteries, and 23 pages of notes from Merton. It is broken into two parts: The first being the aforementioned translation of Chautard’s The Spirit of Simplicity and the second excerpts from writings and speeches of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a leader of the Cistercian order, on the topic of interior simplicity, with added commentary by Merton. From a readability standpoint, the reader must remember this text’s place in history: Part 1 was written in 1920s French, translated into 1940s English, both with a target audience of the theologically trained monastic community. Bernard died in 1153. For readers familiar with dense mystical and theological texts, this time will seem familiar and accessible. For those looking for a simplicity self-help book, it will be a grind.
These kind of expectations is where the key focus of satisfaction with the book will be. This book may be most valuable as an insight into the history of the Cistercian order and its accompanying theological values. Its applicability to a lot of modern Christian life is limited, and many will disagree with many of the principles underlying some of the specific applications of simplicity.
A definition of simplicity may be helpful in assessing the book. In his foreword, Merton states, “simplicity may be defined as a constant and unchanging desire for one object and him alone… In the strict sense, simplicity is the perfect conversion of the will to God, asking one thing of God, and desiring that alone, and not going forth and multiplying itself in the world” (p. xviii). This is a laudable definition, albeit ironically complicated to explain simplicity, emphasizing what a difficult concept it is, especially in practice.
Repeatedly through all sections, the writers emphasize that simplicity is intended to bring union with God and the love of God. This may not be intuitive to many people, especially when exploring intellectual simplicity, a section in Part 2. In fact, Merton explicitly states that our intellect is to help us love: “Hence, simplicity in the intellectual order means subordinating all our knowledge to the LOVE OF GOD. We study in order to love” (85). What if we always thought of the principle of study and academia as helping us love?
This quote also reflects the reason for the process of simplicity: Subordination to God. Humility is the term often used to refer to this process, but it does not refer to general humility. Rather, it is humbling (subordinating) ourselves before God. Simplicity helps us to see God as supreme and sufficient, while helping us be obedient to God’s will. This is easier when not distracted by many things of life.
This moves us to what can be considered the limitations of this book: They are focused on a monastic life, which 1) not everyone lives and 2) not everyone agrees is theologically appropriate.
First to 1: This text was written to Cistercian monks. In Part 1, Chautard notes, “It is therefore a matter of obligation for us Cistercians to return often to the study of our ancient Rule, so that we may never forget the fundamental spirit of our reform to which the Church thought it not amiss to grant the title of a true religious order” (p. 12). This seems to provide the intent of his text. The entire focus is reminding his monastic brothers of their proper behaviors, calling them back to the core intent. Merton’s annotations and additions of Bernard’s writings fall into this same focus. If the reader is not a Cistercian monks, the directions will have limited utility, as they are often very behavioral in the context of Cistercian monasticism.
This brand of monasticism advocates for virtually complete withdrawal from society and people gets to point 2 (whether such withdrawal is really intended). To be fair to this spiritual tradition, it is wise to listen to those who promote it to truly understand the goal. The intent is quite holy, seeing to be more like Christ: “The soul of the monk is to reproduce the inner life of his master [Christ] by observing this Rule. That is all” (21). Indeed, all Christians should seek to reproduce the inner life of Christ. The Cistercian model advocates that the best way to do this is through both internally and external simplicity, stripping away as much as is possible. Chautard explains this by stating, “The monk detaches himself from everything that might weigh him down and bind him to the earth. He wants to be simple, not mixed up with the things that are below him” (9). It is hard to argue with this logic in many ways, as life can be distracting. Merton phrases it differently, but again points to separateness from the world as the way to find God: “The whole aim of the Cistercian life—and the fathers of the order are unanimous on this point—is to set men apart from the world that their souls may be purified and led step by step to perfect union with God by the recovery of our lost likeness to him” (71).
Likely all contemplative models and even most general spiritual development perspectives advocate for times of alone. Looking to Christ’s behavior, such as in the Garden of Gethsemane, reinforce this. Indeed, contemplation and slowing facilitates the mystical experiences that the writers are honorably pursuing. However, this monastic approach advocates for this isolation full-time. Many would argue that this is contrary to Christ’s intent, especially when looking at the Great Commission. A balance of the extreme Cistercian version of simplicity with engagement in the world seems a more accurate reflection of Christlikeness.
For readers who want to better understand some spiritual perspectives, especially in the flow of the history of Western Christianity, this is a useful book. If you’re looking for spiritual guidance and inspiration around simplicity, another book in the spiritual formation genre or on contemplation would be more helpful.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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