Celebrating the small, simple life

National Poetry Month, Day 20  //  I’m in the shrinking season of life. My circles of connection and influence are growing smaller, my responsibilities narrower, my horizons nearer. Logic tells me I ought to be grieving the losses; instead, I feel like I’m slipping into my favorite pair of jeans and slippers at the end of the day. Sure, there have been some rough spots in the transition into retirement, and there will probably be a few more, but c’est la vie. The small, inconspicuous life, even with all its peculiar challenges, is turning out to be a good fit.

During my career I’ve read the works of some of the greatest Christian luminaries – Augustine, Benedict, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, the Wesleys, Bonhoeffer, the Niebuhrs, Tillich, Merton, and the like – and more than a handful from other faith traditions. None of them was greater than Nicholas Herman, whom we know better as Brother Lawrence, the humble monk whose job in his monastery was the tedious work of cooking and cleaning in the kitchen. He regarded himself “as the most wretched of all men, stinking and covered with sores, and as one who has committed all sorts of crimes against his King.” Yet it was in the kitchen where he experienced the presence and love of God that was as great to him as in any of the sacraments of the church. His humble work, confining as it may have seemed to others, was for him his cathedral. He understood the holiness available in the ordinary affairs of life.

During one season of my life, I contemplated standing at the threshold of a monastery, divesting myself of all worldly possessions, stepping free of all the worldly obligations and enticements that possessed me, and entering monastic life. It didn’t take much discernment for me to realize that my monastery, the locus of a life devoted singly to God, is the world itself and that my cloister is the small circle of community in which my faith is worked out.

William Wordsworth, describing his contentment writing within the confines of the sonnet’s strict form, was writing of the possibility that any of us might find contentment within the narrow boundaries that confine our life. I don’t need a grand arena in which to know fullness of life. As Brother Lawrence wrote, “a little lifting up of the heart suffices.”

“Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room,”
by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

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