SIMPLICITY

I’ve been thinking about SIMPLICITY. As an idea and an ideal it has appealed to me since I first read Walden at 16. It still becomes a near-obsession when I feel overwhelmed with clutter. I long for it when I’m tired and the idea of moving things around is exhausting, and when the things I love to do seem inordinately postponed because I’m doing other things with things—moving stacks of paper, reorganizing the utility drawer, taking cardboard to the recycling center.
I invest deep hope in T.S. Eliot’s vision—which I take to be a prophecy and a promise—of an ultimate “condition of complete simplicity” a blissful state, which, he adds, will cost “not less than everything.”
This week I’ve been rereading a good-humored and blessedly readable book about the basic principles of science by two generous, good-humored physicists (Hazen and Trefil) who laid aside their own copious research long enough to produce 345 pages on what those of us who don’t live in labs or split atoms or study the lives of lizards need to know about science in order to buy, vote, and listen intelligently to controversies about deforestation, radioactive waste, FCC regulations, and drugs. It is helping me remember how many great scientific discoveries have come about because someone peered into complex or even chaotic systems and discovered something simple: a reliable “law,” a pattern of motion, a type or category or behavior that could be stated in a sentence: “All living things are made from cells.” “Force equals mass times acceleration.” “You can’t measure anything without changing it.” These are huge ideas whose implications and applications have taken lifetimes to explore, but they are “simple” truths in the sense of being irreducible and true. They are “core” truths that ripple outward. A little like “God is love.” Or “In the beginning was the Word.”
We honor people who find their way to the heart of things—both scientists and saints. We learn in their biographies something about what the journey cost them—say, Galileo or Mother Teresa—something close to “everything.” In my admiration for them I begin to understand the longing for elegance and simplicity that drove Einstein on toward the unified field theory he never discovered, even after he had filled many pages and blackboards getting to E=mc2. It’s not unlike what led St. Francis to strip off his robes in the public square and live in a cave.
Silence and centering prayer both evoke and fulfill that longing for what lies at the heart of things. When I enter them undistracted (on a very good day) the reward may occasionally be a sense of breathtaking simplicity—a sentence that is also a truth felt in my bones and in a place of awareness beyond the brain. “Heart of my own heart,” my favorite line from an old Celtic hymn, is that place. If God dwells in us, it is there, calmly containing and sustaining all the quarks, black holes, falling apples and sparrows, gamma rays and quantum leaping electrons. A simplicity so spacious it can absorb it all and turn it into light. Somehow, remembering this enables me to relax into the comings and goings of a complicated day.

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