What Ought to Be

Books 001

“We often read nowadays of the valour or audacity with which some rebel attacks a hoary tyranny or an antiquated superstition.  There is not really any courage at all in attacking hoary or antiquated things, any more than in offering to fight one’s grandmother.  The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers.  The only true free-thinker is he whose intellect is as much free from the future as from the past.  He cares as little for what will be as for what has been; he cares only for what ought to be.”

                        — G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World 


Pilgrim 2 001

“Never travel far without a rope!  And one that is long and strong and light …  They may be a help in many needs.”

              — J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, Chapter 8


* * * * * * * * * * * *


Roget’s Thesaurus suggests three adjectives as possible synonyms of the word resourcefulcunning, skillful, and versatile.  Webster’s Dictionary offers the following terse definition:  “able to meet situations; capable of devising ways and means.”  Ironically, both Roget and Webster seem to have overlooked the word’s simplest and most obvious meaning:  “full of a resource.”  They’ve placed all the emphasis on the native inventiveness and cleverness of the individual rather than on the raw material he must manipulate or the supply source upon which he depends.  This is a serious error – one that the true Pilgrim seeks to avoid at all costs.

To quote Rodgers and Hammerstein, “Nothing comes from nothing.”  Only God can create ex nihilo.  In the same way, the Pilgrim knows that he cannot “meet situations” or “devise ways and means” unless he has something to work with, something to draw upon.  He is also keenly aware that this something has to come from outside himself.  On his own he’s an empty vessel, a mere clay pot.  Unless he is filled and empowered by this outside resource, he can do nothing.

The best of all resources is the one that is both the simplest and the most universally applicable.  The heroes of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings understood this.  That’s why they regarded a strand of rope – perhaps the most basic of all mankind’s technological innovations – as one of the most important items a traveler could pack when setting out on a perilous journey.  Again and again throughout the course of Tolkien’s epic our hobbit heroes find themselves asking the question, “Got rope?”  It happens often enough to make the reader wonder what it’s really all about.

In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins catches sight of a small boat resting against the farther bank of Mirkwood’s enchanted river.  “Can any of you throw a rope?” asks Thorin Oakenshield, chief of the dwarves.  A few stout lengths are produced and, sure enough, after a couple of unsuccessful attempts, the boat is snagged and drawn across the water.

Filled with excitement at having discovered a secret door in the side of the Lonely Mountain, the treasure-hunting dwarves make their way up the precipitous path, each with “a good coil of rope wound tight about his waist.”  With these ropes they haul up provisions from the valley while Bofur and Bombur remain below with the pack ponies.  Later, they must use the same lines to hoist their two companions to safety when the dragon becomes aware of their presence and emerges from his lair.

In The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee, setting out from Rivendell, checks his pack and discovers he’s forgotten rope.  “You’ll want it if you haven’t got it,” he tells himself.  Fortunately, several coils are supplied in Lorien; and, as one of the elves there predicts, they prove to be “a help in many needs.”  “What a piece of luck you had that rope!” says Frodo after safely descending a sheer cliff-face in the rocky waste of the Emyn Muil.  “Better luck if I’d thought of it sooner,” replies Sam.

Interestingly enough, G. K. Chesterton – a writer whose works Tolkien and his friend C. S. Lewis knew well – once made some similar observations about the value of rope:


     If a man found a coil of rope in a desert he could at least think of all the things that can be done with a coil of rope; and some of them might even be practical.  He could tow a boat or lasso a horse.  He could play cat’s-cradle, or pick oakum.  He could construct a rope-ladder for an eloping heiress, or cord her boxes for a travelling maiden aunt.  He could learn to tie a bow, or he could hang himself.[i]   


Naturally, Chesterton wasn’t suggesting that it might be a good idea to go out and hang yourself.  He was merely attempting to illustrate that the best tool in the box is the one with the broadest range of uses.  He was saying that a bit of rope can be a good thing to have no matter where the journey takes you, whether out into the desert, up the side of a mountain, or over the edge of a cliff.

In the same way, the Pilgrim is resourceful not because he is brilliant, talented, inventive, or brave in and of himself, but simply because he has a good bit of “rope” – a versatile source of strength capable of meeting any challenge, a reliable lifeline to which he can cling when the rocks give way and the earth crumbles beneath his feet.  His confidence is not in himself, but in the solid truth that God “is a refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”  It’s this that determines and defines his very identity as a traveler and sojourner in this world.


[i] G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World; Part III, Chapter 2, “The Universal Stick” (Mineola, New York:  Dover Publications, 2007, originally published in 1910), 89-90.

The Firebird XXXIII


Yacht 001


After a while I looked up from the book and saw another vessel approaching – neither a boat nor a raft nor a three-masted ship this time, but a sleek, smooth-lined yacht with three men aboard.  As they drew near, one of them fixed me in the beam of a bright searchlight.

“Look there!” I heard him cry.  “A child!  A child afloat on the open sea!”

“You’re right!” agreed one of his companions.  “And such a tiny child at that!  How pitiful!”

“On the contrary,” put in a third voice, “how absurd!”

They went on talking in this way for a few minutes, then lowered a small lifeboat from the side of the yacht and rowed over to me.  Before I knew what was happening two pairs of large hands had laid hold of me and pulled me into the boat.

“Wait!” I cried.  “I want to stay where I am!  Leave me alone!”

“We can’t do that!” laughed a man with a broad, kind face and a shock of thick, curly, reddish-brown hair.  “I’d say we found you just in time,” he added, patting my wet head and wrapping a big woolly blanket over my shoulders.

When we reached the yacht, his companions – a neatly dressed younger man and a small, dark figure in a white smock-coat – hauled me aboard while the big kindly fellow said, “What in creation were you doing out there, child?”

“I’m making my journey to the rising sun!” I spluttered when at last I stood looking up at them, dripping and shivering, from the polished deck of the yacht.  “I’m following the Firebird!  The current itself was carrying me along!”

“How interesting!” smiled the broad-faced man in a kind, indulgent tone.

“How absurd!” snapped the figure in the white smock-coat, shaking his head as he stroked his sharp little bearded chin.

The neatly dressed younger man drew a pen from his breast pocket and noted something down in a black book he carried under his arm.

“I know it sounds crazy,” I continued, “but it’s true!  I was instructed to let the current take me straight into the sunset, right through its flaming circle and out the other side!  It’s the only way to reach the sunrise of Christmas morning!  That’s where I’m going to meet the rider of the eight-legged horse!”

The young man squinted up at me from his black book.  “What a ridiculous notion!” he sneered.

“Ridiculous, yes, Jack,” said the man in the smock-coat, “but it actually reflects a modicum of understanding.”

“More importantly, Dr. Roger,” volunteered the broad faced man, putting an arm around my shoulder and regarding me with an understanding smile, “it contains a beautifully mythologized representation of a deeper spiritual truth.”

“I care nothing for your literary musings, Ralph,” replied Dr. Roger with a wave of his hand.  “This child’s tale is founded upon the ancient and outmoded belief in a flat earth.  The scientific fact of the matter is that, because the earth is actually round, one can indeed reach the sunrise by traveling into the sunset – in other words, sail from today into tomorrow.  But it can only be done by achieving a rate of speed sufficient to outstrip the rate of the earth’s rotation.  This yacht is equipped to do just that.”  He glared at me for a moment, then continued.  “We intend to do exactly what you propose, but we intend to do it in the only way possible:  through the power of science and technology.”

“It’s an inspiring concept, isn’t it?” said Ralph, one hand still resting on my shoulder.  “A journey into tomorrow!  A poetic image, a living symbol of the indomitable, questing spirit of man!”

“Also a very expensive concept,” added Jack, glancing up at me from his ledger book.  “It requires money and planning and organization.  I don’t suppose you’ve ever given much thought to that side of the question, have you?”

By this time I was so thoroughly confused that I had to fight to keep back the tears.

“No, I haven’t,” I said in answer to Jack’s question.  “I don’t care about all that.  All I want is to be allowed to continue my journey!  Won’t you please put me back in the water?”

To my great surprise, the three men drew off to one side of the deck and conferred earnestly with one another for several minutes.  At length they returned and stood facing me in solemn silence.

“It’s like this,” said Jack.  “We have our doubts about you.  We don’t think you’re capable of appreciating everything that’s involved in a journey of this kind.”

“Certainly not,” said Dr. Roger, shaking his head and stroking his bearded chin.

“I’m afraid I have to agree,” added Ralph sadly – “though I think you have a lot of the right kind of inspiration.  I’ll always regard you as a kindred spirit.”

“In short,” Jack concluded, “we have decided that it will not be possible for you to remain on board this yacht.  I’m afraid we must ask you to leave.”

With that, Ralph picked me up as if I were nothing but a rag doll and tossed me overboard into the dark, churning water.

“Goodbye, dear friend,” he waved.  “And good luck!”

Then the powerful engines of the yacht began to rev.  They revved and roared until the sound became deafening.  In the next instant the craft leapt away, covering me in a deluge of foam and spray, and sped off into the red-gold glow on the horizon.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Garrison on Government

Books 001

“We do not acknowledge allegiance to any human government. We recognize but one King and Lawgiver, one Judge and Ruler of mankind. Our country is the world, our countrymen are all mankind. We love the land of our nativity only as we love all other lands. The interests and rights of American citizens are not dearer to us than those of the whole human race. Hence we can allow no appeal to patriotism to revenge any national insult or injury…

“We conceive that a nation has no right to defend itself against foreign enemies or to punish its invaders, and no individual possesses that right in his own case, and the unit cannot be of greater importance than the aggregate. If soldiers thronging from abroad with intent to commit rapine and destroy life may not be resisted by the people or the magistracy, then ought no resistance to be offered to domestic troublers of the public peace or of private security.

“The dogma that all the governments of the world are approvingly ordained of God, and that the powers that be in the United States, in Russia, in Turkey, are in accordance with his will, is no less absurd than impious. It makes the impartial Author of our existence unequal and tyrannical. It cannot be affirmed that the powers that be in any nation are actuated by the Spirit or guided by the example of Christ in the treatment of enemies; therefore they cannot be agreeable to the will of God, and therefore their overthrow by a spiritual regeneration of their subjects is inevitable.

“We regard as unchristian and unlawful not only all wars, whether offensive or defensive, but all preparations for war; every naval ship, every arsenal, every fortification, we regard as unchristian and unlawful; the existence of any kind of standing army, all military chieftains, all monuments commemorative of victory over a fallen foe, all trophies won in battle, all celebrations in honor of military exploits, all appropriations for defense by arms; we regard as unchristian and unlawful every edict of government requiring of its subjects military service.

“Hence we deem it unlawful to bear arms, and we cannot hold any office which imposes on its incumbent the obligation to compel men to do right on pain of imprisonment or death. We therefore voluntarily exclude ourselves from every legislative and judicial body, and repudiate all human politics, worldly honors, and stations of authority. If we cannot occupy a seat in the legislature or on the bench, neither can we elect others to act as our substitutes in any such capacity. It follows that we cannot sue any man at law to force him to return anything he may have wrongly taken from us; if he has seized our coat, we shall surrender him our cloak also rather than subject him to punishment.”

— William Lloyd Garrison, the great American abolitionist; an excerpt from the Declaration of Sentiments Adopted by the Peace Convention, Boston, 1838.  Quoted in The Kingdom of God is Within You, by Leo Tolstoy.


Pilgrim 2 001

     “But I, wretched young man that I was – even more wretched at the beginning of my youth – had begged You for chastity and had said:  ‘Make me chaste and continent, but not yet.’  I was afraid that You might hear me too soon and cure me too soon from the disease of a lust which I preferred to be satisfied rather than extinguished.”

                                    — Augustine, Confessions, VIII, 7, 17


* * * * * * * * * * * *


In our last installment we spoke of the Pilgrim’s dedication to simplicity, understood as integrity, wholeness, single-mindedness, and purity of heart.  This leads necessarily to the consideration of a related subject which is as indispensable to the Pilgrim life as it is difficult to broach in the contemporary social context:  something the New Testament writers call hagneia.

Hagneia can refer to purity in the general sense, but during the earliest years of Christian history it very quickly assumed the narrower connotation of specifically sexual purity.  In his first letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul instructs the young pastor to make himself an example of hagneia to the other believers in his community (1 Timothy 4:12).  The full meaning of this charge becomes clear when he goes on to exhort Timothy to treat the younger women in the church “as sisters in all hagneia” (5:2).  In both cases the Latin Vulgate version renders the original Greek as castitas, or chastity.

Chastity, which has also been called continence, is the ability to contain, restrain, and confine one’s sexual impulses within their one proper arena:  marriage.  Marriage, in turn, has been very neatly and succinctly defined for us by Christ Himself:  “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Matthew 19:5).

Chastity, then, is about abstaining from all kinds of “sexual immorality” and “knowing how to possess your own vessel (body) in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5).  It’s a question of disciplining yourself to keep sexual energies in check – of “drinking water from your own cistern, and fresh water from your own well” (Proverbs 5:15).

In our day, of course, chastity has either been forgotten or else dismissed as a laughable anachronistic joke – something to be lampooned in the movies and on Saturday Night Live.  The very idea of sexual restraint of any variety is totally inconceivable, entirely foreign, and completely offensive to modern Americans, who fiercely believe that the freedom to express themselves sexually in any and every way imaginable is yet another unalienable “right” guaranteed them in the United States Constitution.

All that may be well and good for modern Americans.  Unfortunately, it will not fly for the Pilgrim.  And this is something that his friends desperately need to comprehend if they really want to understand him.  Difficult as it may be for them to grasp, the Pilgrim does believe that there is such a thing as sexual morality.  He cannot buy the idea that “anything goes” in the sexual realm.  Nor is he free to compromise on this point.

Does this imply that he “hates” those who do not walk the narrow path he has chosen to follow?  Does it suggest that he regards himself as under some kind of obligation to buy an AR-15 rifle and blow such people off the face of the earth?  Of course not!  How could he when the same Master who calls him to a life of hagneia has also commanded him to “love his neighbor as himself?”  Nevertheless, he does feel very strongly that he cannot in good conscience join the party when folks around him want to celebrate the sexual diversity and license on which contemporary culture prides itself so highly.

It’s crucial to conclude by pointing out that hagneia or chastity is not just a matter of submitting oneself to a set of prudish and repressive rules.  Its true aim is something much bigger:  the unfettering and uncluttering of the heart and mind so as to make room for the advances and inroads of the great Lover of the soul.  St. Augustine, whose early adulthood had been as sexually promiscuous and debauched as that of any contemporary college senior, possessed a keen understanding of this truth.  As the desire for God was birthed and began to grow within him, the young man found himself torn in two directions.  “I desired wisdom,” he writes, “yet I was still putting off the moment when, despising this world’s happiness, I should give all my time to the search for that of which not only the finding but merely the seeking must be preferred to the discovered treasures and kingdoms of men or to all the pleasures of the body easily and abundantly available.”[i]

In the end it was complete surrender to purity – physical as well as mental and spiritual – that set him free.


[i] St. Augustine, Confessions, VIII, 7, 17; tr. Rex Warner (New York:  Mentor Books, 1963), 173.

The Firebird XXXII

Sunset 001



“There lies your course,” said the golden lady.  “Quickly now – step down into the pool.”

My reflection shattered into a thousand pieces as I put my foot into the water.  She took hold of me by both shoulders and guided me out into the midst of the stream.

“Let the current carry you,” she said.  “When you have come to the edge of the sea, to the place where the sun is now sinking in the west, you must pass directly through its fiery circle and out the other side.  There you will find Christmas morning breaking.  There you will see the one you seek.”

Though the water was cold, I found that it did not chill me in the least.  Leaning forward into it, I swam a few strokes, then turned back to wave a final farewell.  The golden-haired lady was gone.  In her place I saw the sparrow bound upward into the air and then go darting past my head, down the watery corridor, and out into the ruddy sky at the tunnel’s end.  Plunging ahead, I began swimming after it.

At the end of the tunnel the stream cascaded down a short fall of smooth white stones.  I was plunged head-first into the sea and came up spluttering, blowing, and shaking the hair from my eyes.  Clutching the little book tightly to my chest, I fought furiously with one arm and both legs to stay afloat.

This is hopeless! I thought as my mouth filled with brine and my head went under a second time.

Then something hard struck me on the back of the head.  I lashed out with my free hand and got hold of the object, only to find that it was one of the logs from the wrecked raft.  With a great effort, I pulled myself up over it and clung to its rough rounded surface with all my strength.

This at least should keep me from sinking, I said to myself with a feeling of relief.

A red glow was flickering and playing over the tops of the dancing waves.  In the sky above me and not far ahead flew the Firebird, its tail of flame streaming out behind like the tail of a comet.   The warming glow returned to my heart and a smile played at the corners of my mouth.  Then the powerful current spun the log around and sent me once more out into the depths of the open sea.

For some time all went well.  The Firebird remained just ahead of me in the sky, cleaving the dark air like a winged pillar of flame.  For my part, I had no reason to trouble myself about keeping up with the pace it set:  the sea-current carried me forward without the least effort on my part.

As I drifted onward the ruddy light continued to grow on the horizon.  I passed the time by reading in the little book, being wonderfully strengthened and refreshed by its words.  Gradually there grew within me a strange sense that I had no more need of food or drink or covering of any kind.  The book, the guidance of the Firebird, the motion of the strong sea-current – these, it seemed, were all I required as I continued my journey towards the setting and the rising of the sun.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *



Cloudscape 001



Outside the window,

Beneath the left wing,

Penumbrous and billowy

Snow hummocks surge,

Boil from the bottoms,

Heap upward and pile;

White pillars through doorways

All smoky emerge.  


Tall cities appear

On the fairy horizon,

Unbodied and sharp-edged

At the bourne of bright blue,

Skyward to tower,

Ten times beyond flight range,

Out beyond sight range,

Clean shadowed and new.


Five thousand fathoms

Beneath flying feet

The gray world rolls onward

Beneath the gray ceiling

To dim sunless sunsets

And black starless nights

Where few can discern

Between seeming and seeing.


Poet's Corner 001

The Firebird XXXI


 Tunnel 2 001


At length the voice spoke again, directly above me this time:

“Arise.  Now that you have seen what you have seen, it is time that you be up and going again.  Christmas morning is poised upon the horizon, and he has promised to meet you there.”

I opened my eyes.  There above me I saw the sweet young face of the lady with the golden hair and the circlet of spring flowers smiling down upon me.  She touched my brow with her slender fingers and I rose and stood upon the floor and gazed up at her in amazement.

There was a sweet and heady fragrance in the air.  Looking around, I saw the reason for this.  Everywhere I glanced, on all sides, brilliant flowers of every hue were growing right out of the rock itself, bigger and brighter and more brilliant that any flowers I had ever seen in my life.  In another way, too, they were different from the flowers I had known before.  Like the body I had seen in the orb of light, they not only put down roots into the floor of the cave, but also sent strong stalks shooting upwards to pierce the ceiling of the chamber.

“What kind of flowers are these?” I asked.  “I’ve never seen anything like them!  How can they grown down here, away from the light of the sun?”

“These are the seeds and roots of the flowers of your experience.  When the stalks break through the ceiling of the cavern, then they appear in the open air of the visible world above.  Which is to say that the flowers you remember are really only a very small part of the whole – just the tip of the iceberg.  The flowers you see here are the larger unseen truth behind the flowers of the upper world.”

A small underground rivulet gurgled up out of the rock and flowed through the cavern near at hand.  Very close to where we stood I saw a small, clear pool fed by its waters.

“Go to the pool,” said the lady.  “Look into its waters and tell me what you see.”

I stepped quickly to the pool, leaned over its pure, glassy surface, and gasped with surprise.  The face I saw reflected there was not my own face as I remembered it, but rather that of a little child.

“What does this mean?” I cried.  “Am I really growing younger?”

“Yes!” the lady laughed.  “It is all part of the journey you are making.  It comes of eating the golden apples I gave you.  Are you displeased?”

“No.  Only confused.  And yet I remember now that the man I met on the raft spoke to me of this very thing.  He too had been wounded by the Firebird, I think.”

For a moment I stood gazing down at the reflection in the pool.  Then, turning and looking up into the lady’s face, I said, “But what should I do now?  Shall I stay here with you?  Is this to be my new home?”

My heart beat faster as I said the words.  I loved the lady with the golden hair and wanted desperately to remain in her company.  After what I had done, I could hardly believe that I was actually seeing her standing there before me, alive again and smiling at me as if nothing untoward had happened.

“No,” she said.  “You must go on.  You must continue your journey to the place of the rising sun.

“But how?” I cried.  “I have foolishly lost all the good gifts you and your sisters gave me!”

There was a tear in the corner of her eye as she spoke.  “You have indeed lost much, but not all.  In fact, everything you need for the journey is with you at this very moment.  It remains where you have kept it from the very beginning – close to your heart.”

“The book?” I whispered wonderingly.  Reaching inside my gown, I found it there next to my skin, intact and whole and completely legible in spite of having been exposed to the rain and the seawater.

“The words of the book are all you need,” she said.  “That, and the help of a friend who will never desert you.  Look!”

I followed her pointing finger with my eyes to a place where the cavern narrowed to a tunnel through which flowed the little subterranean stream.  At the end of the tunnel appeared a patch of blue sky.  I could hear the splash of sea-waves echoing down its length.  And there in the sky at the tunnel’s end burned a bright reddish star with a long flashing tail.

“The Firebird!” I whispered; and immediately the warm glow returned to the wound in my heart.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

The Firebird XXX

Sprouting in the Dark 001


The longer I stared, the more I became convinced.  Yes.  The body I was seeing was indeed my own – the very same body I had dragged out into the chill night air when the small gray bird led me in search of the rider of the eight-legged horse.  I found this discovery mildly surprising, but was not shocked or disturbed by it in any way.  I remembered how the body had been changed into a sack of seed and how I had sown all of it in the field surrounding the grassy hill.  I recalled all of this as one might recall something read in a book a long time ago.

As I watched, I heard a voice speaking from some hidden recess of the cavern.  It was distant and faint, yet I knew somehow that it was speaking to me.

“Whose body is this?” it said.

“My own,” I replied.  “It is myself.”

Strangely, when I spoke my voice seemed to come not out of my own mouth but from the picture in the orb of light.  It, too, sounded distant and detached.

“Does this body live?” the voice asked.  It was sweet and melodious, the voice of a lady.

“No,” I answered flatly.  “It is dead, buried, scattered abroad.”

“But who buried it?”

“I did.  I did it myself.”

There was a long silence during which I contemplated the body on the slab and my own last words concerning it.  At last the voice spoke again:

“How is it that you have come to this place?”

“I threw myself down,” I returned.  “I wanted to destroy myself.”

“And do you see now,” the voice responded, apparently drawing nearer, “why you cannot do that?”

Another silence.  Then the voice again:

“Can this body live again?”

“I don’t know,” I answered.  “No, I don’t think so.”

“But look closer!”

I did, and saw a very strange thing.  From the fingers and toes of the body grew long tendrils which extended downwards into the floor of the cavern and penetrated the rock like the roots of a plant.  And from the top of its head rose a slender green shoot that reached up towards me through the shadows of the sparkling stalactites.

“Now look to yourself!” said the voice, even closer this time.

Once more I tried to see my hand in front of my face.  At first there was nothing; but then, very slowly, something began to emerge from the blackness.  In the beginning it was nothing more than a mist, a blur of faint light.  Then it grew and took on color – the color of flesh.  At last it came sharply into focus.  What I saw was a hand indeed, but not the hand I had expected to see.  It was very small and very fair, the hand of a very small child.

And now the light was growing all around me, so that I could see not only my hand but my whole body, wrapped in a long white gown.  I saw, too, the stone walls and dripping ceiling of the chamber in which I lay.  Gone was the orb of light; and when I sat up to look for it, I found that I was lying on a slab of stone exactly like the one in the vision.  I would have risen, but I felt extremely weak and exhausted with the mere effort of sitting up.  So I lay back down again upon the cold stone and closed my eyes.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *


Pilgrim 2 001

      Simplify!  Simplify!  Simplify!

                                                                   — Henry David Thoreau, Walden


* * * * * * * * * * * *


Thoreau (as we observed in an earlier installment) went to the woods because he wished “to front only the essential facts of life.”  Such has been the goal of many famous “simplifiers,” past and present – everyone from Jean Jacques Rousseau to the editors and readers of Real Simple magazine.

Simplicity, in the minds of many, is primarily a matter of doing or not doing:  dropping out of the rat-race, clearing away the clutter, getting rid of useless “stuff,” making life easier by stripping it of unnecessary distractions.  This is all well and good so far as it goes; in fact, it is the very lesson Christ was trying to teach when He told the busy Martha that “only a few things are necessary, really only one.”  But for all that, there’s a sense in which the Pilgrim’s notion of simplicity runs in a different – or perhaps a deeper – vein.

Old theologians and ancient Church Fathers had much to say about the simplicity of God Himself.  There’s something important to be gleaned from this apparently antiquated concept.  According to Systematics professor Louis Berkhof, God’s simplicity – or, as it used to be called, the unitas simplicitatis – is “expressive of the inner and qualitative unity of the Divine Being:”

     When we speak of the simplicity of God, we use the term to describe the state or quality of being simple, the condition of being free from division into parts, and therefore from compositeness.  It means that God is not composite and is not susceptible of division in any sense of the word.[i]

God’s simplicity, then, is not centered in doing but in being.  As the Latin term unitas simplicitatis (“the unity of simplicity”) suggests, its focal point is located in His oneness.  “Hear, O Israel,” declares the Shema, “the Lord our God, the Lord is one” – by which is meant not merely that He is the “One and Only God,” but also that He is One in and of Himself.  As Berkhof explains, God is not “composed” of “parts.”  Instead, He is single and the same from top to bottom, from start to finish, from outside to inside and back again.  Like a square of real Van Briggle tile, He is completely, thoroughly, and genuinely Himself through and through – no veneer on the surface, nothing hidden underneath.

As a Reflector of the Divine Image, the Pilgrim sets his sights on this same kind of oneness or simplicity.  To put it another way, he places a high value on integrity.  In mathematics we employ the term integer to refer to a whole number.  In life we use the word integrity to describe the unmixed, undivided, unadulterated wholeness or oneness of the person who is the same on the inside as on the outside – with whom there is no seam, no crack, no line of demarcation between seeming and being.

Soren Kierkegaard rightly discerned that “purity of heart is to will one thing.”  Such unity of purpose is the Pilgrim’s watchword as he sets out on “the road that points toward the chosen Vale.”[ii]  In a world of “multi-ness” his heart is set upon singleness.  Reaching for the only true prize, he bundles all his energies and powers into an overriding desire to become one by uniting with the One.  The result is simplicity in the profoundest sense of the word:  plainness, unaffectedness, and an inward consistency that remains intact even in the face of kosmic complexity.


[i] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1939), 62,

[ii] William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book First.