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Simplicity and the Material Girl

By Jane Patterson

Twenty-five years ago, while doing some research on the dazzling Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, I came across a catalogue for an exhibition of daily objects from the households of early Christians: wooden spoons carved with grapes, a simple linen tunic with a woven pattern of wheat in the hem, a plate with a painted fish. Across all the centuries, these objects spoke to me of a world where the material and the invisible somehow perfectly meshed, neither outweighing the other. The objects spoke of the sheer delight of waking up another day on earth, remembering that this world of cereal and water and work and family is also shot through with miracle and parable, healing and grace. I wanted to live in that world, where matter and spirit were one simple thing.

I had encountered the value of simplicity far earlier in my life when I did a summer internship as a college student at the Cloisters Museum in New York, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum that houses medieval art in a collection of actual, reassembled medieval cloisters. Days spent with children from the surrounding Washington Heights and Harlem neighborhoods, sewing and drawing and playing in the galleries and the cloister gardens, was the context in which I was first introduced to the monastic Benedictine Rule, with its proscription against personal property: “Those in monastic vows should not claim any property as their own exclusive possession—absolutely nothing at all, not even books and writing materials.” Clothing for the monks (“thick and warm in winter but of thinner or well-worn material in summer”) came from a common store of clothing. But I think we might be off-track if we then conclude that clothing wasn’t important to them. I’ve watched our students choosing an alb from the common closet before worship, and I know that an alb that is soft, or well-ironed, or well-fitting, or of a better fabric, is met by a cry of success. Having fewer things doesn’t mean that things don’t matter; it means that they matter more, that their particular qualities are noticed, that they are hung back up with care. Sitting in one of the quiet cloister galleries while the child next to me cut fabric for her Saint Barbara costume, I developed a love for spaces filled not with objects, but with a certain quality of light; not with noise, but with the song of the robin and the snick of scissors, laid over the background hum of the city; not with acquisitions, but with the shared imagination of generations of artists and craftspeople poured out for a child and a college student working under Saint Barbara’s self-possessed gaze.

My friend Elizabeth, whose publishing company is called Material Media, introduced me to the significance of the word, material, related as it is to the Latin word mater, for ‘mother.’ Material is what humans use to make everything that we make, from noodles to iPods. We ourselves are made of the material of earth, of old mother-stuff reworked by earth’s alchemy into new bones and tissue, of soil and breath from a long-closed garden. But what daily decisions can help me navigate the contrary pulls to have more things and to have fewer things, to value things more and to value them less, as I wheel my enormous cart through a Costco aisle where the latest bulky shipment of gray fleece sweatpants tumbles over almost on top of me? And Jesus’s stark admonition, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33), is of scant help, even as I know that hidden somewhere in his counsel is his love for a good meal with friends, a found coin, a mustard seed in the palm of a hand.

The unraveling of our whole material world through climate collapse has lit up my questions about simple living in an urgent way. Last weekend, as part of the Halloween/All Saints/All Souls triduum, I participated in a Day of the Dead celebration at a farm in the Texas Hill Country. Among the photos and relics of our deceased friends and parents and children, my friend placed a papier maché sculpture of the earth. “This year I’m putting the earth on the altar of the dead,” she said. It doesn’t get more plain than that.

Yet in the midst of the prayer that we were saying together at that celebration, I got a vision that has been sustaining me ever since, and drawing me forward in my pursuit of a simpler, more vibrant materiality. When two hundred of us gathered to pray on the Day of the Dead, we took a few moments of silence to listen and attend to the presence of the Unseen, to the web of relationships that the Church calls the Communion of Saints. And in that silence I became aware not only of the saints who have preceded us, but of those who will come after us, of our being sustained both in the past and the future by a wisdom greater than our own, by love stronger than death. My chosen simplicity today is connected to the robin’s song that some young woman will hear in the future, to the linen blouse that she will fold with care, to the mustard seed she will plant. When I recycle my Topo Chico bottles, I am not trying desperately to prevent a death, I am honoring a life to come that is already linked firmly to my life, infusing me with spirited encouragement, with a hope that I did not generate out of my own virtue.

I wonder if maybe Jesus took something of this point of view when he said that his disciples would not have possessions. Did he see us in his mind’s eye – a single fabric of beings past, present, and future, with the whole skein of bright materiality passing through us, no need to hold on because there is no letting go.

Often, the conversation around simplicity and fiscal restraint today is generated by our fears of climate collapse. What other ways of thinking about our habits of consumption might prove equally true and possibly more fruitful?

What are your own experiences around valuing/devaluing material things? What do you imagine Jesus meant when he said that discipleship requires giving up all one’s possessions?

This fall, Sowing Holy Question will explore questions of
stewardship, reflecting theologically on practical decisions about
money, possessions, ecology and our connection to God’s creation.

The Rev. Jane Patterson, PhD, is associate professor of New Testament and serves as director of community care. She joined the full-time faculty in 2013 after teaching part-time and serving as interim director of Theological Field Education, 2003 –2005. She is the author of Keeping the Feast: Metaphors of Sacrifice in 1 Corinthians and Philippians (SBL Press, 2015). In biblical studies, her academic interests include the intersection of literary, political, and theological study of the scriptures. She also teaches in the area of Christian formation, where her work focuses on vocation and Christian practice. She serves as co-director of St. Benedict’s Workshop, a ministry devoted to helping laity live their faith in daily life, and serves the Diocese of West Texas as missioner for adult formation and as a member of the diocesan examining chaplains. She is active as a preacher, teacher, and parishioner at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio.


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