Orthodox Christians treasure simplicity. We venerate St Anthony the Great, and the countless monastics who followed him into the desert, forsaking the distractions of a sophisticated lifestyle for a place where they had nothing to worry about except following Christ and fighting the devil.
We venerate the holy martyrs, who from the very beginning through the twenty-first century give up everything, even their lives, just for the sake of Christ.
Then we look at our own busy lives, and feel that something’s not right.
At least I do. This stuff bugs me all the time.
I’ve seen different, too. I grew up in East Africa, in the deserts of Northern Kenya where folks didn’t have quite as much. A lot of folks, in fact, were (and are to this day) honest-to-goodness nomads. They carry their houses on the backs of their camels. That’s how little they have.
How I do romanticize that life- that simplicity! Out on the open range, nothing but you and the desert and God. How wonderful it was!
I was a kid, though. My life was wonderful because Mom and Dad loved me, not because we lived in the desert. My life was simple because my mind was simple. Because, you know, I was a child. We moved away when I was twelve.
Good thing I have family friends who lived in Northern Kenya for nearly three decades, all the way until 2011. I asked to Skype with them, to see if things really were the way I remembered.
(Spoiler: they weren’t.)
Tim and Susannah Kelty were Evangelical missionaries working with people, called the Borana, whose lives were often very rustic. The two of them lived much more simply than they do now in North Carolina. On village visits, they would bring their tent, bedding, just enough food, and not much else. The people they worked with had even less.
Where is life simpler, I asked them. Here, or there?
“Here!” says Tim. In Kenya, they didn’t have running water at home. It had to be hauled. In North Carolina, you can drink right out of the tap. That makes life a lot simpler.
I can identify. Shortly after our son was born, my wife Daphne and I lost running water in our apartment for most of five months. We served at the time in Mwanza, Tanzania as missionaries with the Orthodox Christian Mission Center. Imagine life with a newborn- using cloth diapers- and no running water. It was really complicated. Survival, in fact, took up so much of our efforts that we had little left over for ministry.
On the other hand, Tim and Susannah’s life in Northern Kenya- and our lives in Mwanza- were simpler. “America,” said Tim, “breeds discontent. There’s more to buy here. You’re bombarded by a lot more stuff.” Life is simpler when you’re not overwhelmed by the constant noise of North American life.
We who live in a wealthy environment, Susannah explained, have to learn to practice simplicity as a spiritual discipline. There are things that train us. Things like tithing, like fasting, like setting aside time to be used as a Sabbath away from the cares and demands of daily life. “There are things I could do,” she said, but as a spiritual discipline “I choose not to do them, because of a higher commitment.”
So, we try that. We Orthodox particularly like fasting.