So, who was St. Benedict and how can his spirituality help those aspiring to minimalism today?
Benedict was a 6th century monk from Nursia near Rome, who first lived as a hermit before establishing various monasteries and writing a Rule to guide monastic living. His Rule is still used today in many monasteries and convents as well as being followed by many lay people.
Whilst many Christians practise the traditions of fasting, prayer and giving to charity during the forty days of Lent, the Benedictine way of life is like a permanent Lenten journey. At the heart of St. Benedict's Rule is his message to listen to God's voice in the everyday. However, Benedictine life is not about total abstinence. Instead it's about moderation, humility and serving others.
Some UK readers may remember that the Benedictine way of life was the subject of two BBC TV series The Monastery and The Big Silence broadcast about ten years ago. The aim of these projects was to enable people from different walks of life and different religions or non-religions to experience monastic life for a sustained period of time and thus to reveal to the participants and viewers new insights into their inner lives and spirituality.
I didn't watch the TV series at the time – I was probably too busy collapsing in front of something far less meaningful on the box after a demanding day working and dealing with my own two young children, if I remember correctly - but the results were fascinating and can be read here. Similar TV series were later broadcast in the USA and Australia.
Now, whilst we can't easily give up our current lives to seek spiritual guidance in a Benedictine community there are simple ways we can incorporate St. Benedict's ideas and values into our everyday lives.
Eat simply - Eat modest amounts of simple food but always have enough to share with visiting guests. The Benedictine ideal is neither affluence nor poverty.
Set limits - Live in a minimalistic but comfortable home. Have just enough clothes to meet your needs.
Live an alternative non-consumerist lifestyle – Don't be afraid to be counter-cultural. St. Benedict preferred solitude to the decadence of society and was determined to live out the gospel in the midst of a complex world.
Embrace humility – Stop chasing perfection and recognise both your human weaknesses and your capacity for greater self-knowledge. Don't expect reward and recognition for everything you do. Being humble doesn't have to mean losing your self-confidence.
Seek quiet – Disconnect from technology more. Just as Jesus withdrew to a quiet place to pray and escape the busy social whirl of his ministry, Benedictine life can teach us the value of moments of quiet contemplation in our age of multimedia communication. Learn to appreciate the beauty of nature and make time for moments of silence and stillness as much as you can.
Be a good household manager - Many of St. Benedict’s ideas for running a monastery make good sense: to value and respect basic commodities such as water, to look after all created things, to not be wasteful and to repair things and recycle as much as possible.
Limit your possessions - And as for personal challenges beloved of many minimalists (100 less things, Project 333) St. Benedict can teach us a thing or two! Each Lent it's customary for monks to submit a list of their personal possessions (a poverty bill) to the abbot as a means of examining their relationship to stuff and also to assess what they can live without. Modern Benedictine communities value and enjoy the usefulness of possessions yet practise restraint in terms of attachment and ownership. Ultimately, personal ownership is seen as a vice because material things derive from God's creation.
Respect other faiths – Benedictine followers have great respect for different Christian traditions, other faiths and an openness to sharing their lives with the non-religious. They have strong links with Buddhist monks whilst recognising their differences. Different faiths can learn from each other, find common paths and unite through prayer.
Cultivate discipline – Don't be put off by the discipline of monastic life – it doesn't come easily to the monks at first. Instead try improving your self-discipline in incremental steps. If you feel you need to stop bad habits do so gradually. Reduce sugar from your diet one foodstuff at a time, don't cut out alcohol completely but practise moderate drinking instead. As you cut out these distractions and obstacles gradually you'll slowly encounter the keys to unlocking what's been stopping you seeking ultimate fulfilment.
Give something up for a day – Paula Huston's Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit gives imaginative daily prompts useful to anyone interested in trying out St. Benedict's ideas. Paula Huston is an American author and Benedictine oblate (a lay Christian who is associated with a Benedictine community). Each day in Lent there is a simplifying idea to try (clear out a junk drawer, scrub a dirty corner) followed by guidance on how to go about each simplifying act together with thoughts on how they might enrich your spirituality. I like the variety of the daily actions. Doing something extra (invite a lonely person in for tea and conversation) or giving something up (email, TV) for just one day seems more interesting and easier to follow than giving up one thing for the duration of Lent. Also, by doing so many different acts hopefully there will be less sense of failure and new lessons and habits may be borne. And there's no reason why these practices can't be followed outside of Lent.
Early church tradition is rich in the wisdom of soul simplification and offers a multitude of spiritual disciplines to counteract the temptations that muddles our lives. ~ Paula Huston
Abbot Christopher Jamison who featured on the The Monastery has since written two books Finding Sanctuary and Finding Happiness. The message of his books is similar to the findings of the TV series: seeking happiness through consumption and chasing status is not a successful route to long lasting fulfilment. Rather, discipline, moderation and simple pleasures are 'stepping stones to steady our nerve as we make our choices about where to go next in search of happiness.'
The Rule of St. Benedict is accessible to anyone regardless of their religious beliefs. It certainly offers some fresh new ideas to ponder and try out if simplicity's your thing.
Simplicity is harder to follow than fashion but a far more rewarding journey.