“’Tis the gift to be simple” are the opening words of “Simple Gifts,” the old Shaker hymn that I have sung many times while gathered for worship with Friends. The refrain of the song goes on to say “When true simplicity is gained, To bow and to bend we will not be ashamed. To turn, turn will be our delight, ’Til by turning, turning we come ’round right.”
The testimony of simplicity goes deeper than song lyrics in a hymnal. First-time visitors to our meetinghouse often tell us that its simplicity helps them focus inward during meeting for worship. In contrast to many of today’s popular mega-churches, we do not have a stage, special lighting, a fog machine or overhead projectors. If the electricity in our meetinghouse goes out (as it did on one occasion during an unusually strong windstorm) we can still gather for worship. My monthly meeting also strives for theological simplicity: we believe that a relationship with the Divine does not depend on any book, creed, or sacrament.
I find simplicity to be the most challenging of the Quaker testimonies. As a younger Friend, I view all of the Quaker testimonies as ideals to strive for as opposed to destinations. To strive for integrity is to strive to be truthful, just as to strive for equality is to strive for the equal treatment of all. Because the testimony of simplicity is open to interpretation, it can feel all-encompassing.
One way early Friends lived out simplicity was through plain dress. They held strict ideals of what constituted as simple when it came to dress, often wearing dark clothes that lacked adornments such as lace or embroidery. These choices in dress were always subject to the individual conscience, and through guidance by the Inner Light. Early Friends understood that complexity distracted them from focusing on God’s guidance in their lives.
Modern Friends bring new concerns to the search for simplicity. I look for clothing that is sweatshop free, union made, and friendly to the environment. Striving to find clothing that meets even one of these standards can be a challenge, as many large chain department stores exclusively carry clothing imported from abroad and manufactured without fair labor laws. I also strive not to pay a lot of regard to trends in fashion. When I purchase clothing, I select it because I like it, it is durable and it is comfortable. In spite of this, I was born in the early 1980s, and as a twenty-something it is challenging for me not to be concerned with what my peers are wearing.
I see the testimony of simplicity as a challenge to concern myself more with what I need than with what I want. My attitudes towards material goods is more important than their cost. I know that if I try to be true to this testimony, I will find the spiritual refreshment and know that ’tis the gift to be simple.