Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Discover the Other

There are four core values to my program here in Philly: Simple Living, Justice, Spirituality, and Community. All are pillars of the SSJ Mission Corps and define the way in which I live my daily life and how I interact not only with those I serve, but also with the women with whom I live.

Saturday my community and I sat down to examine the value of simple living in our lives and in the life of this program. After a day filled with reflection and sharing, I was reminded of many things and had a few new things made strikingly apparent to me.

First of all, simple living is not about money- it's about spending. That is, to live simply is about being conscious of how you spend- how you spend your money, how you spend your time, how your life is spent with others and to what ends you spend. In the case of a full time volunteer, money is often the primary focus of simple living; I mean, you figure in a single day at my old job I made more money that I am alloted for my personal stipend monthly here in Philly. If that type of shift doesn't make you conscious of money and, in a way, force you to live more simply, I don't know what will.

Second, simple living is not about money- it's about living. To live simply you must simplify your life. Seems obvious, huh? and it is, but sometimes the most obvious principles are the hardest to adhere to. Simple living is about getting rid of excess in you life. By discarding the stuff that gets in the way of truly living, a new freedom can be found and in the process, we discover that living simply allows for greater spiritual and relational awareness, if you but let it. That's not to say it's easy by any stretch of the imagination. Whether you're clearing distractions out of you life or trying to harness freedom and be actively aware... it's hard. But as I hope, pray, and strive... it's worth it.

Third, simple living is not about money- it's about living. I know, I know- second verse, same as the first- but just hear me out. Simple living is not only about learning to live more simply, allowing life to take on deeper meaning in a striped-down, raw form, it's also about living with others. That is, living in solidarity with other people.

The simple life that I live here in Philly is extravagant compared with some of the people I work with and opulent when compared to people around the world. I live simply by choice; lots of other people don't get that choice. Instead, they are making ends meet and scrounging together what little they have in order to survive. And guess what? They manage; they're happy; and they have all they need. My choice to live simply is in union with my brothers and sisters around the world. That choice needs to be conscious or simple living can easily devolve into a money saving lifestyle or a self-righteous pat on the back.

I bike to work each day not for exercise or fresh air or pride or budget constraints but because the man who's home I enter that afternoon may have no way to transport the furniture I give him or may have no quick way to get to the contracting job he works to make a living and I need to understand that. The woman who comes into the community center in need of a coat, having walked from her home blocks, if not miles, away, will get the assistance she needs and I will happily serve her. But somehow, having walked the twenty minutes to work in freezing temperatures this morning, I know, through true compassion, what the need is that I am serving and, if only in one sense, the woman who I am working with. It is simple steps like this that open the door to change. Change of perspective, change of heart, change in the world.

Experience breeds compassion. To have even the slightest sense of the pain/need/dream I am serving in another, I must know what it means, and ultimately feels like, to be in pain, need, or hope. There is no way I can sympathize with every person in the world, but by making an effort to live honestly, consciously, and truly I can empathize with each person I encounter. And even when empathy does not come, I have the ability to ask that person to share their joy, pain, and/or need with me that I might come to know it and grow in compassion.

And so this call to live simply goes far beyond my own life. It is one that helps me find God in the world, in others, and deep within me. They say, "Live simply, so that others might simply live" but as an addendum to that I'd say, "Live simply, so that you might recognize the really complicated (i.e. important) parts."

The last three days have been busy with the crunch of Christmas upon us at the parish. To the outside observer these days would figure to be days like most others. Sunday I attended Mass at Visitation, visited St. Agatha/St.James in University City, and took part in my community's weekly spirituality night. Monday we were swamped by people coming to the community center/parish for help with everything from utilities and furniture to food and Christmas gifts. Today, Tuesday, a busy Monday gave way to a day filled with tasks and deeds- a mother/widow in need of any assistance possible to keep her electricity on for the month, requests for donations presented to local business owners and managers, and a neighbor turned friend in need of pain relief and simple companionship.

These experiences, which were once new to me, are now commonplace in my weekly duties. The impact they have on me all depends on the moment in which I encounter them. At times they retain the wonder of spiritual insight and awakening, while at others they are simply what I do, nothing groundbreaking, just the everyday call of my ministry. Yet, with a reawakened connection to simple living, I have taken note of something resonating throughout my experiences over the last three days. Be each moment mundane or marvelous, there is in each moment an opportunity to find the other (and in some cases be the other) and be joined in compassion.

Simple living isn't about money and it isn't easy, but luckily we don't have to do it alone. Compassion is an act of relationship, done in union with God & with others. As the poster that hangs in our living room, and consumes me each time I take the time to be captured by it, says so well: "We live and work to bring all people into union with God and with one another."

That's the life we're all called to live and who knows? In the process of seeking such a simple goal, we might just get swept up with one another and with God- C'est la vie.


  1. Hi, Colleen. I'm very glad to have come across your blog. You're way ahead of me on what counts for me at the moment :-)
    I will return :-)

  2. Well put. To be honest, sometimes i miss life in the little basement apartment i had many years ago, with only the things i could fit in a car load... You remind me of my husband's volunteer years in Appalachia- not just because he had nothing but because we both learned that when "things" aren't there to get in the way, you can truly experience the beauty of persons....