Self-Simplication & Catherine of Siena

Stages of Spiritual Development

What tastes, likes, dislikes, ways of being, are getting in the way of you hearing the sound of the genuine within yourself? What is keeping you from ordering your loves so that you can truly know God? Why is it so hard to become still enough to name these things, still enough to look deeply into yourself? Try this. Make a list of the roles you play in the lives of the people around you. What are your responsibilities? Which of them are chosen, and which were imposed on you? What would be the cost of letting them go? 

We live busy lives, full of responsibilities, and our self-image gets caught up in the expectations of others.  Self-simplification isn’t just about deciding that we can have fewer pairs of pants, or cleaning out the basement. It’s about removing interior clutter, which includes a fearless inventory of the tasks we undertake and the roles that we play, and some honesty about whether they actually bring us closer to God or not. For a good ten years of my life, I wanted to be a fiction writer. I was terrible at it, but I persisted, going to my desk every morning to write at least 500 words. I didn’t actually like writing fiction, but I had an image of myself as a successful and admired author, and I wasn’t willing to let that image die. Yet when I did, I found that time at my desk every morning could be used for prayer. My life deepened, I became less compulsive and driven, I grew happier and more content when I stopped trying to become something I wasn’t meant to be. Self-simplification is, in part, about letting illusions die, and discovering the things that are born as a result.

Surrendering an image of myself as a novelist was relatively easy, but there are other roles that it is much harder to surrender. Parenthood brings many responsibilities, and a lot of social scrutiny, with all sorts of helpful people just waiting to tell you whether you’re doing it right. But parenthood is also an act of continual surrender, because as our children grow and change, they need different things from us as parents, and as soon as we’ve figured out who we are as the parents of five year olds, we have to give up that knowledge and those roles to become the parents of six year olds. To simplify as a parent is to say, “I don’t know everything I’m supposed to be doing, but I do know how to love my child, and I’ll stay attentive to that love.” The same is true in our occupations. Our jobs are constantly changing, and the only way to negotiate that change well is to give up on the illusion of isolated and all-knowing expertise and come to rely on the ideas, innovations, and wisdom of the people around us. Self-simplification in work simply comes from saying “I love the work and the good it does more than I love promotions, status, and people kowtowing to my expertise. So I’m going to ignore those things and work in the way that’s most loving.”

One of the great theologians of the church, Catherine of Siena, had much to say about how we learn to self-simplify and align ourselves with love. For Catherine, the purification of the self can be a form of charity. She didn’t see any difference between the inner and outer person. Someone who tries to do many good works in the world, but is full of anger and harsh criticisms for the people who surround her, is not practicing real charity, and her works won’t have any lasting effects. In order to truly be charitable, one has to cultivate virtue. We do this by learning to be humble and by learning to order our disordered loves. In order to learn either of these things, we must truly come to know ourselves. We must discern, bravely and honestly, all that is good and all that is bad within ourselves.*

When our inner selves are aligned with God’s love, we will be able to enact that love in the world. But Catherine says that even this interior work of ordering our disordered loves is a form of action. Even when we’re doing nothing but struggling with ourselves in the depth of our souls, that struggle has a reverberating effect. Because as we grow in grace and love, we contribute more and more to the atmosphere of grace. Think of grace as an environment that we all live and act in. Like our world’s environment, this environment of grace can be hurt by our selfishness, our unthinking waste, our belief that we can dominate it and don’t need to cooperate with it. But we are like trees (and indeed, a tree is one of Catherine’s favorite metaphors), and our interior processes release oxygen into this environment of grace, so that other creatures, other people, can dwell within it in fullness and joy.

So you see, self-simplification is really not about you. It’s about God’s love, acting through you so that it can be expressed as love for neighbor. For Catherine, and for the other mystics, self-simplication is about clearing the blockages that get in the way of God’s love. In order to know which parts of ourselves are getting in the way, we have to know ourselves deeply and honesty. And so we are led, by love, back to the challenging work of discernment. Let’s have Catherine have the last word, for now, about discernment:

Discernment is that light which dissolves all darkness, dissipates ignorance, and seasons every virtue and virtuous deed. It has a prudence that cannot be deceived, a strength that is invincible, a constancy right up to the end, reaching as it does from heaven to earth, that is, from the knowledge of me to the knowledge of oneself, from love of me to love of one’s neighbors. Discernment’s truly humble prudence evades every devilish and creaturely snare, and with unarmed hand — that is, through suffering — it overcomes the devil and the flesh. By this gentle glorious light the soul sees and rightly despises her own weakness; and by so making a fool of herself she gains mastery of the world [the small self], treading it underfoot with her love, scorning it as worthless.

Catherine, ., & Noffke, S. (1980). Catherine of Siena: The dialogue. New York: Paulist Press.

* My tendency is to try to ignore or sidestep a call to such discernment by working at things that don’t really matter, drinking too much, and giving myself over to entertainments that distract but don’t give any real joy. To stay within such discernment is hard for me, so I wrote a small prayer that I say when I’m tempted to hide or run away. It helps me a great deal. Perhaps it will help you as well.

Wander with me, Beloved, into the cave of myself, into the desert of my heart, onto an ocean of memory in a rudderless boat. Allow me to love myself, my chief neighbor. Allow shame to abrade me and make me humble. Allow me to hear myself, for I am a word that you speak, for I am your echo, and the answer to a question that you ask. Ask your question within me. Help me to question myself. Although in a cave, I cannot hide. Although in a desert, I am not alone. Although I am rudderless, I am guided by you. For you are a question, and you are an answer, and you are the emptiness before the next question.

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