translated and annotated by thomas merton
In this short yet concise book, Jean-Baptiste Chautard and Thomas Merton speak on the importance of having a simple, humble character and on how this is one of the cornerstone principles to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance.
“Why read a monk’s book?” the reader may ask. The question seems to make sense if the reader is in no way connected to the life of a monk or even to the Catholic Church. However, one must take into account that the monk, although living in a rather peculiar reality compared to most believers – especially when the monk is a Trappist, like Chautard and Merton are – strives to lead a life of utter abnegation of his own will on behalf of a greater good: God. It’s almost natural that a monk, one who is fully dedicated to seek God at all times, may eventually have something to say about this subject.
Chautard is no exception. The abbot of Sept-Fons, monk of the O. C. S. O. and author of The Soul of the Apostolate was asked to write a work of encouragement to nuns who had recently joined the rigorous monastic order. Chautard’s response was exactly what they needed: The Spirit of Simplicity.
In a short amount of pages, Chautard explains the significance of the rigor and humility so characteristic of the Trappists (another name for O. C. S. O. monks, taken from the Abbey of La Trappe) in their walk with God and in the order’s own identity. He often refers to Cîteaux, the cradle of the original Order of Cister, in his exhortation for a life of simplicity: “The spirit of Cîteaux is a spirit of simplicity: that means, a spirit of sincerity, of truth.” Chautard also refers to the examples of Bernard of Clairvaux and Benedict of Nursia, role models of a humble life devoted to God; he also constantly mentions documents that were essential to form and maintain a monastic life around the concept of simplicity such as the Exordium Parvum (“Little Exordium”), which he seems to attribute its authorship to Stephen Harding, another Cistercian monk.
To Chautard, simplicity is the key to a life according to God’s will. By addressing the customs of the original Cistercian monastic rule, Chautard points out the way in which humility and frugality are necessary for us to better understand our own condition before God. The monk defends that simplicity must come from within our hearts before it produces any outward effect: “Love is the power that realizes unity in the soul, and then it makes the soul one same spirit with God.”
Thomas Merton complements Chautard’s work with his analysis, providing numerous quotes and excerpts from Bernard of Clairvaux so that we may better understand the reasoning of the Abbot of Sept-Fons. From the writings of St. Bernard, Merton states that simplicity is a fundamental feature of the believer resulting from God’s will overpowering our own self-will. The ultimate goal of a humble life of abstinence is the union with God, something that remains dependent of the Lord’s grace, but to which we are prepared to receive when the spirit of simplicity lives in us.
In this world ever more focused on consuming and on personal interests, The Spirit of Simplicity remains up-to-date even after ninety years, ever since Chautard first wrote it. The work is a breath of fresh air that challenges us to redirect our goals and to adopt a lifestyle that gets us closer to God’s nature.