True Simplicity

In Chapter 5 of Transformation in Christ, Dietrich von Hildebrand deals with, what he calls, true simplicity. By this he means a sole orientation of one’s life toward God, the unum necessarium. This simplicity is contrasted with a life devoted to one of many things, where consideration of God’s will is but one consideration among many. This kind of complex life is splintered because it is not solely directed toward God. To quote that famous passage from Saint Augustine, “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee”. When we try to serve God and mammon our lives become split. Sin introduces disunity in the soul, precisely because it takes our gaze from God. The true simplicity that should accompany a Christian life is now disrupted. Only when sin is removed from our lives, and this is accomplished only through a transformation in Christ, does unity reign within our soul as we direct our gaze toward God alone. As Dietrich von Hildebrand is quick to point out, true simplicity is very difficult to obtain and cannot be fully obtained this side of the beatific vision. However, this is the holiness of life to which we are are called. “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” (Lev 19.2)

From Chapter 5 of Transformation in Christ :

A person confined within his natural attitude may not squander his interests on a multitude of trivial irrelevancies: he may concentrate upon an important cause, consecrate himself to a noble vocation, or be overwhelmed with a great love. However, he will then be exhausted, as it were, by that one thing, valuable maybe, but yet only one among many human concerns. Everything else is obscured, and he cannot afford to pay adequate attention even to a genuine good if it be unconnected with the thing which now engrosses his interest.

It is not so with true simplicity, involving an exclusive devotion to the unum necessarium alone. With this, new forces spring up in the man; an abundance of spiritual intensity arises from his participation in the life of Christ. New torrents are released, of which he knew nothing before; he is now enabled to react adequately, in a far greater measure than in his former life, to human individualities and the manifoldness of situations…

How inexhaustible becomes thereby the capacity for devoting ourselves to our fellow creatures and to their legitimate cares. Only think of the saints: St. Paul for example, when he says, “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is scandalized, and I am not on fire?” (2 Cor 11.29). This is a measure of love which transcends all natural categories. Or again, what a never relaxing intensity in attending to a variety of high tasks do we find in St. Albert the Great, adding the immensity of his scientific work to his monastic duties and his episcopal functions! With similar intent we may point to the life of a St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

From the natural standpoint, such a simultaneity of nobly performed duties might well seem impossible. But the saints could achieve such an abundance of life precisely because they were simple and by reason of their simplicity participated in the life of Christ.

In the preceding passage an important concept is taken for granted, of which Dietrich von Hildebrand treats elsewhere in Transformation in Christ. Simplicity in the natural order implies a narrowness of life (first paragraph quoted above), while simplicity in sole devotion to God implies great depth. The reason for this is to be found in the hierarchy of being. God, the alpha and omega, at the top, down to angels, to humans, to animals, to plant life, to non-biological matter, and so forth. When we orientate our lives toward God, we become focused on the unum necessarium, the ultimate and divine logos of the world, the source of life itself. This implies great depth, in that we are able to encounter the world in conspectu Dei (in view of God), and thus we are capable of seeing “things” (and people) as they really are. However, when our focus is on things of this world this depth of meaning is lost. No longer are we orientated towards the source of all life. We are instead focused on the things of this world, in which no light of meaning can be shed on anything else. We thus become narrow.

I cannot recommend highly enough a complete and careful reading of Transformation in Christ (Amazon link). It’s a lengthy book (500 pages), but it is not difficult. It was meant to be read slowly, and I suggest having a pencil or highlighter in hand. In fact, this is a work to be studied, not read. Transformation in Christ is one of the great spiritual classics of the last century, written by a truly great man. To learn more about Dietrich von Hildebrand, I highly recommend The Soul of a Lion (Amazon link), written by his wife, Alice von Hildebrand – a distinguished philosopher in her own right. Buy both together and get free shipping from Amazon!


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