This article was originally published (in an edited form) in Caelum Et Terra, Summer 1994, volume 4, no 4, and is used here with the authorís permission. To obtain permission to republish this article, contact the author at [email protected].
††††††††††"Simplify, simplify," Henry Thoreau said. Reflecting on Maclin Horton's article in the Fall 1992 issue of Caelum et Terra, I was reminded of my own struggles with my ties to modern technology and yet being drawn to live a simpler life.
Often my spirit (as well as my body) has choked while witnessing the environment in big cities. In the Steubenville-Pittsburgh area, it's virtually impossible to get away from the effects of the steel mills, coal mines, and gasification plants. I see these rusted monstrous sites as scourges upon the land. They seem to be a manifestation of Jesus' scourging at the pillar. At night these bloated mega-mills, as though suffering from indigestion, often belch forth their gaseous innards creating what I call "the classic Steubenville stink". At times I have fantasized about the whole economy collapsing and divine and natural chastisements wiping out all this modern "advancement."
However, the thought of the loss of some modern advancements puts something of a check on this kind of thinking. For instance, I'm reminded of when ~ broke my arm. Surgery was needed to mend the break. What would have happened had there not been modern technology to help heal this? I am also reminded of the orthodontist treatment I received to correct my over-bite. Also, as with Maclin Horton, I find myself with a talent for computers. And I find word processors (such as I'm currently using) to be incredibly helpful and efficient. Thus, I've found myself in a dilemma: on the one hand wanting to get rid of modern technology, and live a simpler lifestyle; on the other hand finding myself indebted to this technology.
How is one to deal with this? How is one to begin living a simpler life amidst the proliferation of technological advancements? I have found something of a solution in a pamphlet titled "The Practical Spirituality of St. Maximilian" which is excerpted from Maximilian Kolbe: Authentic Franciscan. "Contemporary Polish authors, both his contemporaries and followers, see him as a practical/Franciscan, not a mere theorist."
One of the qualities Kolbe is cited as having is freedom. "In his understanding of poverty he had nothing of his own, he was attached to nothing, a user rather than an owner of things, not demanding." Kolbe is also cited as living out the quality of simplicity whereby he reinforced his freedom. For instance, he used a basin stored under is bed to bathe himself while on his knees.
But in regard to modern technology and conveniences, Kolbe did not diminish himself just to lack resources. He lessened his personal needs so others might have greater gain.
He wrote that his confreres should reduce their private needs and become the poorest of persons, so they could employ the most modern means. Although in a patched habit and worn-out shoes, they might use the latest model airplane, if it were necessary for the salvation and sanctification of a greater number of souls!
This seems to be the situation of the publishers of Caelum et Terra. They want to live and promote a simpler, more sanctifying lifestyle in accord with the Gospel, and they are employing the most modern means to disseminate this message.
Since St. Francis of Assisi is a patron of Caelum et Terra and well-known for his love of simplicity, one may wonder if he would agree with the above conclusions. Fortunately, St. Maximilian was confronted with this apparently ironic situation. The episode is recorded in St. Maximilian Kolbe: Apostle of Our Difficult Age.
While visiting the printing plant of Niepokalanow one day, a certain Polish Canon stopped before the imposing rotary press, an expensive piece of equipment, and ironically asked Father Maximilian: "If St. Francis were still living, what would he say, seeing these expensive machines?" Father Maximilian tranquilly responded: "He would roll up his sleeves and, speeding up the machines as much as possible, he would work like these good Brothers to diffuse the glory of God and the Immaculata with the most modern means."
Now, one may argue that if St. Francis lived to our age, he would do no such thing as speed up the machines and work like St. Maximilian's fellow Brothers. One may argue that St. Francis would have had nothing to do with machines even if they were to be used to spread the Good News of the Kingdom of God in the name of and for the glory of Jesus and Mary. Certainly, St. Francis would have much to criticize in our modern technological world. But unlike artificial contraceptives, or equipment that is used solely to abort babies or to perform euthanasia killings, there is nothing intrinsically evil about machines, printing presses, computers, or even television. If there was, by now I would have expected to see some kind of encyclical or pastoral letter stating so. And certainly, Caelum et Terra would not exist without the modem advancements we have in computers, word processors, and printers. If St. Francis were to remain so dead-set against the use of any modern advancements in technology even to further the Kingdom of God, I'm certain he would have considered it to be the height of hypocrisy for a magazine such as Caelum et Terra to claim him as their patron while using modern technology as their means of production.
St. Francis lived during the time of the Albigensian heretics who denied the goodness of the created world. As it is explained in "Practical Spirituality", instead of preaching against these heretics, Francis preached for the beauty and message of creation and the need to encounter God in creatures.
And so Maximilian spoke glowingly of 'brother motor', 'sister ink', and the old grandmother press.' Francis was brother to the sun and stars, mountains and trees, which are God's creations. Maximilian was brother to skyscrapers and moonshots, computers and jets, which are man's 'completion' of creation! Since it is Catholic teaching that man is co-creator with God in completing His work of creation, does this not characterize authentic Catholic spirituality in relation to the visible created world? In the story of creation we see the proper relationship between man and the environment. God created the environment for man. Genesis 1. God then set man in authority over the environment (Genesis 1:28) giving him the duty to "cultivate it and care for it." Genesis 2:15. From the environment man was to reap his bodily nourishment. Genesis 1:29, 2:16. Thus being so intricately linked to the environment, changes through its misuse could have direct and drastic effects on man. (Isn't it interesting that man's Fall resulted from his eating of a free from which God had forbidden him to eat?) Man thus being placed in authority over the environment, and being so intimately coupled to it, and being the only earthly creature capable of appreciating it and cultivating it, one can see that people have a most vital role to play in the well-being of the environment.
Therefore, when considering the effects of modern technology and industry on the environment, we must first consider its effects on people. Without going into detail, I think it is quite plain to see that many of the effects of modern inventions and novelties are not good for people. Or, more precisely, many of the ways and the extent to which modern technology is used is, among other things, spiritually harmful. We tend to be far more concerned with how it can materially benefit our every desire beyond our needs instead of how it can benefit others and sanctify ourselves. Too much of it caters to our base inclinations of laziness and immediate gratification. We are over-watered and over-fed with modern conveniences and pleasures. We're bloated. It's time for a diet.
How can we begin this diet? How can those of us who are unable or unready to "quit our jobs and buy twenty acres" begin to live more simply? First, pray for the grace of simplicity. Make a habit of it. The Franciscan rule is that prayer must reign over all temporal affairs. This attitude of prayer will lead us into the simple ways of God, showing us where we can make more room in our lives for Him and others. We will find "extras" in our lives that we can do without and offer-up as little sacrifices in reparation for sins and the conversion of sinners. This is similar to the spirituality of the Little Flower and part of our Blessed Mother's request at Fatima. Following are some concrete suggestions and ideas as to where we can begin slimming down in our use of modern niceties for personal convenience and indulgence.
Let us begin moderating our use of modern luxuries. First, the television. Throw it out. For the most part television makes one sluggish and half-witted. However, I am not blind to the fact that EWTN and various religious videos have led to conversions or a strengthening of faith. But even here there is the danger of getting caught-up in watching "good" videos or programs without really implementing that good in one's life. Therefore, one should even moderate time spent watching these "good" things.
But, in general, I see most people as being far better off without television at all. So, unless you use the television in moderation only to watch programs, such as EWTN, or video tapes of a nature that will inspire yourself and others to greater holiness, you're much better off without it. If you can not yet bring yourself to trash that mindless one-eyed thief of time, start scheduling periods of time when you will not watch any television: days, weeks, months. Then throw it out.
Moderate your use of the radio/cassette player. Cut back on listening to secular programs, music, and cassettes. Make times for working quietly. Begin spending small periods of time in silence, listening to the Holy Spirit.
Cut back on your personal needs. Whatever clothes you have not worn for a year, give to someone or someplace that can use it; perhaps a thrift store for the poor. Check into buying your own clothes and wares at such second-hand stores. I know of a couple who furnished most of their apartment for under $100 through buying what they needed at a thrift store. (Generally, the proceeds from these types of stores go to help the poor.)
Vehicles -- Don't get what you don't need. Vehicles such as motorboats, RV's, snowmobiles, and ATV's often fall into the luxury category. As far as cars and trucks, although buying a used vehicle is initially cheaper, buying a new vehicle may sometimes be more economically wise. Depending on how much you pay for a used vehicle and how good it is, one could end up sinking all kinds of extra money into it just to keep the silly thing running, and yet not have the car worth half what's being put into it. (In many ways I'd like to go back to the horse and carriage. If something goes drastically wrong with the horse, you just shoot it.)
Moderate your use of modern advancements for personal needs. Do we really need all the deodorants, hair-sprays, gels, conditioners, and cosmetics that commercials say we need? Do we really need to take a full shower everyday? Do all our clothes really need to be washed after wearing them only once or twice? Do we really need to use the dryer instead of a clothes line? Do our children really need even half the toys and games they have? Do we really need T.V. dinners, ultra-processed food, and cupboards full of snack foods? Cut back on these extras.
We have many modern advancements and conveniences in our society. I'm convinced that we can get by with a lot less. As Thoreau said, "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life are . positive hindrances. Again, the point is not to deprive ourselves just to lack resources, but so others might have greater gain. The money saved from cutting back on the items listed above can be channeled to Catholic apostolates, charities, ministries, businesses, and organizations, in desperate need of help to bring the Gospel to those who are starving both physically and/or spiritually.
Kolbe saw brother and sister in man's 'completion' of creation, but certainly, as the eldest of eleven children, I am well aware that brothers and sisters can get out of hand. I think what the publishers and readers of this magazine are really despising and criticizing is not so much the healthy growth of brother technology and sister industry, but their cancerous growth and incredibly unmoderated and undisciplined use. This preponderance of unruly corporate industry harms the environment, complicates society, and leads to all the misuses and abuses of hi-tech materialism found in our society today, such as the sanitized homicide of "undesirables", fetal experimentation, and the mass media promotion of immorality.
In industrial and technological terms, we, as a society, have just gotten "too big for our britches We need to find a more balanced, disciplined way of living with the technology we've created. We need to move more slowly, prudently, and gently in filling the earth and subduing it. Genesis 1:28. Too often we have subdued the earth with force and greed instead of subduing it with love and wisdom.
As demonstrated in "Practical Spirituality", Kolbe found harmony in God's creation and man's "completion" of it. Brother to modern technology, Kolbe also loved flower gardens, especially in spring when everything reborn symbolizes the resurrection. Like Francis himself, he cherished Christmas and had all the lights of Niepokalanow on December 25 blazing (despite the expense). He had the best grain spread on the walks and courtyards, in the birdhouses and on the rooftops. The leftover honey at the bottom to the jars he left in the sun during the warm months as a feast for the bees!
Where do we find this kind of harmony in the modern world? On the one hand Kolbe uses created things, modern inventions. On the other hand he nurtures God's creation. But even here there is a difference. Kolbe makes use of created things to benefit others and to give glory to God. How many corporations do you know of have that in mind as part of their business plan? Kolbe also nurtures God's creatures. Do business do that today? Many may have that intention, but unfortunately they often end up supporting organizations that make a god of the environment. Thus, the environment is "protected" at the expense of people -- something neither Francis nor Kolbe would condone. Rather, they would speedily condemn such action. We must take a look back to the beginning of creation, to the original harmony between man and the environment, realizing man is himself a part of the environment -- indeed, the most important part.
The best advice is from our Lord. "Go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me." Matthew 1 9;2 I. The first Christians did this. "All who believed . . . would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one 5 need." Acts 2:44-45. Thus, "there was no needy person among them". Acts 4:34. The idea, which St. Maximilian Kolbe personified, is to live simply so that others can simply live.
Andrew Schmiedicke now resides in Front Royal, Virginia with his wife and family, where he owns an Internet development company. St. Maximilian Kolbe is the patron of his business. He can be contacted at [email protected]