The more you act with simplicity in regard to what is to be observed, the more the practice of it will become easy for you.

 St. John Baptist de La Salle [1]


For those of you who have been to Disneyland – and not just for a quickie visit, but for that multiday, multipass, parkhopper sort of visit – you will relate to my recent experience of its focused frenetic fabrication of fun. It reminded me of an insight from many years ago, when another Brother and I spent some time in Orlando, birdwatching and going to the Disney parks there. One day we quietly watched birds while ambling through Sanibel Island, the next we rushed hither and yon from one nice artificial experience to the next. I have to say that I enjoyed it all. But I also have to admit that what I remember, what took root inside, and what I hold most dear today, are the bird-watching days. There is a depth and richness in the complex simplicity of nature that finally and easily outweighs the simple complexity of theme parks. Chesterton wrote, “Men rush toward complexity; but yearn for simplicity.[2]  And for education, “the chief object of education should be to restore simplicity. If you like to put it so, the chief object of education is not to learn things; nay, the chief object of education is to unlearn things.[3]

John Baptist de La Salle and his early followers knew this well. Some things have to be learned and others things have to be unlearned if genuine education is to occur, and this is especially true in the development of new teachers. In the early Lasallian operational handbook, The Conduct of Christian Schools (1720), there is an extensive appendix dedicated simply to the training of new teachers. These are the opening lines: “This section on the training of teachers comprises two parts: (1) making new teachers lose the traits they have but should not have; and (2) making them acquire those traits that they lack, and which are very necessary for them.” [4] (Notice that unlearning comes first.) Among the fifteen listed traits that must be unlearned are talking too much, impatience, undue familiarity, and partiality. For each, a full description of the trait is followed by how it may be corrected, with specific suggestions. The ten traits that must be acquired include professionalism, prudence, winning manners, and decisiveness. Each one likewise is fully described and includes suggestions as to how to acquire it.

This approach could easily be applied to ourselves. As Lent continues, are there things that we should unlearn, habits that we might uninhabit, thoughts or actions or tendencies that deserve our attention? Likewise – and after starting to dismantle some of those less helpful traits – are there habits we might cultivate, and thoughts or actions or tendencies that deserve to be developed, or at least started? Just thinking about it all reminds me of walking down a crowded Main Street at Disneyland. Where to start? What to pay attention to? Which shop to enter and browse? It doesn’t seem to be a simple process.

De La Salle’s quote about simplicity may be helpful here. What would it meant to “act with simplicity” when addressing personal areas that deserve our attention? For me, the experience at Sanibel Island is a simplicity touchstone. What brings you simplicity, peace, and a quiet settledness of spirit? Where are important things allowed to have a voice, to poke out of the chaos of daily life and breathe? Such places of simplicity – which today require intentionality and effort – allow the little things to emerge, allow the birds to be heard and seen. A short, daily evening reflection about lessons learned that day has been the practice of religious orders for centuries. Today, even successful CEOs have discovered its benefits,[5] backed up by a Harvard study that those who do so were 23% more successful than those who didn’t.[6]

Finally, simplicity requires breadth, and today it is not the practical that deserves our most focused attention. Our souls are like nature, bearing a simplicity that is profoundly complex, and demanding a wider reach. Finally, “it is a fundamental point of view, a philosophy or religion which is needed, and not any change in habit or social routine. The things we need most for immediate practical purposes are all abstractions. We need a right view of the human lot, a right view of the human society . . . Desire and danger make every one simple. ‘Take no thought what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink, or wherewithal ye shall be clothed. . . . But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.’ Those amazing words are not only extraordinarily good, practical politics; they are also superlatively good hygiene. The one supreme way of making all those processes go right, the processes of health, and strength, and grace, and beauty . . . is to think about something else.”[7]

As Lent moves towards Holy Week, perhaps it is worthwhile to think about something else, something more like Sanibel Island than like Disneyland. Simplicity does not require a parade.

A PDF of this reflection is HERE.
[1] De La Salle, John Baptist, Meditations by St. John Baptist de La Salle, trans. Richard Arnandez, and Augustine Loes, eds. Augustine Loes and Francis Huether, (Landover, MD: Christian Brothers Conference, 1994), 262 (Med. 142.3)
[2] Chesteron, G.K., The Complete Works (2014). Chapter X – The Moral Of Stevenson
[3] Chesteron, G.K.,  All Things Considered (1908). https://www.azquotes.com/quote/1253779
[4] De La Salle, John Baptist. Conduct of Christian Schools. Translated by Richard Arnandez and William Mann. Edited by Richard Arnandez and William Mann. Moraga, CA: Buttimer Institute of Lasallian Studies, 1989. Pg. 255, ff.
[5] https://tinyurl.com/yya5bggm
[6] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2414478
[7] Chesteron, G.K., Heretics. (1906)