“The more uncomplicated your view of faith, the more surely you will be disposed
to simplicity of action and conduct, which is the disposition God wants of you.”
– St. John Baptist de La Salle
Artists, mystics, and children have an advantage over most of the rest of folks. They naturally gravitate toward simplicity, and they naturally adopt an irritatingly narrow focus on the most basic and immediate kinds of things. Distraction – according to our general view – is their unwelcome handicap, whereas to them “distraction” is simply the way they encounter the real world, seen as a granular daily friendship with each moment, each encounter, and each person they meet.
A more calculating and less benevolent application of the same principle occurs in politics, where each moment, each encounter, and each person are opportunities to draw others into a certain view of things. And while such talents need not necessarily be used for nefarious purposes, they may serve the “disposition” that lies behind their use. An example of this happened to me many years ago when I briefly met a former popular mayor of San Francisco who attended the funeral of one of the Brothers. He was in his late 80s, and after the funeral he was introduced to me. Firm handshake, direct eye-contact, natural smile, genuine interest, and total focus and conversational engagement for 20-30 seconds. When he walked away, I was ready to vote for him. In this case, it was simply an old politician who now used his talents for immediate engagement from a genuine disposition of companionship, with no political ends in mind. But I could see the power behind it.
St. John Baptist de La Salle falls more on the mystical side of “disposition” when he urges others to pursue simplicity: “Strive earnestly to give up worldly ways: adopt a simple demeanor along with manners and conduct that reflect the Spirit of God.” “Do not torture yourself with frequent acts of penance; they could injure your health. A simple view of God from time to time suffices.” Where does such disposition come from? What did he see as the transformative perspective that would move the soul toward depth, toward starkly revealed daily encounter, toward God? Here it is:
“Look on everything with the eyes of faith. You must never fail to do this, no matter what the reason. Viewing things with the eyes of faith will earn for you in one day more good, more interior application, closer union with God, and greater vigilance over yourself than a month of those penances and austerities to which you are attracted. Believe me, you will see its effect, although perhaps for the present you will not understand it. Let me repeat: the more uncomplicated your view of faith, the more surely you will be disposed to simplicity of action and conduct, which is the disposition God wants of you.” (Letter 117)
Here is another way of saying that: Look at everything from God’s perspective. Never forget to do this for any reason. Seeing things like God does can in one day do you more good, give you more enthusiasm, help you understand yourself and others and God more deeply, than all of those pious works, popular distractions, and personal “sacrifices” that you like so much. You may not see results right away, but I guarantee that this simple change of viewpoint will lead you to a simplicity of action and conduct in everything that you do. Why? Because God is now really a part of it all.
For all those trying to cope with new realities, fresh challenges, unforeseen needs, frustrating daily distractions, and an irritatingly narrow focus on the most basic and immediate kinds of things, De La Salle’s words may be helpful, for they come from 40+ years of dealing with challenges that, on balance, were much greater than ours are today. When many others would have thrown in the towel, he persisted. And that has made all the difference to millions whom he would never know.
As Lasallian educators, we shape a future that is not our own. It is our avowed vocation to persist, and to do so with a genuinely deep faith, and with a simplicity that emerges from that deep faith, focusing on each moment, each encounter, and each person we meet. It is our privileged role to be artists in learning, mystics in relationships, and children in wonder. Not a bad vocation, that.
A more recent voice articulates this same “big picture” of what we do, albeit using different words. “When life is stripped down to its very essentials, it is surprising how simple things become. Fewer and fewer things matter and those that matter, matter a great deal more. … [E]very life serves a single purpose. We are here to grow in wisdom and to learn to love better. Despite the countless and diverse ways we live our lives, every life is a spiritual path, and all life has a spiritual agenda.”
Let’s let De La Salle have the last word, however, in a quote that has Zoom implications: “If you show a simple and serious exterior, people will soon conclude that your inner life too is well-controlled and that there is reason to believe that you are fit to educate your disciples in the Christian spirit.” Pursue simplicity and focus with “eyes of faith.” The rest will take care of itself.