Desire and Simplicity: Talking Beasts, Van Gogh, Reliable Landmarks, and Walking Long Distances Alone: Part 2

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[This is a two-part post taken from a session co-presented by Dave Bruno and Russ Ramsey at Hutchmoot 2015. The two posts come from Dave’s portion of the talk. Read part one here. You can listen to this talk in its entirely in the Hutchmoot 2015 Audio Archive.]

I would like to take some time to ask if simplicity can be a spiritual discipline we use to access this idea of “Sehnsucht” longing, this idea of desire. C. S. Lewis said this desire is “always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be.’” So I think it would be helpful for us to frame this part of our discussion in terms of a journey. If we are journeying toward this desire, is it possible the spiritual discipline of simplicity can help us find the way?

Now, we all know that “not all who wander are lost.” Whether we are heading somewhere with a purpose or wandering somewhere without a particular aim, one way to determine if we are heading in the right direction is to look for reliable landmarks.

Are you all familiar with cairns? Some people love them, some think cairns are a blight on the landscape. A cairn is basically a stack of rocks. Modern-day hikers sometimes build cairns along trails that are hard to follow. Some trails cover landscape that is unremarkable, it all looks similar––at least to the untrained eye. If you are hiking a trail and come across a pile of rocks, you know you are moving in the right direction. Well, whether or not you are a fan of disrupting the beauty of the landscape in the interest of personal safety, a cairn is an example of a reliable landmark.

I want to talk about one of the most famous hikers to ever get lost. This is a guy who set off in search of the very desire we have been talking about, but he used unreliable landmarks to get there. I am talking about the Prodigal Son.

In chapter 15 of his gospel account, Luke tells the story of the Prodigal Son. As the story goes, a young man approaches his wealthy father and tells him life is boring. He desires more. He wants to strike out on his own and journey to find what his heart longs for. The guy is looking for “Sehnsucht.” But the young man does not know the way to go. He correctly intuits that he will need some help, some reliable landmarks to guide him on his way. So he asks for stuff.

“Father, give me a share of the property that is coming to me,” says the Prodigal Son.

Notice what he does not ask for. He does not say, “Father, tell me about the great city of Corinth and what I might expect to find there.”

He does not say, “Father, take me to the multi-cultural city of Caesarea Philippi and show me around the place.”

He does not say, “Father, connect me with your friends in Rome, so I can establish myself there.”

The young man does not ask for guidance from his father. He does not ask for the companionship of his father. He does not ask for assistance from his father. He asks his father for stuff. The Prodigal Son wants to journey to his heart’s desire and he figures a goodly portion of material possessions will help him avoid getting lost once he sets out. For whatever reason, the father obliges the son.

We know it does not go well for the Prodigal Son. His is a botched journey. The possessions he brings with him disappear. He is left destitute and lost in a “far country.” His circumstances go from bad to even more bad when the only work he can find is tending pigs. Feeding those pigs, he longed to eat the “pods the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.”

At this point, the Prodigal Son comes to his senses and determines to get unlost. He decides to go on another journey to his heart’s desire, back home. He figures he can ask his father to forgive him and then live as a servant in the house of his youth. And we know the happy ending of the story after the Prodigal Son journeys home.

Let me make a few observations.

First, the material wealth the Prodigal took with him when he left his father’s house was not a reliable landmark. It did not lead him to his heart’s desire.

Next, the Prodigal’s heart was stirred with a restless desire before he had possessions, after he received possessions, and then again after he lost possessions.

Finally, his journey home was the exact opposite of his journey to the far country. He left as the ultimate practitioner of materialism and returned as the ultimate practitioner of simplicity.

What can we learn?

Well at minimum, we know that material wealth is not going to get us to where we ultimately want to go. Someone may quibble that the Prodigal was irresponsible and that if he had not squandered his possessions, he would have been happy. But I think the story tells us otherwise. Bottom line, our desire for “we know not what” is not satisfied by material wealth.

Also, this desire we have been talking about does not go away no matter what our circumstances. We have this desire before we get what we think will satisfy it. We still have this desire after we get what we think will satisfy it. And this is interesting, even after we lose what we thought would satisfy it, we still have this desire. Notice that when the Prodigal comes to his senses his conclusion is not that life is hopeless. Hopelessness is not a condition of an unsatisfied heart. Hopelessness is a condition of a damaged soul. Remember, Lewis makes the case that this desire we are talking about points to joy at another time. This Sehnsucht, this desire is the ultimate irony. It is never satisfied and yet always produces hopefulness.

And this is where simplicity as a spiritual discipline might just do our souls good. While I do not think it is the primary lesson to be learned from the story of the Prodigal Son, I do think we can discern this truth from the story. On our journey to our heart’s deepest desire, we always arrive with nothing.
Now, my next thought does not come from the story of the Prodigal Son. Even so, I think it is worth our consideration. Assuming we do not damage our souls and we continue to journey to our heart’s deepest desire, we will arrive with nothing in one of two ways. Either we will show up like the Prodigal Son having had everything taken from us or else we will show up having let go of everything.

It is not just that simplicity as a spiritual discipline prepares us now for our arrival at the place of our heart’s deepest desire, that place where we show up with only ourselves. It is also that the reliable landmarks that guide us to the place of our heart’s deepest desire are immaterial. Stuff cannot get us there. Non-stuff does get us there.

The name of Aslan is a reliable landmark.

Songs –– “For love shall I be sorrowing and swans of my desiring” –– are reliable landmarks.

Literature, music, relationships, love. These types of non-material things are the cairns guiding us to Sehnsucht, to desire. The spiritual discipline of simplicity can sensitize us. Simplicity can teach us what to follow on our journey to “we know not what.”

That place where like the Prodigal we arrive with nothing and receive all.

Dave is an author, educator, and advocate of living simply. Dave has spoken nationally and internationally about simplicity. He has appeared in Time Magazine, Mother Jones Magazine, the London Times, and The Guardian, and has been a guest of the 700 Club. His book The 100 Thing Challenge (HarperCollins, 2010) tells the story of his simple-living journey and the worldwide movement it contributed to. Dave holds an M.A. from Wheaton College and a B.A. from Moody Bible Institute. He works at Point Loma Nazarene University and lives in San Diego with his wife and three daughters.


1 Comment

  1. Eric

    Thanks, David! I really like this idea of building a habit of simplicity with a disciplined approach. I also appreciate how you pointed out that we arrive at the end of our lives with nothing in one of two ways – having everything taken away or having let go of everything. I pray I am able to claim he latter.

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