Several months ago, I started a series of posts in response to theologian Lewis Joseph Sherrill’s contention that simplification is the primary psychological task of late adulthood. Sherrill described simplification as “distinguishing the more important from the less important, getting rid of the less important or relegating it to the margin; and elevating the more important to the focus of feeling, thought, and action.” Older adults simplify their status by stepping back and assuming less prominent roles. They simplify physically as a result of their aging bodies. They simplify materially as they deal with the objects they have accumulated. They simplify their character by increasingly focusing on core elements of personality. Finally, says Sherrill, they simplify spiritually.
Sherrill suggests there are two complementary processes operating in spiritual simplification. First, there is a “decreasing interest in those religious values which the individual finds to be marginal in his religious philosophy.” Thus, for example, in the realm of doctrine, “a person who once had been absorbed in the minute details of an elaborate system of doctrine, finds himself sorting his beliefs into some order of relative importance, cherishing some and neglecting others.” In the realm of religious practices, a person who had been “exceedingly zealous for this or that activity which he considered it his duty to follow” may drop that activity after discovering that it is an impediment rather than a help in attaining intimacy with God.
Second, though, the person may focus more intensely on some aspects of belief or practice. In this, the person “is focusing upon the center in the total field of spiritual values, and doing whatever is possible to keep that center clear, warm, and active.”
There is one long-term friend in particular whom I’ve observed undergoing considerable spiritual simplification. He was raised in a conservative Baptist church that emphasized “don’ts”–don’t drink, don’t have sex outside marriage, don’t participate in worldly entertainments. For many years, he felt he didn’t measure up. His image of God was not so much the angry, wrathful deity professed by the Westboro Baptist strain of fundamentalism as it was God with a frown on his face, constantly disappointed in human shortcomings and perhaps shaking his head back and forth in exasperation.
During the past decade, my friend’s view of God has changed considerably. He discovered Brennan Manning, who writes that we can never expect to get it all together, but that is fine since God loves us ragamuffins. A year or two later, he decided to focus on the teachings of Jesus to the exclusion of everything else–he was, as Sherrill described, “focusing upon the center.” He started writing imaginative essays in which he explored his understanding of God and of himself. In one piece, he imagined himself before the devil, who pointed at him and said “NO!” He felt shame and fear. Then, he imagined himself before Christ, who looked at him and said “YES!” The shame was washed away.
The most recent writing he shared with me describes a time in graduate school when he was quite lonely. He was single then, as was the pastor of his church. The two of them started meeting together for dinner. One week one of them would take a TV dinner to the other’s home, the next week the other would reciprocate. Looking back, my friend views the pastor coming to his house as having spiritual significance:
“I remember so looking forward to his arrival to my lonely place when he came. I have often thought since then about how he was following Christ’s example…. When he would come over to my place with his TV dinner and soda, it was always like Jesus coming over with hamburgers, fries, and drinks.”
My friend has simplified his faith. The heavy furniture of doctrine and duty has been pushed out of the way to make way for Christ, who comes to affirm him and bring to him the sacramental meal–the bag containing burgers, fries, and a drink. Would that I could simplify so well.