I want to live a simple, joyful life. I don’t want it to be complicated—I don’t want my happiness to be dependent on luxuries and comforts that I cannot afford. In my quest for such simplicity, I am inspired by the life and example of St. Francis of Assisi. I’m often impressed by Francis’ ability to deny himself the pleasures life has to offer.
The idea of self-care was not a primary concern for him. Francis used to refer to his body as “Brother Ass” because he treated it like one. “A person’s worst enemy is the flesh,” he once said. “All its concern is how to squander the present. What is worse, it claims for itself and takes credit for what was given not to it, but to the soul.” Francis would deny himself any comforts, even those that were necessary for him to accommodate the many illnesses he suffered late in his life.
As Francis lay dying, he was asked by one of the brothers if he had any regrets, if there was anything he would have done differently.
“Yes,” he said. “I would have been kinder to Brother Ass.”
St. Francis seems to be telling me that a healthy spirituality does not require me to sacrifice the things I enjoy. I don’t have to practice extreme self-denial. Rather, a healthy spirituality can—and perhaps should—make room for me to enjoy the simple pleasures and savor God’s many gifts. I find that when I do not spend at least part of my day outdoors—even if it as simple as taking my dogs for a walk to the park or watching the birds at my feeder while sipping a cup of tea—I am not a happy person; I do not feel whole. My spiritual life is the way I grow closer to God; it makes me whole. The happiness I feel in something as simple as watching a woodpecker hang from my feeder must, therefore, tell me something about God. It is a prayer as much as anything else.
You can make similar moments prayers of your own by following a few easy steps:
Give thanks. Take a moment to thank God for whatever it is you’re doing. This can be as simple as saying “Thanks, God!” out loud. You can also take some time at the end of the day and review those things that brought you happiness. You may want to begin this act of gratitude with this prayer or something similar: “Heavenly Father, all good things come from you. Thank you for the many signs of your love I received today.” Gratitude helps you keep your attention on God from whom all blessings flow and not on the activity or yourself.
Find God. Actively seek God’s presence in whatever it is you’re doing. You might notice God in a feeling or thought. God might make himself known through the presence of another. By actively seeking God, you will find that you are more attentive to God’s presence surrounding you.
Share. Joy is not something we hoard. It is not something for our self alone. Joy can only be made complete when it is shared with another. Share your experience of joy with someone else. Even solitary activities can be shared through conversations and social media. For example, I post pictures on Instagram and Facebook of the birds I see when I go birdwatching; this helps me share the beauty I see, and, I hope, brings beauty into other people’s lives.
We all need to find the time and place where we can enjoy the gifts God has given us. God wants us to be happy. True happiness fills us with God’s goodness and love. It satisfies us; it doesn’t leave us hungry and craving for more. True happiness leaves us feeling light and free, not burdened with the fear that it is fleeting. When we are truly happy, we find that we are filled with peace, kindness, gentleness, meekness, and generosity; we know that God alone is enough.
Life is hard. We don’t need to make it any harder than it is. Take the time to seek out those things that bring you true happiness. For me and my wife Cathy, that can be as simple as watching the birds that visit our yard. I remember the first time I captured a picture of a Cedar Waxwing. We were sitting on our backyard patio, and Cathy pointed out a strange looking bird, something we had never seen before. We grabbed our camera and snapped a few pictures. We then saw another, and another, and another. Soon we noticed a whole flock of Cedar Waxwings perched in a tree, feeding on berries from its branches. We were so excited. That moment of relaxation on our patio had turned into a shared moment when we felt God’s love, goodness, and beauty.
So, be kinder to Brother Ass and treat yourself to the simple pleasures that bring you joy. And don’t be surprised when you discover God enjoying them with you.
Originally published September 18, 2019.