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How do you know when you have enough? This Youth Update offers some pointers on living simply—and hearing the call of Scripture to do just that.

Youth Update

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Simple Living
Isn't So Simple

by Sister Patty McCulloch, M.H.S.H.

Mohandas Gandhi, the great and wise leader, once said, "Live simply that others can simply live." He did it himself, but it didn—t really spark an international trend. It sounds like something Jesus would agree with, but what does it mean to live simply now—in the 21st century?

This Youth Update focuses on the meaning and the struggle built into this very important concept in our Catholic heritage.

You may be thinking: What does this have to do with me? Does living simply mean that I can—t dream about and eventually buy a car? Does it mean that I can—t enjoy the mall? If it gets into all these parts of my life, then I may not be ready to consider it. After all, what—s the appeal?

Is this the effort that living simply conjures up in your mind? Are you drawn to it or repelled by it? Take a moment before reading the rest of this Youth Update to consider your first impressions of Gandhi—s challenge: Live simply that others can simply live.

Personal Struggle

Let me talk on a personal level. I have struggled with simplicity for as long as I can remember. Yes, even though I am a woman who has devoted her life to the gospel, I still want what I want. For me, one big thing is a little thing—coffee.

I think of myself as a coffee snob. I turn up my nose at that instant or cheap stuff. I like the real thing that costs real money. Now you may think that this is a rather lame example when it comes to simplicity. But is it?

Isn—t it really the little things that capture our attention—and our money? At times I—m driving along, craving a good cup of coffee, and I see my favorite place. Can I afford it? Do I have the money on me? Yes. Or—I can always use a credit card.

Then the statement flashes into my mind—very unwelcome, mind you: Live simply that others can simply live. Ah, now the decision rests with me. Most of the time I compromise—buying straight coffee instead of a fancier beverage on the menu. Simplicity? Not really, but a move in that direction.

Simplicity is not easy. Even though I have volunteered at Habitat for Humanity, soup kitchens and in areas of Central and South America and have seen the struggles of other people to "simply live," I still wrestle with what the challenge to live simply means in my own life.

Early on, I equated it with poverty. Jumping to this notion is way too easy. I don—t want to be poor. Who does?

The reality is that I will probably never be really poor. I have an education. I understand finances. Those two assets alone put me ahead of the game. I—m grateful, because poverty is nothing to aspire to and it is not a synonym for simplicity.

Second, I thought that simplicity meant that I had to give up things that I wanted. Simplicity may not be poverty but does it really mean that I have to deny myself what I want? That doesn—t sound like fun. Why would I want to do that? Yet, something intrigued me and kept drawing me to the idea and gave me the courage to try figuring it out for myself.

Do you ever struggle with living simply? Have you helped at a soup kitchen or seen one of those TV clips about starving children? Have you ever thought about just how much you have and just how much others don—t have? What do you do with that?

Some people don—t like such thinking because it makes them feel guilty. They choose to ignore such information and experiences. That is one way to respond, but not the only choice.

Enough—s Enough

Simplicity—s best definition, in my opinion, is this: "to know when I have enough." Personally, being with the poor helps me take this abstract idea of enough and live my way into expressing it.

When I walk through the mall or check things out online, I am drawn into a life force that is hard to describe. Even though it isn—t tangible, it feels real because I can and do get caught up in it so readily.

I see something that subtly says, "You need me; you want me." The message definitely gets into my mind and plays around in there until I buy the thing. This drives me crazy!

Have you ever gone out and just mindlessly bought something—almost without conscious thought? Look around your room today. Ask yourself if your understanding of enough and the contents of your bedroom match.

See With New Eyes

When I am with the poor, as I—ve said, I keep my priorities straight. That may sound pious but it—s true.

Some young people and I volunteer together at the Catholic Worker Soup Kitchen. The Catholic Worker movement was founded by Dorothy Day, who served the poor, lived simply and fought for justice. Her life exemplifies simplicity.

Children regularly come to the Catholic Worker for a hot meal. One Halloween, a family with three children arrived. As they sat eating their meal, they were given a little bag of candy that the ninth-graders at the school had put together.

We watched as the little boy—s eyes grew bigger when he discovered he had a big KitKat bar. He poked his sister and showed it to her—with a huge smile.

About a week later, one of the teenagers told me that she looks at KitKat bars differently now when she goes to the store. Because they remind her of the little boy, she looks at her purchases and sorts through things she may not really need. She is making different choices, and all because of one candy bar.

Another teen—Sam, who lives in the suburbs—is also making different choices. For him, it wasn—t a candy bar but a closet!

Sam volunteered at Habitat for Humanity. Together with other parish teens, he was building a bedroom closet for an urban home. When the team finished, the standard closet door wouldn—t fit! The construction manager told them to start over.

At day—s end, the youth and I gathered for prayer and sharing. Sam explained that he was mad at first, because they had to do the work a second time. Then he simply felt frustrated. Eventually he began to realize that the house was someone—s home and just by taking his time he could make things right for the family that would live there.

The future homeowner, who was working with them, thanked Sam and the other teens for hanging in there with the project. Later that night, Sam said, he was at home in his bedroom. He glanced at his closet, which wouldn—t close either! Of course, his problem was that all his stuff was piled into it and some was actually falling out of it.

Sam got off his bed and went through all his stuff. He put together three bags of things he could—and would—give to poor people. He wasn—t quite sure what was driving him, but it "felt like the right thing to do."

What—s Enough?

Venezuela was my home for four months. There, I got to know a little boy named Victor. He lived in an orphanage even though he had relatives somewhere.

Water was available for only an hour a day. Meals were beans and rice, or rice and beans. Electricity was sporadic. This was beyond simplicity. It was primitive.

One day I asked young Victor how old he was. I thought it was an innocent-enough question. He went running out of the room.

A little while later he came back and said, "I—m eight, I think." I later learned that he had run to one of the directors who told him he was eight. The director made this up because there were no records, no birth certificate and never a birthday party, cake or present. Victor just looked like he was eight, so that would do for an answer.

Whenever I visited the orphanage, Victor came running and never left my side. Victor was hungry for love and attention. Just like the teen who thought of KitKat bars and the young person who thought of open closets, I often found myself thinking of Victor.

He would pop into my mind and heart when I went to the nearest town, where there was a shopping mall. While walking around, I often wondered if Victor would like this place. What would he buy? Would he feel comfortable here? Would he even be welcomed? I think that the food court would have overwhelmed him: all the choices, all the food!

The two worlds I lived in barely connected with one another. On the one hand, I was very comfortable in the mall and in the Venezuelan suburbs. On the other hand, when I was in the village and living in primitive conditions, I was challenged, satisfied and very happy.

Young people from the United States with whom I traveled to El Salvador reacted much as I did. We lived for a week in a small village where we have a sister-school relationship.

The young people of both countries had a great time. Even though language and culture separated them, they communicated and shared themselves.

Every evening the people with whom I came to El Salvador gathered to reflect on our day. During this time we talked about how simply the people lived. They didn—t have showers or electricity. Their homes were made out of mud. Their school had no books.

They seemed to see—as I did—how rich the people were in ways that really mattered. They didn—t have as much stuff. They didn—t seem to need as much stuff. They seemed happier and less stressed than we were.

When the young people and I came back to the U.S., they had changed. They told me that they were trying to hold onto something that they found to be true: They didn—t need to keep up with everybody else. Happiness came from inside, not from possessions.

Recently, a friend of one of the girls who went to El Salvador mentioned how her friend had changed since the trip. "She eats differently. She doesn—t waste food and gets really upset when we do. She just seems more focused—like she knows what is important to her."

Building relationships with people outside your circle, like Victor or youth your own age in a foreign nation, will make an impact on you. This can be good.

Opportunities like volunteering with Habitat for Humanity help make real the notion of simplicity. The experiences, the faces and the relationships give you the energy and courage to stand up to the culture and say, Enough: I have enough.

Be it at a soup kitchen or with a sister parish or school, you will find that being with people is the most important step in your understanding of enough—which is how I define simplicity.

No Compromise

Jesus is in the midst of all these deliberations and experiences. The young people I work with go and place themselves in these situations because the gospel demands it.

One young man said it well: "I am a confirmed Catholic and have said yes to the gospel mandate to go out and to feed the hungry, aid the sick, visit the prisoners. I did this when I said yes to the bishop at my Confirmation."

In living out the gospel we always have to look beyond our little worlds to those around us—just as Jesus did. There is no compromise. We are here to bring good news to the poor (Matthew 11:5). We do this if we call ourselves Catholic.

If we take seriously this mandate of living out the gospel message, then we must take up the challenge of living simply. Read the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11). What makes you happy (blesses you)? Jesus tells us that we must share our abundance. St. Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day offer radical examples. But our Baptism requires us to act as well.

You have choices. Keep things in perspective. Educate yourself on how Wall Street finances affect you and how advertisers use all of us, especially you. You can act instead of react.

You could decide that whenever you buy something new you give something away that you already own. For example, if you buy a sweater, then you give away something else in your closet. You can keep the wealth circulating.

You could also choose to shop at Goodwill or other resale shops. Shopping at a secondhand store accomplishes a few things. In some cases, the money goes to a good cause. Second, it generally helps the environment because you are saving resources and energy by recycling clothes.

This style of shopping is guaranteed to save you money that you could use in generous ways!

Thinking Required

Your most important move will be to take on the mind-set of simplicity by acting, reflecting on your action and letting it change your life!

Volunteer. Rub elbows with people. Don—t work in silence either. Talk. Talking is where the relationship starts. Find out the stories behind people—s circumstances. Learn names.

After you get home from a new and challenging experience, reflect on it. Don—t discard it. Don—t dismiss it. Don—t deny it.

Pray with it. Think about what happened. Write about it if that helps you. Put on some music, lie on your bed and review what you saw—and didn—t see.

Then bring Jesus into the conversation. Sit there and talk to him about what you just saw, heard and did. Then, ask the question if you dare: What does this mean for me? What is God—s will for me in this? Of course, you can ask and not listen—it—s your choice.

My challenge to you is to listen. Listen with all your heart. Then follow where your heart leads you. It is in the reflection that you will find your answer. You will know that which will give you the strength and courage to live out the call to simplicity. This is one step in a long journey toward justice and charity—so that others can simply live.

Surf for Simple Sites

Places Where You Can Learn More

www.pbs.org/kcts/affluenza This public broadcasting project site provides an engaging way to consider how your behavior expresses your values. While not specifically for teens, it offers lots of inviting, involving pages.

www.povertyusa.org Simplicity is not poverty, but the goal "that others may simply live" may require more knowledge of what it means to be poor. This tour is a beginning and links you to other sites at www.usccb.org/cchd, which has a special section for youth and young adults.


Places You Can Go to Help Others

www.catholicworker.org/index.cfm This is the home page of the Catholic Worker movement, begun by Dorothy Day. It provides many links to Catholic social-justice sites, and also gives locations of Catholic Worker Houses.

www.habitat.org At Habitat's home page, you can click on "Campus Chapters and Youth Programs" to find ways to participate or read firsthand accounts of volunteer experiences.

www.catholiccharitiesusa.org See what service opportunities are available in your area by linking to your own Catholic Charities office.


I don't get how my living simply will help anyone else to simply live. Isn't that too simple?


That's the beauty of it—it is just that simple! Did you know there is enough food in the world to feed everyone, but the distribution, hoarding and consumption by some keeps others from getting what they need? Changing our mind-set may sound easy, but it may actually be the biggest challenge.


Are Catholics commanded to live simply or is it a choice we can make?


You are invited, urged and challenged. Jesus says the greatest commandment (and he does use that word) is to love God—and the second is "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (See Matthew 22:37-40.) I suggest that when you follow that commandment to love, you will be led in a way that naturally leads to simplicity.


You say simplicity isn't the same as poverty, but you point to poor people as examples, not people who are free to choose. So—can they be separated or not?


In my middle-class world, I look to the poor to give me the courage to live simply. I know people who have chosen consciously to live simply for all sorts of reasons—environmental concerns or political beliefs, to name two. For me, as a Christian, I choose simplicity because of the poor who are my brothers and sisters. I cannot separate the two.

Sister Patty McCulloch, Mission Helper of the Sacred Heart, has ministered with teenagers in the United States and in Venezuela. She is currently a campus minister at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Baltimore, Maryland.

Andrew Gaynor (16), Molly Gaynor (15) and Ally Grogan (16), members of Holy Family Parish in Price Hill, a Cincinnati neighborhood, reviewed this edition and posed the questions that are answered inside.


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