But despite the grave flaws in Thoreau's philosophy, there are precious nuggets of sound doctrine and timeless truth in his writings. Take, for example, his favorite motto, "Simplify, simplify," a message that the bewilderingly complex modern world would do well to heed. Most of us, most of the time are far too busy for our own good. Allow me to quote from the biography of Thoreau in the book I am reading: "He believed that civilization creates artificial needs, that luxuries become necessities, that men hurry forward in a feverish existence until they lose all purpose in life." (Roy J. DeFerrari et al, ed., American Literature, Seton Press, 1998) Isn't this true of us today? We work so hard for so many years just to make a profit so that we can buy more and more material things that we want, and as a result our whole goal in life becomes to satisfy our never-ending whims and desires. This vicious circle leads to weariness and feelings of emptiness and unhappiness, even to the point where "life is not worth living." The successful billionaire CEO materialist finds to his bitter disappointment that his life has no meaning. Why? Because God created us for more than just material things. He designed our lives for a spiritual purpose, and therefore only spiritual goods--love of God and love of neighbor--can make us truly happy on earth.
But how do we love God? One way we can do this is to enjoy the gifts He has given us, such as the beauty of nature. Thoreau was correct in his appreciation for this gift, which moved him to build a small home amid natural surroundings. I wouldn't recommend living perpetually in the wild as Thoreau did, and most of us couldn't even if we wanted to. However, we can all take a little time now and then to enjoy some natural beauty, and often we don't have to go far from home to find it. It might be a fishing trip to a nearby lake, a nature trail hike, a vacation to a national park or even a birdwatching session in your own backyard. Whatever it is, an experience of God's creation always leaves us with a sense of awe and wonder; it refreshes our spirit; and it refocuses our attention on what matters most in life. We come to realize the truth that God's creation is more important and meaningful than our handheld video games or the milion and one things we can do with our iPhone. Man-made products should improve, complement and enhance our lives, not turn into replacements for what God has made.
One way we can love our neighbor is by sharing some of our excess money and goods with those who are less fortunate. This is where charitable and humanitarian agencies, cordially despised by Thoreau, come in. From the local food pantry to diocesan relief programs to the Missionaries of Charity and Catholic Relief Services to the Boy and Girl Scouts, Red Cross, other Christian charities and even nonreligious organizations such as the Relay for Life, charitable institutions play a very important role in society. They enable those who have everything they need and then some to help those who lack even the basic necessities. Furthermore, many for-profit corporations are now donating a share of their income to programs that benefit people in the poorest parts of the globe. The key to loving your neighbor in this way is to realize that you do not need everything you have or wish to have, and then you find yourself free to give some of that to another person. If instead of unlimited greed and materialism we learned to set limits for ourselves and be content with less, our human civilization would be very different and our world would be a much happier place.
A tantalizing glimpse of this next best thing to paradise on earth is available in the award-winning film Into Great Silence. This intrepid two-hour masterpiece from German film director Philip Groning takes you inside a cloistered Carthusian monastery situated high in the French Alps. The monks who inhabit this enclosure live according to the most strict rule for a Catholic religious order in the world, which demands rigorous lives of prayer, work and contemplation, with conversation virtually prohibited altogether and no CD players, radio, TV or visitors. Yet in spite of their "stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life" (Thoreau), the monks are happy, as evidenced by their laughter during Sunday recreation and their playful games in the winter snow. Why? Because the monks possess spiritual treasure in their exalted love of God and neighbor. Moreover, the movie itself is almost exclusively a succession of candid scenes as it contains no music, no digital special effects, no discernible plot, no explanations of mysterious scenes, almost no dialogue and, as the title suggests, a bare minimum of sound. Yet this film somehow managed to pack theaters across Europe and also has enjoyed significant popularity in the United States. Why? For the same reason the monks are happy: because materialism has failed to satisfy people even in the modern age, leaving them empty and hungry for spiritual goods. Into Great Silence is truly a feast for the spirit that satisfies their hunger.
In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life such as the clouds and
storms and quicksands and thousand and one items to be allowed for, that a man
has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port
at all, by dead reckoning; and he must be a great calculator indeed who
succeeds. Simplify, simplify. --Henry David Thoreau