Longing for Simplicity


William of Occam (ca. 1287-1347), an English Franciscan friar and theologian, is perhaps best known for his heuristic principle, Occam’s Razor. It is stated in various ways:

If two hypotheses explain a phenomenon equally well, prefer the one with fewer assumptions.

Do not multiply entities unnecessarily.

I used to tell my physics students that the East Tennessee version of Occam’s Razor is the KISS Principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid! Einstein – though not from around here – said something very similar: “Everything should be made as simple as possible – but no simpler.”


There are ancient pyramids in Egypt – impressive feats of construction. How were they built? Well, I can offer at least two hypotheses: (1) alien technology or (2) vast quantities of forced labor. Either explanation “works,” but the latter has the advantage of simplicity; we know the Egyptian culture utilized slaves, but we don’t know if Egypt was visited by aliens. So, Occam’s Razor would “cut out” the unnecessary inclusion of aliens in the hypothesis and opt for forced labor. Keep it simple, stupid. And, while simplicity doesn’t guarantee correctness, it is usually a hallmark of truth.

Why do we need such a principle as Occam’s Razor? Simply because humans tend toward unnecessary complexity. Not to enter the political arena, but the United States tax code is an example. Surely it has grown in complexity through the years and is in great need of a political and fiscal form of Occam’s Razor. Government, itself, does not willingly or naturally move toward the small and simple; it must be pruned back periodically like so much democratic kudzu. Such unnecessary complication may truly be a characteristic of the fall. Perhaps that’s why we long for simplicity even as we create complexity.

Why this reflection on complexity and Occam’s Razor? I have recently been reading yet another book on prayer, surely a “vocational hazard.” It is, in fact, an excellent work. Even so, amidst the abstruse discussion of various levels of prayer and what one might experience in each, I began to wonder, “Is prayer really this complex?” Can’t I just pray – whatever that means – as I can and trust the Spirit to intercede for me?

And that led to a more general consideration of Christian spirituality, of life in the Spirit. Here, also, I tend toward complexity, and I suspect I’m not the only one. I’ve seen rules of life that resemble the tax code and which are clearly as burdensome. I’ve seen libraries filled with theological tomes that would make Paul’s head swim (in my office, in my den, in my _____. Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.) I’ve seen – well, you get the point – great spiritual complexity. And I long for simplicity even as I create greater complexity in my own spiritual walk. So, periodically, I need a spiritual Occam’s Razor.

When Thomas Hopko first left home for seminary, his mother gave him this spiritual direction:

Go to church.

Say your prayers.

Remember God.

God bless faithful mothers! What elegant wielding of Occam’s Razor. What beautiful spiritual simplicity.

Go to church. This is where our Lord Jesus has promised to meet us in the word proclaimed, in the bread broken and the wine poured out, in his saints. The church is profoundly mysterious, but it need not be complex. Just go to church.

Say your prayers. Don’t always try to plumb the depths of prayer, just say your prayers. Morning and Evening: say the prayers that have sustained generations of faithful Anglicans and that have formed generations of faithful Anglican priests. Say the Great Litany when you don’t know what to pray for; it’s mainly all there. Say the General Thanksgiving so you will remember to be thankful and to actually express your gratitude to God. Say the collects. Chant the Psalms. Prayer is profoundly mysterious, but it need not be complex. Just say your prayers.

Remember God. You are creature; God is creator. Remember. You are dust and ashes; God is eternal Being. Remember.

Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

God is profoundly mysterious, but the great theologians assure us that he is not complex. Remember God.

Henri Nouwen is another saint who tended toward complexity even as he longed for simplicity. Once he asked Mother Teresa for a word of spiritual direction. She said:

“Spend one hour each day in adoration of your Lord, and never do anything you know is wrong.”

God bless mothers! What elegant wielding of Occam’s Razor. What beautiful spiritual simplicity. Love God and keep his commandments – commandments which, not incidentally, also tell us to love God and to love our neighbors.

Perhaps the spiritual life is not really as simple as I’ve made out and not as simple as I long for it to be. But it’s certainly not as complex as I sometimes make it. I will continue to read good books on prayer — not as affliction but as delight — because they are helpful to me, not least in driving me to my knees. I need the guidance of those who have walked the path of prayer before me and have walked much farther along it than I yet have traveled. I will continue to purchase and read the great volumes of theology because I need to think great — and even complex — thoughts about our great God, some of which are not conditioned by our cultural zeitgeist. I will continue to live my rule of life and to examine it periodically for adequacy. I believe a rule of life is important, and that it must be sufficiently detailed to provide structure to my sometimes complicated life.

But I will also treasure the moments of spiritual simplicity when Occam’s Razor cuts cleanly and precisely and gracefully: the nearly whispered prayer, “Lord, have mercy,” when the clergy gather for the morning office before the Holy Eucharist; the assurance from a wise spiritual director, “God loves you, my brother, and so do I;” the glint of tears in the eyes of a beloved priest, mature beyond his years, as he says, “The gifts of God for the people of God.” This is the spiritual simplicity I long for: profoundly mysterious but not complex.


Photo: wikicommons

Published on

February 3, 2016


John Roop

John Roop serves as Assisting Priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he lives with wife of over 40 years, Clare. They have one daughter. He previously served many years in the Christian Church.

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