I would love to have people describe me as “a simple man.” Unfortunately, that does not happen nor should it. I do not present myself as a simple man, as much as I admire and desire this virtue. It almost seems contradictory to speak about the difficulty of being simple. I find that I do not know many such people. The few with whom I am familiar attract me. I love to spend time with them. I just want to listen to them as they talk about what they are doing, how they look at life, and where they hope to make a difference. People who practice simplicity offer a true blessing to their communities.
I characterize Joseph as a simple man. Given his place in the story of salvation, he is extraordinarily ordinary. He was not conceived without original sin; he was not assumed into heaven–presumably he died a normal death surrounded by his family which was probably all that he, or any of us, would wish. Tradition assigns no miracles or prayers or speeches to Joseph in his life; he is not the center of the apparition market. Joseph was a good man, a quiet man who did all that the Lord asked of him. His simplicity and solidity present a valuable model for us in these times that seem to value complexity, artifice, and illusion.
This simplicity connects with his obedience. In each encounter with the heavenly figure, Joseph receives instruction on what to do and he does it without hesitation or debate (Mt 1:18-24; 2:13-14, 19-21, 22-23). The absolute following of the divine instruction happens so swiftly in the Biblical story that it highlights the firm connection between what the Lord asks and what Joseph wants. Nothing more needs addition.
Jesus encouraged acting with absolute simplicity:
“Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’” (Mt 5:37)
One might recognize here the influence of Joseph in the life and ministry of Jesus. Vincent de Paul characterized Jesus as “simplicity personified” (VdP, CCD XII, 150) and he taught his followers:
“Simplicity is the virtue I love the most and to which, I think, I pay the most attention in my actions.” (VdP, CCD I, 265)
As a Vincentian, I value that guidance from a man who knew virtue well.
In my college years, I had two posters of Henry David Thoreau on my wall. They contained passages from his writings at Walden. One read:
“Our life is frittered away by detail… Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let our affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand… Simplify, simplify!”
I hear the words of Thoreau; I accept the guidance of Vincent; I believe the urging of Jesus; and I recognize the example of Joseph. Life can seem very complicated and straightforward decisions seem difficult to make. I want to pray for the gift of being simpler and I ask Joseph to be my intercessor for that virtue that he knew with such clarity and action.
Each of us can discover in Joseph – the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence – an intercessor, a support and a guide in times of trouble. Saint Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation. (Pope Francis, Patris Corde, Preface)