The Divine Simplicity

We have seen that the formal constituent of the Divine nature according to our imperfect mode of knowledge is subsistent being, for this distinguishes Him from every other being and is the source from which all His attributes may be deduced, as man's characteristics are deduced from the fact that he is a rational being. And now, in order to have a right idea of providence, we must consider those Divine perfections which it presupposes. A full consideration of these perfections helps us to a true notion of providence and gradually leads us to a more exact understanding of it.

We distinguish between the attributes relative to God's being (His simplicity, infinity, eternity, incomprehensibility) and those relating to the Divine operations (in the intellect, wisdom and providence; in the will, love with its two great virtues, mercy and justice; and finally omnipotence).

All these attributes are absolute perfections, implying no imperfection, and they may be deduced from what we conceive to be the formal constituent of the Divine nature. [1]

Our Lord said: "Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." Perfect, not merely like the Angels, but as our heavenly Father is perfect; because we have received sanctifying grace, which should be constantly increasing in us and which is a participation, not in the angelic nature, but in the Divine nature itself. Since, then, every passing day ought to see in our lives a gradually increasing participation in these infinite perfections of God, we should frequently make them the subject of contemplation in our prayer, by slowly meditating, for instance, on the Our Father.

We shall speak first of God's simplicity, which is so marked a feature in the ways of Divine providence.

The Divine simplicity and its reflections

What is simplicity in general? As unity is the non-division of being, so simplicity is the opposite of composition, complexity, and complication. The simple is opposed to what is compounded of different parts, opposed therefore to what is complicated, pretentious, or tainted with affectation. From the moral point of view simplicity or integrity is opposed to duplicity.

We speak of a child's outlook as simple because it goes straight to the point; it has no concealed motives; its inclination is not in several directions at once. When a child says a thing, it is not thinking of something else; when it says "yes," it does not mean "no"; it is not two-faced or deceitful. Our Lord tells us: "If thy eye be single [simple], thy whole body will be lightsome." That is, if our intention is straightforward and simple, then there will be a unity, truth, and transparency in our whole life, instead of its being divided as it is with those who seek to serve two masters, God and wealth. And when we consider the complexity of motive, the insincerity we find in the world and the complications arising from lying and deceit, we cannot help feeling that the moral virtue of simplicity, of candor and uprightness, is the reflection of a Divine perfection. As St. Thomas says, "Simplicity makes the intention right by excluding duplicity" (IIa IIae, q. 109, a. 2 ad 4um).

But what is Divine simplicity? It is the absence of all compounding of different parts, the absence of all division.

I) There cannot be in God a distinction of quantitative parts as in matter. Every material thing has extended parts that are contiguous, whether these parts are similar as in the diamond, or different, like the members and the organs of a living being: the eyes, ears, and the rest.

The simplicity of God, on the contrary, is the simplicity of pure spirit, incomparably superior to that of the purest diamond, or to the unity of the most perfect organism. In God we do not find a distinction of two parts as soul and body, the one giving life to the other: the latter would be less perfect; it would not be life itself, but would merely participate in life; it would not be the principle of all order, but would itself be ordered. No imperfection or composition of any kind exists in God. Every compound requires a cause uniting the elements composing it, whereas God is the supreme cause uncaused. His simplicity therefore is absolute.

2) The simplicity of God far surpasses that of the Angels. Of course an Angel is pure spirit, but his essence is not self-existent: it is merely susceptible or capable of existence; it is not existence itself. An Angel is a compound of finite essence and limited existence, whereas, as we have seen, God is self-subsisting, purely immaterial being.

An Angel can acquire knowledge only by means of an intellectual faculty; he can desire only through another faculty, the will. These two faculties with their successive acts of thought and desire are accidents distinct from the Angel's substance; his substance remains always the same while his thoughts succeed one another. In God, on the other hand, there can be no question of composition of substance and accidents, because the Divine substance is the fullness of being, the fulness also of truth ever apprehended and of goodness ever loved. In Him no succession of thoughts takes place: there is but one unchanging, subsistent thought, embracing all truth. In Him no successive acts of will occur; there is but one subsistent, unchanging act of will, which is directed to all that He wills.
Therefore Divine simplicity or Divine unity, is the absence of all composition and division in being, thought, and volition.

3) The simplicity of God's intellect is that of the intuitive glance, excluding all error and ignorance, and directed from above and unchangingly upon all knowable truth.

The simplicity of His will or intention is that of a transcendently pure intention, disposing all things admirably and permitting evil only in view of a greater good.
But the most beautiful feature of God's simplicity is that it unites within itself perfections that are apparently at opposite extremes: absolute immutability and absolute liberty, infinite wisdom and a good pleasure so free as to seem at times to be arbitrariness; or again, infinite justice inexorable toward unrepented sin, and infinite mercy. All these infinite perfections are fused together and identified in God's simplicity, yet without destroying one another. In this especially consists the transcendence and splendor of this Divine attribute.

We have a reflection of this exalted simplicity in a child's simplicity of outlook, and to a greater degree in that of the Saints, rising above the frequently deceitful entanglements of the world and all sorts of duplicity.

Let us now come down once more to creatures. We find a vast difference between the simplicity of God, with the holiness it reflects, and the seeming simplicity which consists in giving vent to everything that comes into our heart and mind at the risk of contradicting ourselves from one day to the next when impressions have altered and people with whom we live have ceased to please us. This seeming simplicity is sheer fickleness and contradiction, a complication therefore and a more or less conscious lie. God's simplicity, on the other hand, is an unalterable unity, the simplicity of unchanging supreme wisdom and of the purest and strongest love of the good, remaining ever the same and infinitely surpassing our susceptibility and unstable opinions.

We have a glimpse of this Divine simplicity when we consider the soul that has acquired a simple outlook, so that it is now able to judge of all things wisely in the light of God and to desire nothing but for His sake. The complex soul, on the other hand, is one that bases all its judgments on the varying impressions caused by the emotions and that desires things from motives of self-interest with its changing caprices, now clinging to them obstinately, now changing with every mood or with time and circumstances. And whereas the complex soul is agitated by mere trifles, the soul that has acquired simplicity of purpose, by reason of its wisdom and unselfish love, is always at rest. The gift of wisdom brings peace, that tranquillity which comes from order, together with that unity and harmony which characterize the simplified life united with God.

The souls of such men as St. Joseph, St. John, St. Francis, St. Dominic, the Cur
é of Ars give us some idea of this simplicity of God; but still more the soul of Mary, and especially the holy soul of Jesus, Who said: "If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be lightsome." That is, if your soul is simple in its outlook, it will be in all things enlightened, steadfast, loyal, sincere, and free from all duplicity. "Be ye wise as serpents [so as not to be seduced by the world], and simple as doves," so as to remain always in God's truth. "I confess to Thee, O Father, ... because Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to little ones." "Let your speech be yea, yea: no, no" (Matt. 10:16; 11:25; 5:37).

In the Old Testament we read: "Seek the Lord in simplicity of heart" (Wis. 1:1); "Better is the poor man that walketh in his simplicity, than a rich man that is perverse in his lips and unwise" (Prov. 19:1). "Let us all die in our innocence," cried the Machabees amid the injustices that oppressed them (1 Mach. 2:37). "Obey ... in simplicity of heart," said St. Paul (Col. 3:22); and he admonishes the Corinthians not to lose "the simplicity that is in Christ" (2 Cor. 11:3).

This simplicity, says Bossuet, enables an introverted soul to comprehend even the heights of God, the ways of Providence, the unfathomable mysteries which to a complex soul are a scandal, the mysteries of infinite justice and mercy, and the supreme liberty of the Divine good pleasure. All these mysteries, in spite of their transcendence and obscurity, are simple for those of simple vision.

The reason is that, in Divine matters, the simplest things, such as the Our Father, are also the most profound. On the other hand, in the things of this world, containing both good and evil closely intermingled and thereby exceedingly complex, anybody who is simple is lacking in penetration and will remain naive, unsuspecting, and shallow. In the things of God simplicity is combined with depth and loftiness; for the sublimest of divine things as also the deepest things of our heart, are simplicity itself.

The perfect image of God's simplicity

The purest and most exalted image that has been given us of the Divine simplicity is the holiness of Jesus, which embraces, as it were fused together, virtues to all appearances at opposite extremes. Let us call to mind the simplicity He displayed in His relations with His adversaries, with His heavenly Father, and with souls.
To the Pharisees, wishing to put Him to death, He says without fear of contradiction: "Which of you shall convince me of sin ?" (John 8:46.) Their duplicity aroused His holy indignation: "Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you shut the kingdom of Heaven against men, for you yourselves do not enter in; and those that are going in, you suffer not to enter. ...Woe to you, blind guides are like to whited sepulchers, which outwardly appear to men beautiful, but within are full of dead men's bones, and of all filthiness" (Matt. 23:13, 25, 27).

Referring to His heavenly Father, He says: "My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me. ... I do always the things that please Him. ... I honor My Father. ... I seek not My Own glory" (John 4:34; 8:29, 49, 50). "My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from Me. Nevertheless not as I will, but as Thou wilt." "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit." "It is consummated" (Matt. 26:39; Luke 23:46; John 19:30).

And lastly, with regard to the faithful, He says: "Learn of Me, because I am meek, and humble of heart; and you shall find rest to your souls" (Matt. 11:29). Such is this simplicity of His that He alone can speak of His Own humility without losing it.

He is the good shepherd of souls, who prefers the company of the poor and the weak, the afflicted and little children, and of sinners too, in order to win them back. He is the good shepherd, who in all simplicity gives His life for His sheep, praying for His executioners and saying to the good thief: "This day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43).

But the most astonishing feature of our Lord's simplicity is that it unites in itself virtues that to all appearances are at opposite extremes, and each virtue carried to its highest degree of perfection.

In Him are reconciled in a simple unity that holy severity of justice He metes out to the hypocritical Pharisees and the abounding mercy He displays toward all those souls whose shepherd He is; and the rigor of His justice is always subordinate to the love of the good from which it proceeds,

In Him are reconciled in the greatest simplicity the most profound humility and the loftiest dignity, magnanimity or grandeur of soul. He lived for thirty years the hidden life of a poor artisan, saying that He came not to be ministered unto but to minister. He fled to the mountain when they would have made Him king, washed the feet of His disciples on Holy Thursday, and for our sake accepted the final humiliations of the passion. On the other hand, during the same passion with lofty dignity He proclaimed the universality of His kingdom. "Pilate said to Him: Art Thou the king of the Jews? ... What hast Thou done? ... Jesus answered: Thou sayest that I am a king. For this was I born, and for this came I into the world; that I should give testimony to the truth. Everyone that is of the truth, heareth My voice" (John 18:33 ff.). With simplicity and noble majesty He answered Caiphas, who adjured Him to declare whether He was the son of God: "Thou hast said it. Nevertheless I say to you, hereafter you shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of the power of God, and coming in the clouds of Heaven" (Matt. 26:64).
This profound humility and lofty dignity are found reconciled in Jesus' simplicity. Yet He, the humblest of men, was condemned for an alleged crime of blasphemy and pride.

In Him likewise are reconciled the most perfect gentleness, which constrained Him to pray for His executioners, and the most heroic fortitude in Martyrdom, abandoned as He was by His Own people and by all but a few of His disciples in the saddest hours of the passion and crucifixion. This simplicity of His had such nobility about it that the centurion, witnessing His death, could not help but glorify God, saying that "indeed this was a just man" (Luke 23: 47).

Great and wondrously sublime is simplicity when it thus reconciles in itself these apparently opposite virtues. It is the highest expression of the beautiful. For the beautiful is harmony, the splendor arising out of unity and diversity; and the greater the diversity, the more profound is the unity, the more extraordinary is the beauty. It then is rightly called sublime. In very truth it is the image of that Divine simplicity which reconciles within itself infinite wisdom and the freest good pleasure, infinite justice, inexorable at times, and infinite mercy, all the energy of love combined with all its tenderness.

For this reason God alone can produce in the soul this surpassing simplicity, which is the image of His own. In us temperament is determined in one particular direction, inclining us either to indulgence or to severity, to a broad and comprehensive view of things, or to practical details, but not both ways at once. If, then, a soul with perfect simplicity practices at one and the same time virtues that are apparently extreme opposites, it is because almighty God is very intimately present in the soul, impressing His likeness upon it.

Bossuet (discours sur l'histoire universelle, Part II, chap. 19) expresses this thought beautifully when he says: "Who would not admire the condescension with which Jesus tempers His doctrine? It is. milk for babes and, taken as a whole, is bread also for the strong. We see Him abounding in the secrets of God, yet He is not astonished thereby, as other mortals are with whom God holds communion. He speaks of these things as one born to these secrets and to this glory. And what He possesses without measure (John 3:34), He dispenses with moderation so as to adapt it to our infirmities."

Pascal in his Pensées gives similar expression to our Lord's simplicity, the purest image of the simplicity of God: Jesus Christ, without wealth or fortune or display of scientific knowledge, is in an order of holiness all His own. He was neither an inventor nor a monarch; but He was humble, patient, holy, holy to God, free from all sin. To those loving eyes that perceive the wisdom in Him, with what stupendous magnificence He came! ... Never had man such repute, never did man incur greater ignominy. ... From whom did the Evangelists learn the qualities of a supremely heroic soul, that they picture it so perfectly in Jesus Christ? Why did they make Him weak in His agony? Did they not know how to picture a death borne with constancy? Yes indeed, for the same St. Luke pictures the death of St. Stephen as more bravely born than that of Jesus Christ. They make Him susceptible of fear before the necessity of dying arose, but full of fortitude thereafter. When therefore they portray Him as being so sorrowful, it is because in that hour His sorrow is self-inflicted (desiring to experience the crushing burden of anguish in order to suffer even that for us); but, when He is afflicted by men, it is then His fortitude is supreme, with that strength which is their salvation.

This simplicity of Jesus, purest image of God's simplicity, is apparent in every detail of His life. Pere Grou remarks: "It is impossible to speak of things so exalted, so Divine, in a simpler way. The prophets appear to be struck with amazement at the great truths they proclaim. ... Jesus is self-possessed in all that He says, because He is drawing on His Own resources. ..the treasury of His knowledge is within Him and in communicating it He does not exhaust it" (L'intérieur de Jésus, chap. 29).

Thus we are able to form some faint idea of the simplicity of God, the simplicity of His being, thought, and love. It is a simplicity uniting in its transcendence such apparently opposite attributes as justice and mercy, uniting without destroying them, but, on the other hand, containing them in their pure state without any imperfection or diminution. It will be granted us to behold this simplicity in eternal life, if gradually each day we draw nigh to it in simplicity of heart, without which there can be no contemplation of God and no true love.

1. It must be noted, however, that the act of creation, being a free act, cannot be deduced from the Divine nature; neither can the exercise of mercy and justice with respect to creatures.