Thomas Kelly articulated the anxiety and strain of modern life so well because he lived it. He understood how caught up we can be in achievement and striving for success, even in a religious context.
In the final chapter of A Testament of Devotion, called ‘The Simplification of Life’ he describes how his feverish existence was transformed into a life of ‘peace and joy and serenity.’ In this essay, he insists that the number of distractions in our environment is not the cause of the complexity of our lives, rather he understands that the pressure and strain lie within each one of us. Even in that idyllic environment of Hawaii, Kelly could not let go of his habit of trying to do too much.
As Chad Thralls writes in The Friends Journal Kelly appreciated that the solution to the habit of trying to ‘do it all’ is not found in isolating ourselves from our responsibilities in the world. The problem is a lack of integration in our lives. Kelly compares the voices within that pull us in multiple directions to a variety of selves that simultaneously reside within us. As Kelly describes it, ‘There is the civic self, the parental self, the financial self, the religious self, the society self, the professional self, the literary self.’ We wear ourselves out trying to fulfill the desires of each one of the voices.
The remedy that Kelly offers to our unintegrated lives is not a simplification of environment but a life lived from the center. For Kelly, the Spirit speaks to us from our deepest center. God speaks through the heart. The key to a life without strain or tension is attending to the Spirit of God within us and submitting to the guidance we receive. This is the ‘simplification of life’ to which the title of his essay refers. Kelly attests that when we take the many activities that currently seem important to us down into this centre, a revaluation of priorities occurs.
To live like this entails falling in love with God and making God’s plans for our lives the determining factor for action rather than our own will. It means being able to say no to some of the important things we are called on to do. For Kelly, learning to say no is not a means of retreating from the responsibilities of life rather it reflects a passionate desire to center one’s life on the leadings of God. As he writes, ‘We cannot die on every cross, nor are we expected to.’
Though Kelly’s life was changed through a profound mystical experience, the damage had been done; he died of a heart attack at age 47. He did not take up the practice of surrendering to the Spirit willingly. When he could no longer avoid looking at his failure, when he abandoned his own striving, God became more real to him than ever before. In the end, God gave him the gift of peace that as Thralls writes Kelly was searching for in all the wrong places.