Less is more. It is an equation that in modern times we rarely put to the test. The traditional forty-day fast during Lent which leads up to Easter, might be the one time of the year where people plumb the meaning of this saying.
I am reminded of one of my favourite musicians Guy Clarke who not only wrote songs, he also built his own guitars. Guy's workshop had three bench tools, a chisel, a number three Stanley plane, and a no-name Swedish whittling knife. All that was necessary for him to produce some very fine luthiery.
Such frugality may be force of habit for those who simply did not have the money in their youth for the expensive toys. And expensive toys there are. Woodworking outlets like Lee Valley will sell you the best of the best, for a price. There is a tool for everything it would seem.
But are they really necessary? I can recall how many things I made when I got my first table saw and router. Those two tools in concert, can do a lot. I remember replacing the stairway system for our old house, all accomplished in the garage with those two stand-bys. I had to make do with few tools because I could not afford more. Maybe there is a virtue to be found in that, though few will get there by choice.
I have attended meetings here and there for a local woodworker’s guild. I stopped, because I realized that many of the attendees were wood snobs, and I could not afford to be. They were stocked to the max on the latest tools, and they could quote statistics about measuring flattening tolerances in thousands of an inch. One meeting particularly threw me off. We were discussing finishing techniques. I stuck up my hand and asked about milk paint. The alpha dog of the pack, sniffed loudly and huffed in haughty tones, “I don’t paint wood!” as if to point out that those who would, are guilty of an unwritten sin. Perhaps he was being precious. He was just too full of tools and information to be able to see things on par with mere mortals. Perhaps he needed less, not more.
I am particularly reminded of how little one truly needs when I see clips of woodworkers around the world. There is the guy who turns chess pieces on the side of the road in Thailand. He has one skew chisel and a bow-lathe which he suspends between his feet while he powers the lathe with one hand and pares the wood with the other.
Doing with less is what Lent is about. I am put in mind of the story of Mary and Martha, the two sisters in a small town within walking distance from Jerusalem. They were in competition because of personality. Martha was busy and efficient. She knew what needed to be done. Mary on the other hand, came under criticism because she forgot her responsibilities and sat at Jesus’ feet while her sister worked. When Martha complained, Jesus said this: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen this and it will not be taken away from her.”
One thing necessary. That is a tall order for those of us who have many things we cannot do without. Saint Augustine called this human failing, an issue of disordered desires. We don’t properly know what we want. He famously said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself O God, and the heart of man is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”
Paring life down to the one thing necessary is what Lent is all about, because less is more, so they say. We have forty days to visit this truth with our daily lives.