There is a collection of thoughtful philosophical reflections, written by Lao Tsu, who kept the imperal archives in the Honan province of China in the sixth century BC. The collection is known as the ‘Tao Te Ching’ (‘Tao’ meaning ‘Way’, ‘Te’ meaning ‘Virtue’ and ‘Ching’ meaning ‘Classic’).
Aside of the Bible, I think it has been the source of deepest inspiration for me of anything I have ever read, and it was probably the book that started me on the path of Plain Christianity (as well as the Fioretti – the Little Flowers of St Francis).
Lao Tsu looked at nature: at water and hills, clouds and streams, and he thought about what approaches to life make a success of it. The conclusions he reached are almost identical with those of Plain Christians (provided you bear in mind he is writing six centuries before the birth of Jesus! I'm talking about lifestyle here, not theology!)
It would be possible to produce a translation of the Tao Te Ching side by side with Bill Coleman’s photographs of the Amish, and the result would be perfect harmony.
Here is a taster of the kind of things Lao Tsu said in his prose-poems:
‘If I am humble, I can never be overcome’Somewhere during this last week, reading very late at night, I came across these words:
‘Be newborn – be free of yourself, be humble, be earthy, be a valley for the whole world.’
‘The sage rules from the purest motives
Relying wholly on quiet and inner peace.
He watches the seasons rise and fall
And if he knows how things grow, he knows they are fed by their roots
And they return to their roots
To grow and flower and flow.’
‘The sage wears rough clothing and holds the jewel in his heart.’
'Let your natural life be spiritual, and your spiritual life be natural'But I apologise to whoever wrote them – I can’t remember who it was, or even whether I read it in a book or online. A Google search returns nothing. Sorry.
The way of peace and simplicity, that I have learned from thirty-five years of search and study and discipleship, looks for and espouses what is natural. It is unforced, It allows things to be as they are, to find their natural order in Christ’s Peaceable Kingdom of life made whole.
It is a Plain way, characterized by what is humble, gentle, quiet and natural.
The Plain way is not only about dress. It is not even primarily about externals; but what we choose and put into the world, the homes we weave around ourselves, the garments in which we clothes ourselves – these are indicators of the soul path we are choosing.
In a Plain home, everything is kept simple and natural. Once a home is cluttered and dirty, the bones, the forms, the character of the house are lost. When we keep our homes clear and simple, the dignity of the architecture can appear; it is as though the house becomes a person. The textures and forms of things – wooden floorboards, skirting boards, cornices, architraves, the shape of windows and the workmanship of paint and putty and small repairs, these become visible; the story the house is whispering, the song the house is humming, are quietly revealed.
When this happens, we find that the house is not talking about itself at all. The house is wanting to show us the beautiful light that slants in through simple, unadorned windows, and draw our attention to the movement of the trees in the autumn winds outside. Our house is inviting us to wonder at the colours of the dawn framed in the plain square of the window, without the competition to distract us, of jazzy wallpapers and many pictures and confused piles of possessions.
When you climb the stairs in our house, as you reach the top, if Hebe’s door is open, you look straight into her room to the window opposite.
The carpet in Hebe’s room is the palest brown peach. The walls are very very pale, subtle pinkish greys and whites. Her curtains are oyster coloured. Her furnishings are very few and simple, natural wood and wood painted in soft matt ivory shades. The walls have no pictures. Nothing clamours, nothing shouts. The bedlinen is cream and beige and vague shades of peace. There is only one thing to catch and hold the eye: the view through the window of ash trees tossing in the wildness of November weather. The room is speaking to the light, and the light is speaking to the room. It is not arguing with nature. Hebe has allowed it to be a gentle sanctuary which opens its eyes and says: ‘Look’. That is what a Plain room is like.
It is the same with Plain dress, and this is the reason for solid colour and for simple, loose shapes. They do not shout SEX or FASHION or STATUS or MONEY or COOOOL! or STYLE. They do not shout at all. The clothes are simple and earthy and peaceful, and all they say is:
‘This is a human being.’
[All quotations from the Tao Te Ching taken from the transaltion by Man Ho Kwok, Martin Plamer and Jay Ramsay, published by Element, except the last quotation, taken from the translation by Gia Fu Feng and Jane English, eited by Toinette Lippe and published by Wildwood House.]