Monday, 26 May 2014

Changing perspectives

At the age of fifteen, I met Jesus. This is not to say that up until that point my life had been a sterile desert devoid of all spiritual content. Of course not. Nor is it to say that until then he was not with me. He was. He is Emmanuel – he is always with us; he stands at the door of each soul, and knocks. But at fifteen years old I met him in conscious awareness, and life has never been the same since. I became his property then, and so I still am.

The road from that point on has travelled through a changing landscape. For a while, immersed in Pentecostalist / Housechurch / Baptist / Jesus Freak culture, my life took on a strongly Evangelical flavor. In those days, small local Evangelical Christian bookshops could still be found in most places, and always sold prayer cards with Bible quotations or devotional poetry on them.

One I loved said this:

For no reason I can think of, it came back to my mind today. I felt intrigued to remember how delightful I found it all those years ago. I felt then that it expressed so well how things are – a shrewd nugget of useful wisdom. I see it differently now.

Here is how my 56-year-old mind responds to it.

Line 1:
Lord of the pots and pitikins
Yes, God is present in every aspect of life – in the mundane chores of everyday just as much as when we gather for worship or set time aside to read the Bible or pray. I’m with Brother Lawrence and his Practice of the Presence of God: all ground is Holy Ground; there is nowhere God is not.

Lines 2-4:
Since I have no time to be
A saint by doing lovely things
And vigiling with Thee
This is where it starts to go wrong.
Here steals in the tacit implication that the contemplative life is a luxury, not really work – something only for people who have time on their hands – ladies of leisure. A mistake actives often make about contemplatives, this is a grave error. The work of prayer is as taxing and practical as any manual labour. Further, the two are not mutually exclusive. It’s possible to keep vigil with God and wash up at the same time.

Lines 5-6:
By watching in the twilight dawn
And storming Heaven’s gates
In terms of religious debate, this is an old and wily technique: discredit by facetiousness. It is not stated, but it is insinuated that those whose lives are dedicated to the pursuit of prayer and meditation have opted for romanticism, ignoring real work – cooking and housework – in favour of dilettante and self-indulgent poetic stuff.

Lines 7-8
Make me a saint by getting meals
And washing up the plates.
A reasonable prayer, and these are holy occupations. But in the context of the poem as a whole, the closing couplet has a kind of implicit triumphalism: Pragmatists 1, Romantics nil. Martha 1, Mary nil.

I don’t like it, when I read it now. It lacks integrity, as a proposition. Intellectually, it fights dirty.

I was brought up in a very pragmatic household. The child of a Yorkshire family, all undemonstrative, busy, prosaic types, hardworking and unsentimental, I grew up to see productive labour, material security, and hard-nosed practical realism as pretty much the Holy Grail. My mother’s days started early and finished late, her every minute filled with gardening, animal husbandry, housework and cooking. She worked and worked and worked without ceasing. Her hard work benefited and blessed us all, and I am both humbled by and grateful for all she did for us.

You can tell, can’t you? There’s a lurking “but”.

Here it is. As an adult, passionately, absolutely, I believe in simplicity. I believe in owning little, having little to do, being as free as possible, weighed down by neither commitments nor possessions.  I believe in being free to think, to respond to others, to sit and watch and wonder at this beautiful world, to consider ideas, to pray, to read, to dance and listen to music, to sing and walk and wander and play.

I accept that a certain amount of housework and washing up and cooking must be done, but I know for sure that’s not how I want to spend my life. The less I have to curate – dust, organize, tidy, protect, wash up, find and manage – the better.  I like my environment clean, peaceful, spacious and tidy – but I am not interested in housework.

To sweep a floor in an uncluttered room is a peaceful occupation. To cut up some vegetables or make a pot of porridge is a calm, reflective thing to do. To wash one bowl, one spoon, one cup, in clear water catching the sun’s rays is beautiful.

But vacuuming, polishing, baking and all the rest of it – no, thanks. It’s worthwhile and I have no objection to it, but it’s not for me. And ornaments, heirlooms, un-used items stored in case they ever come in handy? A thousand times emphatically: no.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Words of John Woolman

There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath had different names. It is, however, pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation soever, they become brethren.

– John Woolman, 1746

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Observant dress thoughts now

Observant dress. The Amish and Conservative Mennonites wear it, monks and nuns wear it, some Conservative Quakers wear it – also Hutterites, the Bruderhof community and no doubt some others.

The question in my mind is, observant of what?

The intention, from what I’ve put together through extensive reading and thinking, is a witness to a chosen way of life. I cannot now remember who said it – a sister expressing her mind on the subject in a forum discussion thread, I think – but I read a story of someone’s journey into Plain dress in which she talked about a woman in distress approaching a Plain-dressed woman in a shopping mall, asking for counsel and prayer, the troubled individual saying she felt this Plain-dressed woman looked like someone who knew how to pray. And the sister telling the story said that was what woke the sense of call in her – that she longed to be the kind of woman people would turn to because she looked like a woman who prayed.

There’s a theme developed in the story Thee, Hannah, of Hannah’s reluctance to wear the distinctive Quaker style of bonnet. First she is ashamed of it, but then comes to realize it marks her out as a safe person for someone in trouble to turn to. And that’s the point of observant dress – it’s a witness, it marks the wearer out as part of a particular group, standing for a particular thing.

The phrase “look like” comes into this a lot.

Cistercian monks today, whose habit has changed not one whit since the establishment of their order in the 11th century, look like the original brothers. This necessarily means their dress is anachronistic – it belongs to another time and place.  By this means it becomes evocative of a particular tradition, a way of doing and believing the Catholic faith.

Franciscan monks want to look like St Francis, and Poor Clares want to look like Clare of Assisi.

That sister whose story I read online wanted to look like a woman who prays – not just be one, but advertise it by looking like it; a walking, talking, living offering of an opportunity.

Plain dressing groups want to look like people of faith, signaling their values of modesty, humility and Christian belief, silent advertisements for the Gospel, signs of contradiction in a world losing its way. They want to look like Amish/Quakers/Mennonites/Old Order River Brethren/Hutterites always have.

Going back to the roots, what did the first Cistercian monks look like? What did St Francis and St Clare look like? What did the first Quakers and Shakers and Amish and Mennonites look like? What did Jesus look like, for that matter?

As I understand it, they didn’t look like anything at all; indeed that was part of the point of the original groups. They wore the jeans and T-shirts of their day – the everyday hard-wearing practical clothes favoured by ordinary working people.
This is what troubles me a bit. The original members of the groups in question looked like everyone else, where the point of observant dress is to look different. The “observant” part is a witness to separation, being called out of the world and set aside. It’s a witness to belonging to a separate and holy tradition.

Whatever else observant dress says to the world, it says (loud and clear) “We are not like you.” To many, it says no more than that.

And this is where I have come to feel troubled by it.

The nub of the incarnation is the setting aside of what separated divinity from humanity, Jesus coming to live among us as one of us. What did Jesus look like? He looked like us. In similar wise the garb of the early Franciscans/Amish etc was a conscious adoption of the dress of the hoi-polloi – which at least has a clear correspondence to the mission of Jesus coming among us as one of us.

St Francis, for example, stripped naked and left the elegant, fashionable and expensive clothes, in which he had always delighted, at the feet of his father (a well-to-do cloth merchant). He laid aside the apparel of wealth and privilege, choosing instead to wear the garb of a beggar.  I can see the connection between that and what Jesus did.

I love the monastic habit, I love Plain dress – it thrills my soul, observant dress is beautiful to me. But if I’m absolutely honest I have to admit it seems to be doing the opposite of what those it is intended to look like were originally doing.  Not coming into the midst of the people as one of them, but coming out of the midst of the people to become 'one of us' – a separated group, holy unto the Lord.

A key component of my own life purpose is the calling to simplicity. For a while, I wore Plain dress, and I tried to convince myself it expressed simplicity. Honestly, it didn’t. It had to be specially sourced (or made at home, which is fine but expensive - regular clothes on eBay are a darned sight cheaper), everything had to be ironed, for modesty skirts and dresses needed petticoats and the right kind of underpants (bloomers). There were the kapps and the hairpins etc, then shawls or kerchiefs and some sort of solution to wearing long cotton dresses in cold, wet, foggy England. And aprons – several of.  Many Plain women feel it immodest and proud to venture out without an apron. My Plain wardrobe needed a good-sized clothes rail and a couple of drawers at least.

I just have to travel light – it feels urgent in my soul to do that. Watching and listening to regular modern people, I discover that jeans can take you anywhere (well – except the Ritz, but hey). Jeans to church, jeans to a party, jeans on the beach, jeans to dig the garden. Skinny jeans can dress up or dress down, and fold up small in a drawer. Three pairs of skinny jeans and you’re good to go.

I am familiar with the argument that all trousers are men’s garb and verboten for women. As I have huge feet, hands and head, and am tall and broad-shouldered, I’ve actually worn men’s clothes and shoes much of my life – even dressing Plain, I had to wear men’s shoes and gloves. And women’s jeans don’t look like men’s, so wearing women's jeans is not wearing the garb of a man. Besides which, personally this gender divide does not hold much power in my heart. There is no witness with my spirit that it is important. I respect it is important to others – just not to me.

And I’m familiar with the opinion that jeans are immodest because they make a woman’s figure apparent. But I think if you come across an Amish woman on a windy day, you’ll find you can see clearly delineated her legs, her breasts, if that’s what you’re looking for. Besides, to me this is not what modesty is really about. Some tribes of the world stroll about stark naked and it doesn’t mean they aren’t modest or would be morally improved in flowing dresses with high necklines. It’s a cultural thing. So, I like to wear clothes which decently cover me, in sturdy fabrics, not have my flesh on display; and that feels modest enough, to me.

Plain – yes, I want to be Plain. I want a Plain heart; to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with my God. I want to travel light and occupy the smallest possible space on earth, walk lightly on the earth. And I don’t want to look like anything; I want to be, not look like. I want to be hidden, unobtrusive, quiet, not draw attention to myself. I want to slip quietly along the edges of things.

As for helping people in trouble and making known the Gospel, so far as within me lies I want to do that – to walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in every man, as George Fox put it.

I do want to wear observant dress, but I want my togs to be observant of the same things as Jesus’s clothes were observant of – and the clothes of the first Franciscans, Cistercians, Amish, Quakers and all the rest. Ordinariness. Lowliness. Working-class-ness. Modesty in the sense of being unexceptional and of slender means.

It was with a sense of sadness and withdrawal that I laid aside my lovely long dresses, the aprons and kapps, the petticoats and long underwear – sad because I think they are so darling and so beautiful. I fall in love with the Amish and traditionally dressed monastics every time I look at them. But it’s an aesthetic love affair, not a spiritual one if I am really honest. I – personally, maybe not you – find I can better practice the presence of God in the holy ordinary.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

The signs of the times

Friends, I think this is the most important article I have ever read.

I found it hard to read and hard to face. For some time I have been hoping it wasn’t true, wasn’t happening, could be avoided. I no longer think so.

Now I see I have to move my thinking on. The cultivation of simplicity, kindness, quietness, wisdom, understanding, spiritual strength, and peace, has sharpened from advisability to urgent necessity.

I am not at all sure I have the resources for all that lies ahead.  But I think of the words of Jesus: “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” (John 12:35-36)