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.


Rapunzel said...

Oh Pen, this post resonates with me on so many levels.

Perhaps as a teen lines 2-4 spoke to you because your life was determined at that age by other people, school and all that. You certainly wouldn't have felt you had much time for contemplation.

I am Very Good at housework, when I choose to make myself do it, but I honestly find it far less interesting than almost anything else.
Before I joined the Manimal on his homestead my little house in town was neat and tidy Because It Had Hardly Anything In It! This was very deliberate.
I would rather have a library card than my own library full of books to care for. I would rather have a kitten to snuggle than a grand piano to dust. I would rather have a few simple dresses I can wear over and over than a walk-in closet full of fine clothes to take care of and the responsibility of putting together 'outfits' and keeping current with styles.
My favorite Zen teaching is the straightforward: When you have eaten your rice, wash your bowl. Seriously, do I NEED more than a bowl, a cup, a spoon, fork, knife and chopsticks? Since I've given up eating meat I probably don't even need the fork.
In fact, given my head in the area of the culinary arts I don't actually need a kitchen!

I used to have a thousand lofty goals. Now, more than half a century into the project of ME, my goal, when I "grow up" is to be a dilettante. To follow my heart's leadings, learn everything I'm curious about, and not have to "accomplish" anything or prove anything or impress anybody. To make my simple clothes because I enjoy doing it, even though it "doesn't pay", to let go of all the "shoulds" of society and live my life in my own way.

It is amazing how one's idea of life evolves over time.

I really ought to have your last paragraph tattooed on my forehead. It would save me a lot of explaining.

Pen Wilcock said...

Friend, you speak my mind!! x

Jenna said...

Just in from camping this weekend with the Munchkin (granddaughter) and my Son. While musing by the fire, I got to thinking how much stuff I had left at home and how little it took out "in the wilderness" to get by. Why do I even have all this other stuff????

Simple food because much preparing was more labor intensive and the storing of it doubtful. Simple clothing because more clothing has to be schlepped, stored and might mildew. Simple occupations: cook, wash up, gather wood, hold down a chair, take a walk.

Now I'll have to reconcile that with my current passion of making quilted things. I already eschew gizmos and widgets that are uni-taskers but how much of this stuff do I REALLY need to sew? Did I get sucked into the vortex of "being a quilter"? I think possibly so but not before I can grab onto my freecycled ironing board and hang on for dear life. Thank Yah I didn't succumb to quilting magazine subscriptions.

And to the commenter Rapunzel: RIGHT ON for Project Dilettante. I'm right there with ya.

Pen Wilcock said...

"Sucked into the vortex" :0D xx

Unknown said...

Just, *Yes*.

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) xx

Sandra Ann said...

Pen I love your closing verse, so uplifting :-) x

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) xx

Suzy said...

I agree with everything rapunzel has written :) I know about the sewing vortex lol and I love the quote at the end of the post. I have to admit that I do relate to the author of that poem though especially on days when it feels like all I'm doing is washing up the plates etc etc :) however I do believe that contemplative a are as Merton said like trees that spiritually synthesise all our chaos into some sort of supernatural oxygen :) and t is no small contribution.

gail said...

Hi Pen,
Again, you've got me thinking as I sit here at my too cluttered desk in my sewing/office room, full of too many bits and pieces. And do you know I actually don't want to have all this stuff. Why is it that some of us find it very hard to let go of things? This voice in my head says "maybe it will come in handy" so I tuck it away again. How I would love to have just a bowl, a cup, a spoon fork and a knife. Maybe I need to follow your lead and let go of one thing each day for as long as it takes!! You and the girls and guys that comment are so wise.
Blessings Gail

Anonymous said...

Since reading In Celebration of Simplicity I have pretty much got rid of 3/4 of my belongings in the last 4-5 years. I am a lot happier and my goal this year is to try to use up practically all of the 'stuff' in my craft room. As a box empties I will get rid of it and when there are no more boxes I will get rid of the shelving and then that will be that :-D

I'm also trying to wean myself off the computer so I spend less time on it and I want to spend more time looking outside. :-D

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi friends - good to hear from you xx

Rachel said...

Beautifully written. I found a little of myself in every sentence you wrote.

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) xx

Anne said...

We are alike in many ways, although I have just begun my simplicity journey, I too don't like to be hurried or bogged down in things that only matters to the frantic and rushed so important folks. A pot of porridge or sandwich , they are so quick and quiet to make. Give me sweeping any day over a vacuum cleaner. I live with very noisy people and messy so I am taking much longer to reach my goals but at least I've begun.

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh, those are magic words - "At least I've begun"! That's like the first steps out of the back of the wardrobe into Narnia! Well done :0) xx

DaisyAnon said...

As so often you have thought my thoughts for me and expressed them better than I ever could, thank you!

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Daisy. One day, I'm sure we will actually meet in person. x

rebecca said...

I can relate, too. I share some of your "not for mes". Rapunzel's too. Sometimes, though (like today), I feel a bit idle and have to listen to the inner nudge and examine myself with a bit more objectivity....then make the adjustments called for.

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) xx