Sunday, 16 June 2019

Slugs, shells, snails, hermits and minimalist living

I try to be cautious and respectful about using other people's material online, but there's this captioned picture I wanted to share with you that I found and kept (because it made me laugh) a couple of years back. I've linked it to the place it originated, not particularly as a recommendation (or not) but just because it ought to be credited.

Here it is.

I love it.

It came back to mind because I was thinking about where a person's sense of identity comes from.

Our household has been immensely enjoying Sally Wainwright's new serialised TV drama, Gentleman Jack, about the Victorian landowner Ann Lister, who lived at Shibden Hall near Halifax in Yorkshire. Ann was comfortable with being a woman, but ill at ease with many of the trappings associated with femininity — all the lace and bows and so forth. She worked out her own style of dress that expressed herself — and the clothes she wore were (of their time) both manly in style and yet still appropriate for a woman.

Of course she would still have been the same woman on the inside in a frilly pink silk dress with pearls and lace sewn onto the bodice, but she wouldn't have felt comfortable because it would have been the wrong outer shell for her inner snail. Perhaps like a hermit crab looking for a house in someone else's discarded shell.

And I've been thinking about our identity, personas, dress, belongings, homes, reputations, occupations — the shells we put forth for our protection and in which we take refuge, and the relationship they have with the snail inside. And the effect it has upon us as we go deeper into the practice of minimalism.

Jesus was a minimalist. 

There's a verse in John's gospel (14.30) where Jesus says: "...the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me." I chose the KJV translation because the wording brings out the thing that interests me, which is that it always reminds me of that verse in Ephesians (4.27) about how to manage anger, that says (NIV) "do not give the devil a foothold."

When John Wimber came to the UK back in the 1980s to teach about signs and wonders, we at the Ashburnham Stable Family (an East Sussex charismatic Christian network) studied these things in some depth, very helpfully and instructively. One of the subsections of our study was cursing and blessing, and I tucked away in my inner filing system the teaching we received that a curse cannot be effective without a foothold — it must be justified; which I found an interesting thought. If it has no foothold, it simply rebounds. This ties in with what Jesus says here about peace, so perhaps it's true about blessing too. It seems likely.

And he practised minimalism entirely, holding on to nothing and no one, not even holding on to his life. Nothing had any foothold in him — you got the uncompromised unadulterated complete Jesus when you met him.

I think in some ways our clothing, occupation, reputation, and material possessions are footholds — not for cursing and blessing, I mean, but for establishing identity, giving other people a handle on who we are. And then beyond that, all these give us ourselves an idea of who we are. We feel a strong need for the external to be congruent with the internal. This can be seen vividly in the journey for self-expression of transgender people. Each individual is unique of course, and what is true of one may not be true of another, but I have wondered whether some transgender individuals might not feel so intensely that they are driven to the pain and expense of surgery if our society were in the first place less binary in its expectation of sex and gender roles and appearances, choices and self expression. If every single person in the world had long hair, no make-up, and a simple linen long-sleeved uni-sex tunic with a standard neckline and a plain loose wool coat for the cold, with no colour or style variation, would fewer people feel desperate about their physical sexual characteristics?  We shall never know.

— that picture's from here (Hebe's work)

One of the things that struck me (and has stayed with me) when I was involved in a prison chaplaincy fellowship back in the late 80s early 90s, was the sense of personal freedom I encountered in the men I got to know in the prison. There they were, convicts, and yet almost without exception there was about them an honesty and simplicity in the way they related with me that I did not find outside the prison gates. I emphasised that it was in how they related with me, because I am fully aware that a prisoner might try to take advantage of someone who offered a link to the outside (eg could be a mule), there can be opportunism, and lies (I remember one convict saying to me with a wry smile, "Oh yes, everybody's innocent in prison!")

But in the interpersonal quality of the encounter, there was indeed this honesty and simplicity, and I came to the conclusion it was because they had lost their good reputation. Like St Francis saying "We must be content not to be good and not to be thought good" — well, they were. As human beings (and locked away from easy access to drugs and alcohol) they offered some of the freest, simplest, most human encounters I have ever known. Another place I found this in a different way true was the hospice, where everything was getting up and leaving the people I met there. It encouraged honesty.

By contrast, most of us take refuge in and rely on what we own and what we wear, our gender and marital status, what we have achieved, our certificates and trophies and medals, our social accreditations of various sorts, and our material possessions, to tell ourselves and those we encounter on the journey who we are.
I think this is why minimalism feels so peaceful and free — especially if you practice it in terms of humility as well as material possession, being content with the lowest and the least, being unrecognised and unacknowledged, of no reputation and no account. There you are in the world, just you and God, with a place to stay and simple clothing to keep you warm and something to read and something to eat . . . and that's it.

Perhaps all those shells I see in the garden are, after all, nothing to do with predatory blackbirds and thrushes, but are the discarded identities of snails who espoused minimalism, refusing to be consumerist commodities any longer, entering the unadorned world of the slug.

Jeepers, it's time I got out of bed and got dressed; I need to focus my mind on chapel this morning because there's hardly anybody there and I'm the preacher . . . see you later, fellow slugs . . .


Suzan said...

God bless. I hope that this morning's service went very well.

Buzzfloyd said...

Interesting thoughts to mull over. When I read that bit about John Wimber and a curse needing a foothold, I immediately thought about a situation in my own life recently where criticisms had been levelled at a group I'm involved in, and my priority - which I urged the rest of the group to make theirs - was to ensure we took those criticisms seriously and ironed out all our practice to be above reproach. Then, when I read what you were saying about men in prison, I wondered whether this was me focusing on reputation. But then I realised that it was actually about the real thing from which the reputation stems. There's more that I'd like to tell you about that, but it's for a private conversation.

Rebecca said...

Oh, WOW! Especially that 2nd and 3rd paragraph from the last!!!!!!

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Suzan — waving!

Hi BuzzF — yes, food for thought; carry it in your mind and we can meet up over a cup of tea during the week. I think it's always worth taking criticisms seriously, like that thing in Max Ehrman's Desiderata, "Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story..."

Hi Rebecca — you can feel yourself making a stealthy exit from all the expectations and the hurly-burly?

Anonymous said...

Hello Pen,
This made me think about Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden- entirely unadorned until they ate from the forbidden tree of knowledge; worldly concerns. I think perhaps we have constructed our own shell to hide within. Love the painting and the idea of neutrally clad people. This could be interpreted in so many ways! Fascinating! Deb x

Sandra Ann said...

Fellow slug waving!! Not giving a foothold ... well I did that this morning! I was enraged about Dave's deteriorating health, my own health concerns and the fact that I have been unfairly paid in my role as home tutor support and childminder whilst the mother is guaranteed an income as a teacher. I have had to take it to the Lord and seek his forgiveness. The turning away is a daily habit for sure :-). Thank you for your words as always plenty for me to ponder xx

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Deb — Adam and Eve — yes! I did a lot of thinking about them earlier this year for a book I was writing, and noticed for the first time that the Bible says nakedness is all in the mind: "Who told thee thou wast naked?" Just as you say, it all begins there, trying to hide from truth.

Hi San — May you and your family be blessed with God's shalom, prosperity, health and peace. I, too, as a writer and editor, have often raged at the low rates and delayed remuneration of the freelancer, and often expressed the view that if the staff at the publishing house had to work the same hours for the same money and wait the same length of time to be paid, there'd be a much smaller number of books in circulation! But here's the thing, it's all about the choice to be free. It's the same for my two daughters whose house I share; as freelance artists they have no paid holiday, no pension benefits, no sick pay — but they steadfastly refuse a salaried position, because what that would mean is their lives, their precious time, bought and paid for. Same with you. What you have that the teacher does not is freedom, and that is of inestimable value.
I'm so sorry to hear that Dave's health is suffering. May he be well, may you together find the path of optimal wellbeing for him, may God's purposes be fulfilled in your lives. xxx

Sandra Ann said...

Thank you, thank you ❤️❤️

Pen Wilcock said...



greta said...

when i read your paragraphs about prisoners to my husband, he said that he'd had the same experience with folks in AA. they met as a group in our church basement. when there was an open meeting my husband enjoyed attending. he said that they were the most honest, straightforward folks he'd ever met. he ended by saying that there was more christian behaviour downstairs in the basement than upstairs in the sanctuary. he was right about that.

love hebe's artwork and the idea of such nondescript style. how relaxing that would be!

Pen Wilcock said...

About AA — yes indeed. There's someone who from time to time comments here, Daisyanon, who has re-imagined church on an AA template. She has some very interesting observations about discipleship following the AA pattern. I used to have her blog/site in my sideline but I think she maybe took it down.
I love the idea of simple, natural androgynous clothing, and I think it would bring out people's individuality and soul in the same way candlelight and firelight do.