Quaker Plain I

There are so many things I think of to write about. I don’t really know how I select what to focus on. It is not always what seems most important, or even more pressing. Something inside just says, “This. Now.” And I pretty much go along with that.

So it is with this post. I have thought a lot about the Quaker testimony of plainness, for many years; probably since I started worshiping with Friends, 40 or so years ago. I don’t know why, given some of the other topics that I am working on for this blog, this is the one that has come to the surface for me, but it has.

Most modern Friends talk about simplicity. I get that. That’s the way I’ve talked about it, and thought about it, most often. Simplicity is … well, simple. It doesn’t take a lot of explanation, it just needs to be done. I’ve heard some disagreement about what simplicity might mean in a certain time, at a certain place, but I have never heard any serious disagreement about whether simplicity is desirable or not. I’ve never heard much disagreement about what it means, in general. I reckon that’s a good thing. Seems like there ought to be some stuff that we just agree on without much fuss, when there is so little of that to be found among us.

For instance, as I write, I am deeply saddened by the impending split in Indiana Yearly Meeting, of which I was a member in the 1980’s. “Why can’t we all just get along?” is not an adequate response. There are real issues of grave importance on both “sides” (and that’s one of those other topics I am working on that seem both more important and more urgent than this one).Neither “side” seems to be able to see the profound significance of the other’s stance. They are both largely right, about something. They are both terribly wrong, about something. And for some reason, it has come to this: time has run out on trying to bridge those differences and seek mutual understanding and reconciliation.

How can a religious society which professes peace as one of its premier testimonies, be so given to internecine warfare? Oh, that is such a rhetorical question. I know why, or at least a lot of the why. Some of it is to be found in a previous essay called People Are Corruptible.

But the new one, the essay on the split in IYM and what it says about Quakers in general, is still in process. Today, I want to talk about plainness.

So as I said, I’ve been thinking, praying, meditating, and seeking Light on this matter for 40 years or so. Honestly, during most of that time I’ve been pretty certain what simplicity meant to me. Some of that hasn’t changed. Let’s see if I can tease out some of the common threads.

1.) Materialism: Bad.

Oh, I need to say more about that? Okay. Materialism is another way of saying greed. Materialism means that I think I can make myself happy with property, money, things. It means that my primary orientation is to what I can own or control, rather than to relationships with others, with intellectual advance, or with spirituality. In practice, I find it means that I am willing to hurt others in order to get the things I want. It means that I am willing to allow my soul to wither so long as I have a big pile of stuff. Social status, affluence, and conspicuous consumption are seen as ultimately desirable, and all other values are given lip service at best, or scorned at worse.

This does not lend itself to serenity, justice, love, or awareness of God’s presence in my life.

2.) Humility: good.

Humility gets a bad rap in society at large. I almost said “modern society” but from what I can tell of history, it always has. There is a place for a healthy ego; a healthy ego mediates between my Self and the outside world. So far, so good. But when ego starts thinking it IS my self, trouble starts. Ego gets very good at justification, rationalization, blaming, excuse-making, forgetting, making mountains out of molehills, taking things personally, and a whole host of other errors. I call them errors because they are not true; they are what ego makes up to justify having put itself into an unnatural prominence, and to defend itself in that position.

Humility, on the other hand, keeps me right-sized. The term humility has its origin in the Latin Humilis, which is related to humus or earth. In other words, to be humble is to be grounded. Chogyam Trungpa used to talk about the incredible richness of earthiness, where both growth and decomposition take place at the same time. It is a richness, not of arrogance, status, or vanity, but of real qualities, both pleasant and unpleasant, and how they mingle together. Humility has no more to do with false modesty than it does with false pride. False modesty disguises self-centeredness behind a facade of deprecation, but it is still focused on “me me me” and not on “Self in relation to others and the world about me.”

True humility allows me to admit my talents as well as my flaws. Talents, because they were given to me; they don’t exalt my ego if I am honest about their real nature. Flaws, because an honest assessment reveals that I have them AND that this is the human condition. Doesn’t make me a bad person; just makes me a typical person.

So the practice of simplicity has allowed me to find a way to put these threads together in a way of life. By following a way of life, there is some self-correction that can occur. If I am off base, and if I am honest about observing and understanding what happens to me and around me, I will see that my ideas don’t match up to reality, and adjust them accordingly. For instance, if I tell myself I am living simply because I bought a Honda Accord instead of a Lexus, and then meet someone from a Third World country who is thrilled about having a bicycle that doesn’t break down, I just might readjust my notions of how simple my life really is.

There was a time, in the 80s, when I first encountered Conservative Friends, and I experimented with plainness. I was a member at the time of a Meeting that was located among a large population of German Baptist Brethren, also called Dunkards. Dunkards are “Old Order” in many ways, although they have accepted electrical appliances, cars, etc., as the Old Order Amish have not. Still, to an outward eye, you would not be able to tell a Dunkard from an Amish person. The differences are in the details — like how many pleats a lady’s bonnet has — and they can tell the difference, but the outsider would lump them all together. So being surrounded by this, plain dress did not seem so strange. And knowing of our Quaker heritage of dressing in a very similar fashion, and having been introduced to Conservative Friends, I moved somewhat in that direction. I adopted a style of dress that was similar to, but not imitative of, the Dunkards around me and of the few plain Friends who were still to be found in Ohio Yearly Meeting. I adopted, in private, the use of Thee and of the numbered days and months (First Day, Seventh Month, instead of Sunday or July.)

Time moved on and so did I. When I no longer resided within that community, these things began to feel more like peculiarities than like testimonies. What was their purpose? Was it really to live in that Spirit in which true humility resides, or did it actually call a lot of attention to me and to what a Quakerly guy I was? I did not find that I had to reject the impulses which moved me to make these experiments, nor to regret the style in which the experiments were carried out. What I had to do was realize that outside of community, a fellowship of like-minded others, this way of behaving did not accomplish what I felt called to express.

I gradually moved away from the emphasis on plainness, and back to calling it simplicty. What I had learned, stayed with me, but the perspective underwent a gradual and subtle shift.

Now, thirty years later, I am wondering about the wisdom of that. Many Friends are once again feeling the call to plainness. Do a web search on Convergent Friends and you will find a great deal of discussion going on concerning this topic. Some things are emerging from that discussion, and I think it is productive.

First, I want to say that my suspicion that it takes community to have a real, vital expression of plainness is proving to be accurate. It may be, in our current situation, that this community is more “virtual” than was possible before. People who might never have met can now, through internet social networking media, question each other, support each other, serve as role models for each other. As this discussion grows, and more people engage with the effort, I expect that actual (or “analog”) communities will grow, in which people in the same Yearly Meetings (and not just the Conservative ones), or even the same local Meetings, will be practicing plainness together, face to face and not just keyboard to keyboard.

Secondly, the current dialog is making the difference between plain and simple more distinct. We can be very “simple” without being plain. Like Helen Mallon said in a recent blog post, “Quakerism: an opportunity to wear ugly shoes and feel smug about it.” An excellent observation. You might also say “An opportunity to drink Free Trade coffee and feel smug about it.” We share this one with the Unitarian Universalists. (Smile.)

What is plainness, then, and why is it different from simplicity? I am struggling to answer this question, myself. While I find it useful to distinguish the two, it is hard to come up with a pat definition that can withstand all objections. I know this, though: plainness has more to do with trying to be humble than it does with trying to be good. And I think, this time around, I will leave it there. I will have more to say on the subject, as my own journey continues, and I will continue to learn more from the rest of the plain Quaker “community,” but for now that will have to do.

In “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”, Geoffrey Rush’s character got a good laugh saying, “It’s more of a guideline than a rule.” Well, I’m not even at the guideline stage as yet. More of an intuition, really. But that part about humililty: I have a feeling that it lasts.

Let me put this as clearly as I can: Simplicity can used, very easily, as a way to enhance ego, which kills the spirit. Plainness, when practiced in community, makes egocentrism harder to pull off. Not impossible, but harder.

We’ll keep thinking, and praying, and meditating, and communicating, and practicing, and it will all evolve in time.

20 thoughts on “Quaker Plain I

  1. I don’t think it is possible or even productive necessarily to try and sum up the “why” for plain dress. Like the question of “Why do you homeschool” which I have answered a hundred times in my life, the answer is always evolving and growing. The reason we started homeschooling 30 years ago is very different from how I would answer now as I experienced all the reasons and as the children grew and developed. The same with plain dress. The reasons someone may take it up, and the reasons they continue it, or rather the spiritual “results” after a time period, are probably different, and I suspect will change as the person ages etc.

    So my general comment is that you really can’t speak for others as to how it will work out. Saying that the difference between simple and plain is the effect on the ego may not be true for many. That rings more true for the community-ordered type of plain that the other plain communities practice.

    I also would say that for me plain DOES in fact have to do with being “good” rather than humble, though maybe they go hand in hand. It is a daily reminder that Jesus commanded us to “Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” I cannot forget that when I am dressed like this; no matter where I go it follows me. I had attempted plain dress a few years back and stopped pretty quickly as I felt I was pretending – or rather that I was not equal to what I was representing. As if I was presenting a face to the world that was a “better” person than I felt! Apparently I was not yet ready for plain dress, cause I did not yet understand that I would never be good enough, only God is good enough, and when He was living in me then my plain dress reminded me and the world that He was living through me and my unworthiness was a given. So it is almost, in fact, the opposite of what I had thought! The plain dress is to me the symbol of my recognition of my Un-worthiness, rather than an ego-builder, if that makes sense.

    Also, surprisingly, while it is true that without the cyber-community I would not have started along the plain journey so easily, I am finding that God is using the plain dress to show me how to be dependent on Him and NOT be so dependent on community, which I tend to be by nature. Jesus called us to seek Him, not to seek a community, and the isolation that the plain dress engenders has for me been very good in that way! I needed to be forced to be MORE isolated apparently!

    All I can say really is that plain dress from the inside out has been a life changing experience, and not at all what I had intellectualized it to be. As with most things in life, you can’t really know until you try it.

  2. Thank you, Bruce.

    I find for myself that keeping life both plain and simple goes far beyond the external. As I move closer to my center, the light within me, there seems to be a longing or desire to naturally want to remove the complicated elements which surround me. There is such beauty in the light that when something dims it (a possession, attitude or whatever) I want to try and remove it so that I can see the light as much as I am able.

    We as humans are so good about complicating even what should be “plain” and “simple”. Part of me hesitates to even forward this reply for fear of how might be interpreted and turned in to a discussion of something far more complicated than what I have actually said. And then again, perhaps not as Bruce did give us much to think about (sorry, a little too much of my own ego there!)


    1. I really appreciate your comments about simplicity, Debi–“As I move closer to my center, the light within me, there seems to be a longing or desire to naturally want to remove the complicated elements which surround me.”

  3. B’rer Arnold, thank you for the shoutout! Having been around Quakers all my life, I can both appreciate the simplicity and emphasis on the inner light and roll my eyes at some of the….silliness.

  4. I think we need to be careful defining what “simple” is. Owning a bicycle instead of a car is not necessarily more simple if you genuinely do need the car. I can’t afford to live near my job, so having a car prevents me from having to spend three hours each way riding the bus, every day of the week, and that definitely simplifies things (riding a bike on the freeway is not an option, because of distance and the insanity of doing so on the freeway). Theoretically, I could find a new job, more roommates, etc., but . . . really? I have to reorganize every single aspect of my life? More than I can face right now. Way, way, more. I don’t want to get into a discussion about how the U.S. is too car-centric, etc. I am well aware of it but I can’t solve it, and being berated about it makes me feel even less in control of my own life.

    Furthermore, I live on the Gulf Coast in a climate where it rains heavily, frequently, where temperatures can hit 85 degrees in February, and it’s always humid. Riding a bike means that I wouldn’t be presentable once I did get to work. I work with people: I can’t be sweaty all day long.

    So, I drive a ten-year-old econobox, respectable but not enviable. It was an inexpensive car in the first place, it still gets very good gas mileage, and I intend to drive it until it drops. If I lived in a big Eastern city with good public transport, I’d sell it, but I live in a big Western city with lousy public transport and a huge metropolitan area, so selling the car is not a viable option.

  5. “Plain dress”, now. other than jeans and a T-shirt is nothing more than ridiculous preening foolishness. Mean it really.
    Is that what you are talking about here?

    1. I think you should interact more with some folks who are bringing Quaker plain dress into the modern world before making such sweeping judgments. I’ll have more to say on this later, but a lot of folks have already spoken pretty clearly about what this means to them, and where it’s taking them.

    2. Ben, do you have any clue of the working conditions under which jeans and t-shirts are typically produced?

      Like many women I began wearing rather plain and simple homemade dresses as a testimony that there is a more compassionate way to clothe ourselves than by supporting the cruelty and injustice that is rampant in modern clothing factories.

      Ridiculous preening foolishness?

      Please take the time to educate yourself before you judge.

  6. Hello.

    I have a few thoughts on plain dress which I thought I’d share. It took me a long time to discover what plain dress means to me.

    To be called plain, clothing should not call attention to itself or to the wearer’s body. In other words, it should:

    – be modest (coverage alone is not modest –skin-tight is the same as “skin”)

    – not be obviously rich or costly (ditch the designer labels)

    – fit properly (it is amazing how distracting badly fitted clothing is)

    – be of a classic shape and cut so that one can blend in for many seasons without a thought to changes in styles

    – be of a color, if color is used, that compliments the wearer’s natural coloring

    – be durable, and age gracefully

    Plain clothing can be purchased in a department store or made at home.

    I am female and I cover my head. I do not wear a bonnet, although I think they are beautiful. I wear a knitted cotton or wool beret, on the back of my head in the manner of a snood when I am indoors or if it isn’t cold or windy, outside. I pull the thing down around my ears if it’s cold. It functions as protective and religious covering. (Just in case 1 Corinthians 11 means what it says.)

    I love you guys.


  7. What a absolute load of nonsense from begining to end. Margarette Fell (Fox) made it absolutely clear what ‘plain’ meant and made it plainer that it had nothing to do with dressing uniformly and made it clear that dressing up in some particular fashion required a ‘carnal’ undestanding of the Message George Fox was given to preach and proclaim.

    When you see someone dressed up in a 17 th centruary costume today, be it a felt hat or a bonnet know for certain you are seeing someone that is led by their own intellect/emotions and not hte Light.


    1. I’m afraid I can’t be as certain as that, Stuart. I’ve known too many people for whom this kind of plain dress, which you inaccurately describe as 17th century costume, is very much a surrender of egoistic notions and a leading of the Light. It may well be as you say for some. I feel that it would have been notional for me to continue with that sort of “costume” any longer than I did, for instance. But that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize others for whom it is a genuine spiritual discipline. Do you know any?

    2. Stuart,
      When you see someone who is dressed differently from yourself, whether they are wearing “a 17th century costume”, modern plain dress, cowboy boots and leather chaps, or full scuba diving gear, all you really KNOW FOR CERTAIN is that they are not dressed like you.

      More than that is your own supposition, and unless you know the person intimately your supposition is likely to be incorrect.

      Who are you to decide what the Light may or may not lead another person to choose?

      What kind of clothing do you wear? And why?

  8. I have participated in “plain communities” for most of my adult life, and belonged to meetings where plainness was accepted and practiced by some or most of the members.

    The relentless self-analysis described by some here would be hard for me to sympathize with. When I put my hat on or buy a clothing item, I do not spend much time analyzing my motives; I just do it and go about my business!

    Margaret Fell was certainly entitled to her own opinions, but I do not feel in the least bound by what she did or didn’t think!

  9. I’d start from the position that if people want to wear any style of clothing this is OK. But there are some aspects to the attitudes behind a ‘return’ to plain dress which may be revealing if more closely examined. So I agree it is worth looking at the underlying perspectives.

    The fact that any revival of Plain Dress appears to be entirely confined to the US, and does not appear to be reflected among the British Quakers who are, in theory, the inheritors of the original Friends’ tradition, leads me to think there are specific ‘lifestyle’ aspects to this issue which reflect more on the American tendency to identity politics and the necessity for outward definition than to anything especially spiritual or anything related to an inward light.

    My understanding is that ‘plain dress’ specifically refers to simplified versions of existing dress and I suggest that this would, in general, be a more positive representation in contemporary circumstances, if people wish the Society to be both accessible and a source of strength in such uncertain times.

    1. For most of us, plain dress is just as you say, a simplified version of everyday wear among our contemporaries. Yet, as so many have commented here and elsewhere, choosing a style which one might call “traditional plain” does not have much to do with politics. (Nor does “modern plain,” for many of us.) It is clearly a response to a leading from the Inner Light for those who have taken the time to write. Could they be fooling themselves? Could we all? That was the point of “Quaker Plain III: A Plain Spirit”, wasn’t it? Yet in writing that piece, I was not suggesting that we are all fooling ourselves all of the time. I know there are times when I followed what I felt to be a leading, only to find out I was wrong, and yet it lead to an improvement in discernment in the future. At other times, following a leading has seemed nothing but foolish from the point of view of “the world,” but the Spirit which asks it brooks no idolatrous competitors. When responding to the deepest meaning of the Light Within, no reasons are necessary. When Jesus said “Follow me,” and Peter and Andrew left their nets and followed, they did not question why. They didn’t consider the social or political ramifications of their choice. They just did it, because it was the expression of their deepest faith.

      1. Thank you – I certainly do not doubt the integrity and depth of belief of those adopting plain dress. My concern is that the issue of plain dress could be a distraction, even from pursuit of a simple life. I do think it likely that clothes in the future will need to be locally sourced and adopt principles of durability and sustainability; yet I am not sure that the adoption of traditional plain dress is relevant to this, as such necessities are inversely related to the commercial processes which are predominant. The issue of how the majority of garments are produced and sourced in 2012 I think is of far more import, whilst traditional plain dress defines itself in a retrospective manner and therefore seems to me somewhat ephemeral.

      2. Strictly from an ethical and practical point of view, there is little to disagree with in what you say. But for so many, plain dress (and other modes of plainness) are primarily the response to a leading. The ethical and practical dimensions are there, as they are in all of God’s Providence, yet they are not the main motivation. Without understanding this, one cannot understand the Quaker practice of plainness. If you do get it, then you can understand the concern that the more modern view of simplicity is a watering down of our ancient testimony.

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