Quaker Plain I

by Dr. Bruce Arnold

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.