Quaker Plain IV: A Plain Life

Come right down to it, you can consider lifestyle and clothes and a host of other things, but these are just pieces of a life. It’s not enough to have a piece here and a piece there of a cherished value. To cherish a value, it has to be integral to your life.

Integral. Integrity. They come from the same root as the term integer, which means a whole number. Integrity refers to wholeness. When we have integrity, we are not divided.

Who was it who said, Character is what you do when no one is watching?

So plainness is not just found in this or that practice or custom. It is certainly not a lifestyle; lifestyles are notoriously changeable. As the Collins Dictionary notes, a lifestyle is a set of habits, attitudes, or possessions typical of a certain group, and that these habits etc. may be regarded as fashionable or desirable. You got your disco lifestyle, your outlaw biker lifestyle, your rural lifestyle, your high society lifestyle. Someone could conceivably inhabit each of these lifestyles at different times without undergoing any significant change in core values or character.

What I’m getting at is this: plainness should be a core value, integral to our character, without which we would be someone else entirely, and which is manifested in choices such as home, clothing, occupation, or in attitudes such as not accumulating a lot of material possessions. I say “should be,” because if it is what we are led to do by the Spirit, then that is about as central as it gets.

I have mostly practiced what Martin Kelley called “Sears plain.” (Well, Target plain, anyway; we don’t have Sears here.) There was a time, nearly 30 years ago, when I was more recognizably what we might call “Old Order plain.” (Does that need an explanation? Among Mennonites, you have Mennonites and then you have Old Order Mennonites. The latter hew strictly to the forms of dress and so forth that were not much different 100 or 150 years ago. Some Old Order Mennonites, like the Amish, do without owning cars or electrical appliances and the like.) I wore broadfall pants, suspenders, a felt broadbrim in winter and a straw one in summer. As I’ve said in an earlier essay in this series, it was right for me at a certain time of my life. It was a spiritual discipline to dress in such a manner, one which I felt led to adopt. When the leading ended, I did not continue it, but went back to Sears plain.

But that is only a small part of one plain life. The real truth goes back much farther, and runs much deeper.

Let me refer you back to an essay posted on Letters From the Street last September, called “Praxis: Faith and Practice.” Here’s the URL:


In it, I talked some about the theology of liberation and how it might apply to a middle class life. Now I want to go deeper into that. It won’t hurt if you take a few minutes to go read the Praxis essay, so I don’t have to repeat a lot of it.

Back already? Great.

I hope you noted the term, “preferential option for the poor.” This is a key facet of liberation theology. Hold that thought.

Maybe I need to say a little more about liberation theology. Maybe I will let someone else say it.

Phillip Berryman is a former Catholic priest who had a parish for a time in Panama. After leaving the priesthood and marrying, he worked for a time with American Friends Service Committee projects in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America. He is currently a professor of Latin American studies at Temple University. He has written several books about liberation theology. In one of them, he summarizes it in this fashion: “Liberation theology is: 1. An interpretation of Christian faith out of the suffering, struggle, and hope of the poor; 2. A critique of society and the ideologies sustaining it; 3. A critique of the activity of the church and of Christians from the angle of the poor”. Liberation theology notes that there is strong thread running all the way through the Bible, most prominently in the Gospels, which talks of justice and peace and freedom for the oppressed.

The way some of us read the Bible, this is its central message. It is Jesus’ central message. Not the remission of sins or life in the hereafter. For instance, when asked what was most important, Jesus did not say “salvation.” He said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” I know there is a huge tradition within Christianity which holds that salvation is the most important aspect. Not only do I disagree, both from my reading of the Bible and within my own experience of the Spirit, it is also apparent that much of the way in which Christianity has been used to subjugate others is based on this very insistence on salvation above all else.

“The Preacher and the Slave”
By Joe Hill
(To the tune of “In The Sweet Bye-and-bye”)

Long haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right.
But when about something to eat,
They will answer in voices so sweet:

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land in the sky.
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

And the Salvation Army, they play
And they sing and they clap and they pray
Till they get all your coin on the drum.
Then they tell you when you’re on the bum:


Holy Rollers and Jumpers come out
And they holler, they jump and they shout
Give your money to Jesus, they say,
He will cure all diseases today.


If you fight hard for children and wife,
Try to get something good in this life,
You’re a sinner and bad man, they tell,
When you die you will sure go to hell.


Working folks of all countries unite.
Side by side we for freedom will fight.
When the world and its wealth we have gained
To the grafters we’ll sing this refrain:

You will eat, bye and bye,
When you’ve learned how to cook and to fry.
Chop some wood, ’twill do you good,
Then you’ll eat in the sweet bye and bye.

Joe Hill certainly didn’t intend this song as an anthem of liberation theology! He wrote it as an organizing song for the Industrial Workers of the World. Darn good criticism of mainstream theology, though.

Many Quakers find themselves resonating to the theology of liberation. There are elements within it which are very similar to our own testimonies. For instance, consider the testimony of equality. From our earliest days, we did not recognize distinctions of class or status. This is why we did not doff our hats to judges or the nobility. This is why we used the familiar “Thee” instead of the formal “You.” This is why we have always had women ministers. And, at least in part, this is why we wore plain clothing. While not exactly the preferential option for the poor, it is closer to it than most Christians find themselves. At least a Quaker is not placing him or herself above the poor.

As a very young adult, in deciding how to live what at that time I would have called the simplicity testimony, and what I now prefer to call plainness, I made some crucial choices. Before I had ever heard of the preferential option for the poor, I was making it. I chose a profession, social work, which often put me in direct contact with the poor. While I could easily have taken an occupation which made a lot of money — Mom wanted me to be a lawyer — I chose one which is typically less well-paid than teaching or nursing. Way less well-paid than nursing. I’ve been at or just above the poverty level for most of my adult life, with a couple of exceptions when I had family responsibilities that did not allow me the luxury. I lived in the same neighborhoods where my clients lived. I shopped at the same stores, hunted for the same bargains, wore the same clothes, drove the same used vehicles. I have done without health insurance for many years at different times.

These have not been sacrifices. Rather, they have allowed me to enter into authentic relationships with many people who I might never have met or loved otherwise. It has allowed them to love me in a different way than they might if, perhaps, I were their physician. Maybe you can fool some of the people some of the time, but most people who live on the wrong side of the tracks have to hustle some just to get by, and they know when they are being hustled. Their phoniness detectors are pretty sharp; they have to be. Having been accepted as well as I have been, by hundreds upon hundreds of folks who did not grow up in the protected environment I was blessed with as a child, says that there is some kind of living power in making the choices I was led to make.

I recognize that, simply by being born a white male in a well-to-do American family, I have certain advantages. No amount of “voluntary poverty” could eradicate them. It is not possible to give away all the power and privilege with which I have been endowed. What I have tried to do, to the best of my ability, has been to use it to benefit those around me rather than for myself.

I’m not saying that I am a great example of this. I know, and have the greatest love and respect for, people who have gone even farther. The Sojourners fellowship of Washington, D.C., for instance, which chose to live within one of the blighted ghetto neighborhoods of that city of contrasts, where poverty as great as any on earth can be found within blocks of power and wealth as great as any on earth. My friends in the Catholic Worker houses, who live in one room of a home whose residents are all otherwise what we call homeless: street people, derelicts, the dispossessed. Phillip Berryman, previously mentioned, who left a California parish to go be the priest of a ghetto neighborhood in Panama City. Ivan Illich, who left Vienna to be the priest in a small Mexican town. And so forth.

I’m also not saying that this is the only way to be plain. I’ve done it because I’ve been called to it. Authentic plainness always has this characteristic. We do it because we have to, in order to be faithful. I’m not asking other Friends to make the same choices. I am asking Friends, whether plain or not, to use the preferential option for the poor as a benchmark, a gauge. It ought to at least make us uncomfortable about some of our choices, if nothing else.

It comes back to integrity, and it comes back to humility. I can’t have real integrity, if I overlook the privilege with which I am endowed and contrast it to what is daily reality for so many, especially in the Third World. This is not plain, but play-acting, no matter how much I may otherwise feel I am following the Light as I have been given it. And I, for one, cannot have integrity without humility. A kind of humility of which the preferential option for the poor has deep significance.

I’m not judging you, the reader, by this benchmark. I am describing my own values, my own process. I’m asking you to consider that, in the light of the world as it is, and if you are a Christian, in the light of the Bible and its call to justice and freedom, this might be a benchmark you could apply for yourself.

Quaker Plain III: A Plain Spirit

In 1973, I had the good fortune to meet the noted anthropologist, Indologist, and Hindu monk Swami Agehananda Bharati. At the time he was a professor at Syracuse University. I had read his superb autobiography, The Ochre Robe, earlier that year. His love for India, its philosophy and culture, was evident. Even more important was his approach: not blind passion but a clear and seasoned and realistic mind went hand in hand with the love. It’s an unusual and heady mix.

For this great man of letters to spend a few hours with a budding philosopher, and treat him to supper at a nice restaurant, was more extraordinary than I was able to appreciate at the time. I don’t remember much of what we talked about, but I do remember that his spirit was the same in person as it had been in his book: lively, energetic, clarity of thought, and a no-nonsense approach that is uncommon among spiritual people.

One thing I do remember that he told me was that the Tibetan lama, Chogyam Trungpa, whose writings I had been introduced to in the same class in which we read The Ochre Robe, was starting a college in Boulder, Colorado which would offer a high quality, classical Buddhist education. It was to be called “The Naropa Institute”, and would open for a summer session in 1974. He told me that Trungpa’s reputation was such that top scholars and practitioners from all over the world were vying for spots on the faculty, and that someone who was really serious about learning this stuff, as opposed to someone who likes to think of themselves as the kind of person who knows about this kind of stuff, would be well-advised to be there.

Well, I could not go in 1974, although my brother Jeff did. I went in 1975. It was every bit as good as Agehananda had said it would be. He himself was not on the faculty, but came to give a lecture one night. I had a chance to renew our acquaintance with him after the lecture. He remembered me, and was pleased that I had taken his advice.

I took part in a seminar called “Intensive Buddhist Studies.” For the entire session, a small group of about 20 of us lived together, studied together, ate together, meditated together, played together. It was a fascinating group of people of both genders, all ages from teens through seniors, and many different backgrounds. We took several core courses together, such as Buddhist history, Buddhist philosophy, and Buddhist meditation practice. We meditated together two hours every morning and again every evening, all day on Saturday, half days on Sunday.

I could go on and on about all the transformations that either happened or were initiated during this time. It was a remarkable experience, one for which I will always be grateful. For my present purpose, I want to focus on just one aspect, which was the influence of Chogyam Trungpa’s lectures and his book, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.

When I first read this book, I realized why he and Agehananda Bharati had such a respect and fondness for each other. They both had the same kind of uncompromising, cut-through-the-malarkey approach. If you were to read only one book about Buddhism in your entire life, I would recommend this one without hesitation. In it, Trungpa talks about the development of Buddhism over the centuries, not just in its historical aspect, but how each phase of its development reflects psychological states which we ourselves encounter in real life all the time. And, most importantly, through it all he wove his message of cutting through spiritual materialism.

Which is the heart of the present essay. If part of being a plain Quaker is to eliminate as much as possible the effect of materialism in our lives, how much more important is it to recognize and eliminate spiritual materialism.

What is spiritual materialism? Glad you asked.

In the opening chapter of the book, Trungpa says “We have come here to learn about spirituality. I trust the genuine quality of this search but we must question its nature. The problem is that the ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality … This rationalization of the spiritual path and one’s actions must be cut through if true spirituality is to be realized. However, such rationalizing is not easy to deal with because everything is seen through the filter of the ego’s philosophy and logic, making all appear neat, precise, and very logical … And our effort is so serious and solemn, so straightforward and sincere, that it is difficult to be suspicious of it … It does not matter what we use to achieve self-justification: the wisdom of sacred books, diagrams or charts, mathematical calculations, esoteric formulae, fundamentalist religion, depth psychology, or any other mechanism … we may eventually find ourselves possessed of a huge collection of spiritual paths. We may feel these spiritual collections to be very precious. We have studied so much. We may have studied Western philosophy or Oriental philosophy, practiced yoga, or perhaps have studied under dozens of great masters. We have achieved and we have learned. We believe that we have accumulated a hoard of knowledge … Our vast collections of knowledge and experience are just part of ego’s display, part of the grandiose quality of ego. We display them to the world and, in so doing, reassure ourselves that we exist, safe and secure, as ‘spiritual’ people.”

Now, he was talking to a group of people who were interested in Buddhism. It is very easy to see how someone might feel themselves to be special, a really open-minded and outstanding person, because here they are in a Western country and here they are, studying this exotic religion. Wow!

If we are not able to see how this applies to people who are not following such an exotic path, who were perhaps raised Christian and/or Quaker and for whom this seems very ordinary, very common, then we are not able to see how the ego can use any spiritual path or practice to strengthen its own position.

Let’s say you were looking around for a spiritual home and you found the Religious Society of Friends. There was something so deeply moving about the unprogrammed form of worship, in which a direct experience of God could and often did happen. At first this experience is so profound, so direct, and in its own way so simple. It just is, and you didn’t find any need to analyze it or even talk much about it. But then you went to Meeting for Worship and it was kind of dry and nothing much happened. Where was all that God experience? And you felt a loss, and started trying to reclaim it. In fact, you tried to possess it. You wanted it at your beck and call. And you were in the grips of spiritual materialism.

Or maybe you were touched by the Quaker peace testimony and found yourself taking part in various activities to reduce conflict and support reconciliation. Sometimes difficult, sometimes frustrating, sometimes impossible, but always the pull of your own heart and your awakened spirit kept you going. And then one day you find yourself talking to someone of a militaristic and you find yourself proudly and contentiously declaring “But I am a pacifist.” And you are in the grip of spiritual materialism.

Or perhaps you are attracted to the richness of Quaker history and tradition. You enjoy reading the early history of our Society and find the journals and letters of early Friends to be full of the most wonderful experience and wisdom. You can really connect with how the things they went through relate to things that happen today, and you benefit a lot by learning from their successes and failures. And then one day you find yourself mimicking early Friends’ patterns of speech or dress, not because you are led to do so ineluctably by the Inner Light, but because you want others to know that you feel this deep kinship with our Quaker forebears. And you are in the grip of spiritual materialism.

In each of these examples, something wonderful, rich, powerful and direct has been subtly turned into an object of desire, something to grasp and possess, something with which to feed the ego’s desire to be special, to be noticed, to be admired. Even though the spiritual impact of these things is beyond question, they have been misappropriated or co-opted by the ego for its own purposes. This does not erase any genuine value that these things have had or still have for you. It just means that you will get no further spiritual benefit from them so long as they are objectified in this way for you. It may also mean that your spiritual growth in every area will become stunted or stagnant, depending on how powerful the ego-possession has become.

Jesus was aware of this. He said, for instance, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:5-8) In other words, don’t make a show of it; keep it real, an honest relationship between you and God without public display for the sake of public recognition.

For that matter, Jesus himself felt the temptations of spiritual materialism. In the famous passage in which Jesus is tempted to command stones to become bread, to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple to show that the angels would bear him up, and to possess all the kingdoms of the world in all their splendor, each of these is designed to gratify the ego and lead away from God. Look! I can do magic! Look! I am specially loved by God! Look! I am powerful over all! In each instance, Jesus’ answer shows that he would not use his spiritual stature for self-gratification. He is focused on God, not his own pride.

In Quaker Plain I, I noted that for me plainness has more to do with being humble than it does with being good. The problem of spiritual materialism is a good example of why. Being good can very easily lead to self-righteousness, one of the most unlovely forms of spiritual materialism. Humility never does. You have to stop practicing humility in order to fall into spiritual materialism. There is no greater safeguard against it.

“Even the Devil quotes Scripture.” There is nothing which may be of a genuine spiritual nature which cannot be turned to the ego’s gratification — except humility. If we make humility the hallmark of our practice, we will be much less likely to fool ourselves into believing that we are such fine religious fellows after all, worthy of personal and public adulation.

Some day, when I learn more about it, I will try to say more about humility. Yeah, sure, LOL and all that, but I am still learning and can’t really say much more. Perhaps I say this much, in order to remind myself of how important it is.

[You may not be interested in Buddhism at all. But if you want to know more about spiritual materialism, or to have an encounter with an authentic and heartfelt spiritual tradition, by all means take the time to read Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. I have read it once or twice every decade since 1975, and still get something new every time. It is the best of Trungpa’s books, and destined to be a spiritual classic of the same stature as, for instance, St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul.]