Letters from the Street

Philosophy, theology, and whatever else crosses my mind.

Category: Plainness

Quaker Plain VII: A Simple Ministry

[I was well on the way to finishing a long post on Liberation Theology for North Americans this winter when I got sick. Major sick. Without exaggeration, I can honestly say that without Bonnie I may not have survived. Getting back on my feet, getting very busy at work, and other bits of life and service have taken the focus from writing. Fortunately, I have all my notes for that piece, tentatively titled “Liberty and Humanity.”  It will still see the light of day. Getting back in the saddle and writing a shorter piece is part of the process. Plus, I try always to go where I feel led, regardless of prior plans or where I thought previous leading were taking me. So:]
I’ve had the opportunity to talk with Friends recently about our tradition of vocal ministry and how best to support and enrichen it. The spark for these discussions was a plan for a minister’s retreat.
Among Conservative Friends, ministry is conducted along the lines laid down by the founders of our Society. We don’t ordain ministers, nor is there a clerical caste that runs things. We meet for worship in a quiet spirit of expectant waiting, a spirit that can directly inspire any of us to share a spoken message. There have always been some who are inspired to speak in some fashion that meets the needs of our members: more often, more deeply, more powerfully. When this gift is recognized, and a minute entered into the Meeting’s records, that person – male or female, by the way, from our earliest days – is said to be a recorded minister.
Why record ministers? Is this not ordination by another name? Have we not set up a priestly caste?
Just as we use the short hand phrase “Meeting for Business” to mean “Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business,” we also use the term “recorded minister” as short hand for “having recorded a gift of vocal ministry, which has been vouchsafed to this particular Friend to be exercised, and to this body of Friends for mutual nurturance.”
The focus is on the gift. The practice of recording is to acknowledge a mutual responsibility. On the part of the minister, there is the responsibility to cultivate the gift, to be obedient to its promptings, to share freely those lessons that are meant to be shared without embarrassment or pride. On the part of the Meeting, there is the duty to respond faithfully (by which I mean genuinely and spiritually, not with blind obedience) and to hold the minister, who must make him or herself vulnerable in every exercise of the gift, with tender care.
It is another way in which our testimony of plainness is embodied. Ministry among other Christian denominations is wound about with all kinds of ritual, hierarchy, fancy gowns, etc. Not so for us. Like our way of worship itself, ministry among us is based on the experience that nothing is needed except the direct action of the Holy Spirit within our midst.
Could not other gifts, besides vocal ministry, be so recorded, exercised, nurtured? Emphatically, and fervently, yes! Wherever we see the Holy Spirit manifesting itself to the clear benefit of the Meeting, our Society, or the world, we should have the same care for these gifts. For instance, we have a long history of prison ministry, dating back to the earliest days. We do not record those who have a gift for prison ministry.
Yet there is a reason why, from our Society’s first generation, we have recorded gifts in vocal ministry. This gift, more than any other, has built up, strengthened, inspired, chastened, taught, and shepherded our Society as a whole than any other. Perhaps its vocation is to be Primus inter pares, first among equals.
In regard to the ministers’ retreat, I certainly don’t want to limit this retreat to recorded ministers. I do want to reach out to those who are new to the vocal ministry. Having spent the vast proportion of my years in the ministry while unrecorded, Lord knows I don’t equate “minister” with “recorded minister.”
I find that even ministers of long standing, whether acknowledged formally or not, also need support from the larger group. Just having people say “I like what you said” doesn’t fill the need we have. And while I’ve been as faithful to the Light given me as I can be, that sense of God’s love and mercy are not enough either. Nor do I believe He meant them to be. He gave us each other, to love and cherish and teach and learn together.
Historically, going back to the days of Fox, the gatherings of ministers served many of these functions. Those new to the ministry could find guidance and encouragement. Those who had exercised the gift longer could find strength and tenderness in the fellowship.
We don’t get much of that. It has been a lonely journey for me, in many ways, for much of the time. Some may be less sensitive to the isolation than others, but we are all subjected to it. This is not self-pity. It’s just an honest assessment of the situation. There are so few of us, and in our Religious Society as a whole, there is very little understanding of this gift. It’s better among Conservative Friends than elsewhere, but the fact remains.
If I understand the leading to conduct this retreat correctly, it is one way to meet some of these needs, for all of us who follow this gift, not just a select few.
I’m in the discernment phase with this leading. I’m not arguing in favor of something, so much as trying to communicate how the leading appears to me so that others such as you can help discover where it leads and what it’s about. If it turns out to be something different than what I’m saying now, that’s okay. God’s will, not mine.

Lord, I Was Born a Ramblin’ Man

[I have several topics in the churn: Friends and homosexuality; immigration; and, recently, “what about Young Friends and their place in our Society?” All of those take thought, effort, meditation and prayer and will come in the fullness of time. Until then, some brief notes. Just ramblin’ a little.]


That one may make an idol of plain clothes, or of plainness itself, I have no doubt. It is suggestive to me that, of all the essays I’ve posted hereon, the one on plain clothing has attracted twice the readership of any.

It is neither plain clothing nor plainness, as such, which demand my attention. It is how we may enact, to the best of our comprehension, the leading of the Spirit within the most mundane details of our lives that I find compelling.

Those who are plain, for whom I have the utmost respect, are those whose lives embody the same concern.

Sacrifice and Submission

I recently heard a sermon by a preacher who suggested that sacrifice and submission were things to be avoided.

There are so many ways in which submission is not a bad thing. Anyone who has ever had a profound sexual encounter knows that it can’t be forced. You have to let go and submit to the experience. Falling in love, for that matter, is cut from the same cloth. It is only the voice of egocentricity which says “I must be in control at all times” that does not recognize the real significance of submission. Yes, there is an unhealthy sort of dominance/submission dance that people do play out. It is remarkably myopic to see that as the only context in which submission can be found.

As to sacrifice, any sober alcoholic or recovering addict knows that, while it may have seemed like a sacrifice at first, the life of joy and freedom which is made possible by recovery is no sacrifice at all. Yes, we sacrificed the use of mind and mood altering substances; so what? Might as well say that when we got clean we sacrificed a life of degradation, of obsession about using, of constant fear, of damage to those around us — if you call losing those things a “sacrifice.” Most of us prefer to call it “surrender” rather than sacrifice, but it amounts to the same thing: sometimes you have to lose in order to win. “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”

Traveling in the Ministry

Bonnie and I have been making use of occasional Sundays, when we have no other obligation, to travel. We have attended all but one of the Meetings within reasonable distance, and have plans to get to that one next month. It has been wonderful to meet new people, experience the different personalities of the Meetings as a whole, and to enjoy the time together.

A couple of weeks ago, we went to a church here in New Bern which I would call a part of the emergent church movement. I have known the pastor, David McCants, for some time, and have real affection and respect for him. We have talked together, worked together, and prayed together.

This was the first time I went to his church. It was quite different, not just from an unprogrammed Quaker meeting, but from any mainstream Protestant church I’ve ever attended. For one thing (perhaps superficial, perhaps not) there was coffee and juice and water and snacks available, not in the fellowship hall for after the service, but in the sanctuary, for whenever. The rock and roll band playing the music is more and more common in a lot of churches, but it’s still not what I’m used to. No “Rock of Ages” and “Abide With Me” here. There was a great deal of informality; very few people dressed up. For most, it was like “casual Friday” at the office, a nice shirt and slacks. But there were some in shorts, and more than one t-shirt. Even one suit.

I love what this church does, and not just in the worship service. They do so much in the community as well. They really try to live the Gospel of service to “the least of these, my children.” Nothing is dearer to my heart, and this is one of the reasons I am so fond of David.

All in all, I liked it a lot, and so did Bonnie. It was a pleasant change of pace for both of us. In speaking with David afterwards, I said, “I really loved being here this morning. And it reminds me how glad I am to be a Quaker.” He got it. 🙂

Quaker Plain V: Plain Speech

[In this series, I find I have things I want to say at the beginning of each post, about what’s been said before.. It seems that, as each post ripens, there is a natural reflection on, and learning from, what has preceded it. Not just the posts themselves, but more particularly the dialog that emerges in the comments.

I do moderate comments. In part, this is to eliminate spam. Mainly, it is to help that dialog emerge most strongly. Sometimes, there is private discussion before a comment is approved; I have a sense of what the poster means, but feel it could be made more clear, for instance, or that they have not been true to their own voice — something that did not quite ring true. I don’t intend to stifle disagreement. I value it. There is no real dialog without it. So far, I have prevented two comments from appearing. In each, they had already said the same thing, quite well. Repetition does not make the position stronger or more clear. Haven’t had to ban anyone yet, thank the Lord.

When I write my posts, I do so in the same prayerful state in which I might be moved to speak in Meeting for Worship. I’m not the only Quaker blogger to do this. 🙂  what has surprised me is that, as the comments roll in, the whole thing feels more and more like Meeting. Who would have predicted? Then again, why not? God has always used His people in new and creative ways, and their technology, too. Look at the impact the Gutenberg Bible has had. I’m not sure the Internet has yet surpassed the  influence of that technical revolution.]

This is the fifth in a series of posts on plain Quakerism. In writing this series, it is my hope that I’m contributing to two things. First is a sense that, by being led to discuss plainness, many of us will be better equipped to practice this spiritual discipline in a modern context. This is not only valuable for the individual Friend who finds her spiritual life deepened and enriched. Whenever any one of us becomes better grounded in our faith, it also makes the life of her Meeting that much more profound, and her Yearly Meeting and the World at large, by extension.

In this essay we will address plain speech.

I’ve struggled with the writing of this post. I have a sense of where the leading is going, but it is simply a more subtle topic than those addressed before. Finding the right words has not been easy.

If only it were as simple as saying, “Use Thee and Thy and don’t swear oaths. Oh, and don’t tell lies.” Great. Done!

It’s not that simple. It’s not about rules. It is about the everyday application of spiritual principles, and the ways in which we are led to be faithful, in speaking as in other parts of our lives. If we consider the spiritual foundation first, then we will understand the application better.

As before, for me, humility and integrity are at the heart of the matter.

Humility, because if I sound grandiose, I will most likely be grandiose. If I sound aggressive, I will become aggressive. And so on. If, on the other hand, I restrain my speech within the bounds of what I know to be true, and (in keeping with humility) which is not self-serving, then I have gone a long way towards keeping my speech plain.

Integrity, because plain speech is more than just sticking to the plain facts. What I say must be an expression of my deepest understanding of who I am in this world. Anything else, and something has been added, something which is not needed and which takes away from the frank articulation of this precious relationship between me, my Creator, and the rest of Creation.

Let’s talk about integrity. I am going to quote at length from an essay I wrote several years ago, and incorporated into my doctoral dissertation, on which I’ve not yet been able to improve:

“What is integrity? It is not just honesty, although honesty must be part of integrity. Integrity goes farther than honesty alone, however. It may be useful to consider the relationship between the words integrity and integer. An integer is a whole number: there are no fractions or decimals. One is just one, and two is just two. If I have two teacups, and smash one, I have one whole teacup, and one whole mess.

“So integrity has something to do with wholeness. It is a state in which you are who you are, no more and no less. There is no self-deception. Part of integrity means acknowledging your flaws as well as your strengths. It means knowing when you’ve done wrong, as well as when you’ve done right. It means taking responsibility for the results of your own actions, whether beneficial or harmful. It means being comfortable within your own skin.

“It is what was meant, in the age of nobility, by honor – but you don’t have to be an aristocrat to have integrity. You do have to have courage. Integrity cannot be achieved without action. It means standing up for what you believe, acting on your values. That means risk. There is always a potential for conflict. If your convictions are at odds with someone’s self-interest, they will not like it or you. But you have to live with you, and so you find the courage.

“Integrity takes more than courage. It also takes discernment. Before you can act courageously on your deepest values and in accord with your true identity, you have to know what they are. This is an intensely practical affair. It is not a matter of gazing at your belly button. You have lived a life of a certain number of years. In that life, there are things that have happened to you, and there are the consequences of choices you made. These form a pattern, and the pattern can be read. Things that happened to you have affected your feelings and your expectations. Choices you have made reflect your true inner character. Looking over all of it, the good with the bad, you neither gloss over some parts nor emphasize others. This gives you a true picture of who you are and what you care about. If you are not satisfied with what you find, you can work to change it. But you also will see the things that you cannot compromise without doing an injustice to yourself.

“There are people who are willing to make this choice: to violate their own true self. Some do it for money. Some do it for power. Some do it to please others. They may be able to justify it to themselves. But it hurts them deeply, whether they acknowledge it or not. At the end of life, if not before, when the money has been spent, the power lost, and the people we tried to please would never stay pleased, what is left? Only the sense of whether I was true or false to myself.

“Integrity also requires humility. I must know my true size. I am often neither as bad or as good as I think I am. Both false pride and false modesty lead away from integrity.

“Integrity requires commitment to yourself or others. When steel is being made into a tool, it must be heated so that it can be shaped. Next, it has to be plunged into a liquid such as water or oil, to be tempered. Without tempering it has no strength. Commitment is what tempers integrity. All the good intentions and wonderful potentials in the world mean nothing until they have been put to the test. It is the time of testing that reveals the impurities that may exist in your character, and which gives you the opportunity to remove, modify, or overcome those flaws.”

All of that applies to every aspect of living plain. It may be most difficult to apply integrity and humility to speech. We only have to decide every so often what to wear, if we dress plain: at the store, when we are buying clothes, and in the morning, when we get dressed. The rest of the time, we just live the choices we’ve made. With speech, we decide every time we open our mouth whether we are going to speak the unadorned truth or not.

Plain speech has something to do with what we do not say as well. Of course there are those old chestnuts most of us learned at our mother’s knee: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Pretty good advice. But it’s more than that. It is also giving up control and manipulation of others. These are forms of aggression, and if plain speech is not conjoined with our other testimonies such as peacefulness, then is it plain at all?

And sometimes we just ought to be quiet. Plainness may mean keeping our mouths shut. When I was a freshman in college, I spent an entire quarter not speaking at all. For those ten weeks, I wrote what I needed to say. My professors were tolerant, and allowed others to read any questions I had jotted down and handed over. Once, when there was danger of a fire from an oil lamp, I spoke. “Throw the rug over it.” After the commotion died down, one of my friends said “Hey, you spoke!” Yes. It seemed like a good time. The rest of that quarter, I learned a lot about how much I said that didn’t need saying. When you have to write it all down, you can get pretty choosy. And concise. It was kind of like having to communicate everything through Twitter. Just as fasting is a useful spiritual practice (that I haven’t done for a while), keeping silence every so often is also a useful discipline. Maybe not for ten weeks, but even for a day or two, every so often. I think it would be good for me to try it again.

Clarity is of the greatest usefulness in plain speech. Clarity allows us to say in a few words what would take many more if we had to explain, and then explain the explanation, because it was not clear the first time. To this end, a large vocabulary is a great help, for knowing the precisely right word to use aids in clarity and in plainness. Ostentation about one’s sizable vocabulary, of course, is verboten.

I have so often heard people say that they didn’t want to pray in public (such as blessing the food at a community meal) because they didn’t know the “right words” to say. So here’s another principle that guides plainness of speech: when you speak from the heart, your authenticity says volumes that words alone could not render. I have sat in many a 12 Step meeting and heard someone falter and stammer and bring tears to my eyes because what they said was so profoundly heartfelt.

Gossip is out. Thought I’d mention that.

Oaths: don’t swear ’em. Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No. Some of the old Quaker testimonies have passed down through the centuries with no wear and tear at all.

And if you feel led to say Thee and Thy, by all means follow your leading.

I am looking forward very much to comments on this one. It seems like there is more to be said, but I have come to the end of my leading and others must take over from here. I am eager to learn from others’ experience with plain speech.

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.]

Quaker Plain II: Plain Dress

When I wrote “Quaker Plain I,” I had no idea it would be the most-read essay yet on “Letters From The Street.” Nor the most-commented. Yet so it was.

Now, I hope it was clear in context that plainness encompasses a wider scope than clothing. So I was a bit surprised that dress took up so much of the reaction. Probably shouldn’t have been. Reading around on various blogs concerned with plainness, it’s a frequent topic.

I didn’t plan to address the concern this soon, but I’m going to. If it is that present in so many minds, then it deserves consideration. While my main concern is to learn what plainness means in our contemporary context, looking at specific examples may well help to draw that out.

OK. I hope we all know there’s no standard for plain dress among 21st century Friends. We are, to a great extent, on our own. We can’t tell each other what to do, but we can learn from each other.

So, in the absence of clear direction, I want to talk about some guidelines that have been helpful for me.

First, dressing plain is a spiritual discipline. Like any important feature of our lives, it has overtones in other areas, such as the political, economic, or cultural realms. I’m not saying we shouldn’t address those; we just might. But primarily, we do it because it depends upon and enriches our relationship with God.

How does this happen? As Quakers, we try to follow the Spirit in all of our lives, and to make each moment sacramental. There are many ways to do this; one of them is by being conscious of our clothing choices and allow God to guide us, even in this mundane way.

A commenter on the last essay said, “God doesn’t care how we dress.” Yes, and No. I don’t think it is terribly important to God whether I wear khakis or Quaker grey. I doubt if He cares whether I wear a broadbrim or a ball cap. I’m sure He couldn’t care less about the number of pleats in a woman’s bonnet, or whether she prefers a bonnet to a scarf. In that sense, our friend is quite right. Our Lord has bigger fish to fry.

And, Yes He does. He cares about the most mundane items of our lives, down to the number of hairs on our heads. How can both of these statements be true? Because He doesn’t care about khakis as khakis; He won’t strike me down or lift me up for wearing one thing or another. He cares about how the choices I make reflect our relationship. Every last choice, not just clothes or whether I tithe or whether our babies have water sprinkled on their foreheads or whether we eat fish on Friday. When I let Him into every aspect of my life, I have to be prepared to be led in ways that may seem peculiar, especially in our materialistic, indulgent, and individualistic society (which, for brevity’s sake, I am going to call “the world” from now on.) And if that means that I feel led to dress a certain way in order to hold faith with God, so be it. Your opinion of that is none of my business.

In former times, Friends used to talk a great deal about “the hedge.” This was a reference to how our distinctive testimonies and practices separated us from “the world”. I’m going to digress for a bit here, and then get back to the point.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, the newcomer often feels grateful for the anonymity part of the program. He thinks it protects him from having other people know that he is coming to meetings, that he is an alcoholic, that his social status will not be sullied.

Ha. Little does he know, although he usually finds out when he gets to the “making amends” phase of the program (Steps 8 and 9), that most people already have no doubt whatsoever about his drinking. Whatever damage may have been caused to his social status has already been caused by his own behavior. Joining Alcoholics Anonymous and working the Steps, far from besmirching his image, inclines most people he knows to think better of him. But if thinking that anonymity protects him from the scorn of others helps to soothe those anxious, timid newcomer feelings, so be it. Whatever it takes to get someone in the door and get them active, right?

What he finds out as he progresses is that anonymity is not meant as a protection for him. It is an expression of a spiritual principle that lies at the heart of the program: humility. Humility, as practiced in AA, has to do with unpretentiousness. The alcoholic has already suffered from an ego that has made him feel both better than and worse than he really is. Humility makes him “right-sized.” Neither better nor worse, just him as he really is, a garden-variety drunk trudging the road to happy destiny. He is anonymous because he doesn’t go around making a big deal of his involvement with AA, not because he is afraid for people to know. His ego, always a problem while drinking, is both in check and at peace.

And, given the nature of drunks in general, anonymity also protects the Fellowship of AA. It ensures that one person, or group of people, will not try to hog the spotlight and give an impression of AA that is inadequate, limited, or just plain wrong. It ensures that, if some highly visible person such as an actor or sports figure should join AA and then get drunk again, the lapse will not be laid at AA’s feet.

Now, let’s think about the hedge. For some, the hedge may have been a guarantor of their sanctity. If they talked, dressed, and acted as Quakers were supposed to, then they would not be as likely to fall away from the faith they had found. Less likely to sin, less likely to offend. Yes, the hedge functioned that way, to protect the individual from himself. But that was not the most important function of the hedge.

As Lloyd Lee Wilson explains in his book of essays on Gospel Order, becoming a Quaker meant assimilating a point of view in which God’s creation is known as perfect, and in which one thinks and feels and behaves in such a way as to live within that perfection. The hedge was not there so much to protect us from “the world”, as to remind us that we are not part of it, that we are part of the order of creation as God intended. It reminds us to live, not “as though” the Sermon on the Mount is our present reality, but because the Sermon on the Mount is our present reality. In most churches, the Kingdom is something in the future, or perhaps after death. Not so for Friends. The Kingdom is now.

The hedge could be abused, and was abused, as an instrument of control by the Quaker establishment. It gradually ceased to perform the function that it was intended to serve. And so, during a period of time around a century ago, the various bits and pieces of the hedge were relinquished. In some ways this is good. Peculiarity for the sake of peculiarity is sterile. As a good physician may sometimes discontinue all medications in order to start fresh with a clear picture of what is needed, perhaps the Society of Friends needed to clear its own decks of the accretions of centuries and look at itself anew.

The problem with that is that the true purpose for the hedge, that of facilitating our assimilation into the Present Kingdom, was allowed to vaporize as well. Friends became more and more assimilated to “the world.” Materialism and individualism have made gross inroads into our thoughts, our feelings, our mores, our activities. In the immortal words of the cartoon figure Cartman, from the TV show “South Park”, “Whatevah … I do what I want.”

Back to AA for a moment. The AA member who makes the most of the program soon learns that it is wonderful not to be on his own any more. Not only does he have a Higher Power to rely upon for guidance, he has a sponsor and the rest of the fellowship. A word that is often heard in the rooms of AA is “transparent.” The committed member tries to live a life that is transparent to other members. He doesn’t hide from them. His life is an open book. He seeks feedback on choices he has to make. He welcomes — perhaps after some struggle, for the ego is tamed but not absent — warnings from others when he is unaware of making bad choices. He knows that there are some things he cannot do on his own, and many that it is better not to do on his own even if he could.

Nearly the sole remnant of this kind of thinking in the Society of Friends is the Clearness Committee, and this is a rarity. Eldering and oversight have very limited scope. Despite the lessons learned early and harshly by such as James Naylor, who found in the most painful of ways that anointing his own leadings above all others could lead to perverse consequences, we have to a large extent returned to that same state. How many people seek to test their leadings by laying them before the Meeting? How many humbly submit to its collective leading in response?

We much prefer to follow the example of John Woolman, who maintained his testimonies even in the face of opposition. Or so we think. If we read Woolman’s Journal carefully, we find that he had a more submissive attitude than many modern Friends think. For instance, when he went to England at the end of his life to carry his message about slavery, and was told by London Yearly Meeting that they considered his mission complete before he even started, he shed tears of sadness that he could not share the message as he had thought he would. He did not go ahead and preach anti-slavery sermons in defiance of their stricture. He wept, and he submitted. Seen much of that lately?

And so, plainness is a part of the hedge, and I believe that we need to re-create this hedge in a way that is meaningful for us, now. Clothing certainly is a part of this, because it is something we do every day. We need to think about what we wear, just as we think about what we eat. I remember the boycotts of iceberg lettuce in the early 70s, in support of the United Farmworkers’ campaign to humanize the treatment of agricultural laborers. It didn’t take much to give up iceberg lettuce, but it got many of us thinking about how such seemingly small choices can have such over-arching meanings.

As one who at one time wore broadcloth pants and a broadbrim hat, I honor those whose leading takes them in this direction. It is not relevant to ask whether they are “right” or “wrong”, as some seem to approach the subject. The question is, are they truly led, and have they measured their leading against those who are most suited to serve as guides in these matters? I hope that they seek out the community of others who are re-discovering plainness, because (as in AA) there are some things which are truly best done among others. For one thing, it is so easy for ego to masquerade as the inmost self, and confuse the issue of what one’s true leading is. For another, when setting out on a course which is so foreign to the direction we receive every day from “the world,” there is comfort as well as guidance in the community of others of like mind. Thank God for this Internet which can bring us together from all geographical quarters, who might otherwise never have met.

For the rest of us, who wish to be plain but who do not adopt the older style of dress, what do we do? There were some wonderful comments on the last post which addressed this issue. I think it is likely that most of us would agree, for instance, that displaying brand names prominently is not plain (although at this very moment I have on a t-shirt that says “Campmor” on it.) Putting “Hollister” or “Aeropostale” on the chest or sleeve of my garment does not make it warmer, last longer, shed dirt better, or any such function. It is strictly and solely to appeal to the status-seeking impulse which is so much at the heart of “the world.”

Next, we might think about price. This is a little trickier. It is not always true that the less expensive an item is, the more plain it is. This is often not the case. Many years ago, when I had very little money, I used an amount that was kind of painful to buy a Woolrich woolen shirt. That shirt became a cool-weather jacket and a light-rain jacket as well as a warm shirt for cold weather. It wore like iron. I got many, many years of use out of it. A less expensive shirt would not have served all of those functions, nor lasted as long. A friend of mine calls the kind of “economy” which buys the cheap item in disregard of suitability as “jumping over dollars to pick up pennies.” Well said.

That being said, it is still a valid principle to spend less rather than more, if plain is what you are after. Won’t a Chevy get you around as well as a Benz? Will a good used car do just as well as a new one? In some cases, the answer might be “No.” This is where discernment is necessary, and having others to help make the decision will lead to a better outcome.

Solids rather than patterns? Muted rather than bright, conspicuous colors? Probably, most of the time. Let’s not divest ourselves of all beauty, though.

Manufacture: like my woolen shirt, clothes that are durable are more suitable than those that have to be replaced every time you turn around. In the long run, they use less of the world’s resources.

Style: clothes with classic lines, that will not look silly as soon as the fad passes, are pretty much de rigueur for plain folks. Trying to follow fashion is very much a “worldly” preoccupation. I don’t see any wiggle room on this one. A much older friend, who had attended Olney Friends School in the 1940s, told me once of a Quaker woman who was elderly at that time. She had continued to wear the old-style Quaker plain dress which she had grown up with. She said to him “I’ve been at the height of fashion three times in my life.” This story always brings a smile to my face. That’s a gal I want to emulate.

I haven’t said anything yet about origins: place of manufacture, sweat shops, child labor, etc. I know those things are important. I also know they are more complex than they appear on the surface. For instance, of course I am against the exploitation of children for economic gain. And yet, in that country and under those circumstances, that child’s labor may be what is keeping her younger siblings from literally starving to death. And so, a boycott of such goods would be a selfish exercise of my own ideological purity at the expense of a gruesome tragedy from which I am insulated. I’m open to suggestions on this one. I don’t see any way to go besides a case-by-case decision. Who said living plain was going to be easy?

And that feels like it is as far as I can go with the issue of plain clothing. There were some fine comments last time, and I hope that this essay will spark even more. If it doesn’t help you, I know it will help me.

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.

%d bloggers like this: