New Prayer Caps

I am about to venture into new prayer caps. I made a black triangular kerchief for someone last night, and a lace mantilla attached to a headband. The latter reminded me of the little lace and floral headcovers we wore as children to church, a bit of net, maybe a few artifical rosebuds, sewn onto a narrow plastic toothed headband.  They were rather Roman in look, but served the purpose of getting a number of small girls properly clad for Church School and the long, long sermon during the Baptist morning service.

I have been wearing the plain white cotton or natural linen caps I began to make about three years ago. They have an Early American or even Elizabethan look, with no ruffles or ornament, and they serve well. But I’m interested in using a lighter fabric, especially for summer here in southern Ontario, where I’m afraid I’ll melt in the heat and humidity.

I have a natural coloured chiffon I’m going to try. (Chiffon doesn’t have a “natural” colour, I guess, but it’s the colour of linen.) I bought some tulle netting to try to make a stiff cap, but I need to locate powdered starch. Spray starch won’t work. Liquid starch seems to be a thing of the past, unless I send away to the States for it. When we needed it for liturgical linen while I lived in Maine, we used to buy it in Canada!

I never thought about how I wear my hair under the cap, except that other women have asked me the best way to put up their hair. My own hair is very long but baby-fine. I can brush it back from a center part, twist it into a bun and hold it in place with four bobby pins. I’ve noticed that some of the Mennonite sisters use clippies at the crown to hold the front hair back, but my delicate hair gets broken that way. Another way to put up one’s hair is to pull it into a ponytail at the back of the head with a covered elastic band. I’d avoid the kind that have a metal clasp, as the  hair catches in it. Then slightly twist the hair and wind it against the head. For thick hair, one might try the long roller pins that look like big bobby pins. The Amish make long U-shaped pins, which can be mail-ordered. Some Amish girls braid their hair into two plaits behind the ears, and wind them around the back of their head, then pin it in place. The question is how heavy and thick one’s hair is; some women may need a snood or net to contain long, uncut hair.

Another headcovering I will make soon is the sun or prairie bonnet, yes, like Sunbnnet Sue or Laura Ingalls or Holly Hobbie. I have worn them in the past but found that they were often a bit too gay for me. That is, in the Quaker sense of the word: too bright, too ornamental. But for someone like me who burns easily and is allergic to sunscreen, they are a very good choice for summer. Sunbonnets, meant to be worn at home while working outdoors, are often a little brighter and more colourful than the outing bonnet of black or navy blue. I have a very small shepherd’s plaid of black and buff cotton for my own, and I plan to make some more colourful ones for other people or perhaps to sell.

If thee is making thy first prayer coverings, then the triangular scarves or kerchiefs are the easiest, but the construction of the traditional cap or bonnet is not all that difficult. Patterns are available, or follow the directions that the sisters at Shepherd’s Hill give.

My New Wringer!

It’s not really new. It’s used, really used. It’s a wringer attachment for the washtubs, patented in 1897, made sometime between then and, most likely, 1920. It works! It desperately needs new rubber rollers, and I have no idea where to get them – and we left a good pair back in New Brunswick, when we didn’t have a wringer but knew if we found one, it would most likely need new rollers. It will still work, though.

It was $30 at the Sally Ann (Salvation Army, for Americans), and had come in yesterday. Funny thing, I’d said to my husband moments before that it was difficult to find good things at the thrift stores because the dealers and collectors made their rounds every few days, and snatched up the useful antiques and good dishes. Well, this time we got there first.

A very nice gentleman of Austrian descent, whose family had lived the old life for many years, was as pleased for our purchase as we were. He was delighted to see traditional people buying traditional things. These antiques, he told us, were being sold elsewhere for much more than what we paid.

I don’t want to call it a victory, but a little grace from God. My hands are becoming increasingly arthritic, and wringing the clothes was a chore. If the clothes are not well wrung, it takes a long time for them to dry, and they drip into little mud puddles under the clothes line. Sheets and towels are horrid to wring on one’s own, and I would wrap them around a sturdy crossbar and wring them over that, when Nicholas wasn’t at hand to help.

The family thinks I’m crazy. They are quite happy with the coin-op automatic washer and dryer in the basement, while I mutter about detergent residue and lint blowback. The washtubs are stowed right now, but I am anticipating that my handy husband will soon build another beautiful washtub stand on the porch, and on nice days, I can wash, wring and hang clothes to the complete satisfaction of my old-fashioned soul.

How Plain is Too Plain?

dec-21-2008-007For many people, I am the only visibly Plain person they know. (It’s the cap and apron.) My husband is Plain, but being a man, it’s not so obvious, since he rejected the Brethren beard as impractical – he still had to shave the upper lip, which meant more mirror time than he wanted. And he doesn’t cut his hair at all anymore, so it is just getting longer rather than being trimmed off at the collar like most Anabaptist men. That’s fine for us, since we are Anglican and not thoroughly Anabaptist. No matter what, I think he’s a very handsome man. (He disagrees.)

But I’m the one who gets the questions. “Are you Mennonite?” is the usual one. Sometimes I just answer, “Yes,” because I am, theologically, very close to Mennonite, without the ordnung. Some people are looking for more, though. They are drawn to Plain life, and have no clue how to begin since they are not going to join an Old Order community. Can I be Plain? they ask, even if I’m not Mennonite or Amish or Quaker?

Yes, of course. Plain is as Plain does. Some people are going to find a spiritual home with the Quakers, or the Anabaptists, others aren’t. Some are intimidated by the language issue of joining the Old Orders, or the huge cultural learning curve. And some, drawn to Old Order life despite the obstacles, simply will not qualify to join the church, because of divorce and remarriage, or because they don’t want a rebaptism – they consider their infant baptism valid. But I find there are a growing number of Plain people in other church communities, Anglican being prominent. I’m going to exclude the conservative evangelical communities, that despite modest dress, are not Plain in dress or life. By Plain I mean  following a Biblically based way of dress without ornament, and living as simply as possible, in the teachings of Christ as transmitted by the apostles.

If thee is called to Plain, thee must follow, or face lifelong misery. The Lord does not just go away quietly once the call is given. That call is perpetual, and must be answered, or denied at peril. Thee will know the call. It may start with a simple longing for a simpler life, a choice of clothing that is simple and without pattern, perhaps an interest in historicity that seems to focus on the peasant life rather than the nobility’s.

But the second question I get is often, “How far do I have to go?” Only thee will know. For some women, Plain may mean simple dresses, prayer caps, bonnets, shawls and boots. That would be me. For others it might be simple jumpers in solid colours, turtlenecks, and a veil-style covering. For still others, Plain may be denim dresses and skirts, and a kerchief or scarf on First Day. We do not need to worry that we are not Plain enough, unless we feel in our hearts that we have not done what we should.

For men, the obvious Brethren identification of the chin beard and “Dutch” haircut may be  important. It says Pacifism. The men may be most comfortable in traditional Plain dress, of the simple collared shirt, braces (suspenders) and broadfall (button fly) trousers. Other men, such as my husband, are Plain in denim jeans and unembellished shirts and sweaters. Nicholas wears either a black, Quaker-type hat usually associated with the Amish, or this winter, a black fur hat which echoes the style of Russian-emigre Mennonites on the Canadian prairies. It’s time for a new black brimmed hat, and a summer straw, to be ordered next month from Ohio, along with a new black bonnet for me. Since I don’t wear the cape dress (yet) I think we look more Quaker than Anabaptist, but that is a sublety lost on most people.

I must say that I may carry “Plain” to the extreme of letting my clothes get a bit decrepit, because they are merely protection for the body, not a statement about fashion, status or wealth. That is why I’m Plain. Perhaps I fall into “monastic Plain” as a type. Many Plain people are quite conscious of looking neat, with some clothes set aside for going out amongst the “Englisch.” I have to cast about on First Day to make sure I have something presentable before the altar of our Lord. I have to admit that a couple of aprons and dresses are at the patched and threadbare stage, and are not a good witness anymore. I do try to make sure my cap is clean, as it is an article of religious dedication, and I would no more wear a dirty cap than I would wear dirty vestments at the altar, or offer the Lord’s supper on stained linen. (Thee, priests, reading this who are not  careful, I remind thee of the Canons. Clean alb, no grime on the stole, and fair linen on the altar. Fair means white and pure, not wine-stained and dotted with candle drips, or made over several times with a number of darns. Thee knows what I mean.)

I do encourage thee, though, to relax about it. Do not become a legalist in dress. I do not intend to go to the gym in long skirts and a prayer cap, but to dress modestly and appropriately for the activity. Although one can do many things in a skirt, do not endanger one’s health and safety. Thee is not representing Christ fairly if one looks ludicrous or is likely to cause trouble with thy skirts.

Breaking the Fast

The long fast is over, and we don’t start again until February 28 (I think.) It was harder this year than before, since we live in a non-fasting household, and I got off track for a couple of weekends.

The worst part is that I didn’t keep the fast well. I ignored what I needed, just sort of eating around what I prepared for the others, and I certainly did not get enough protein and even skipped meals. (It doesn’t look it – I ate too many carbs.) I substituted sugar for real food – and crashed hard on the 23rd day. My husband promptly ordered me off the fast and would take no argument. I had made myself ill, and that was that.

Neglecting oneself is not good fasting. It is not proper gratitude and trust in God. I am not going to call it prideful in this case, but it was not mindful.

We are discussing the Lenten fast already. Nicholas does not want me to get into the same situation, and since he will be back in training, fasting will not be possible for him. If I join him in the gym again, it won’t be possible for me, and he really expects me to get back into the trainers and lift some weight. I know I need some time on the treadmill to build up stamina again. ( It’s a lot cheaper to train in a gym than for us to try to buy all the equipment we need and house it. We have been competition level athletes and that’s what you do at that level.)

So the Lenten fast will have to look different than the canonical guidelines. I am seriously suggesting that we give up all junk food, all refined foods, and eat a good mediterranean type diet. If that is the case, then we might as well start now!

For it isn’t the fasting itself that saves us, but the intention of our hearts as we turn to God and theosis, growing in His likeness.

We will find ways of mindfulness; ways to serve the Lord, self-sacrifices to make and new joys in His glorious Name.

Christmas Gifts

This is the first time in years I’ve received Christmas gifts. I’m not sure I like it. In fact, I’m pretty sure right now that I don’t like it much at all. It seems so artificial. If I need something, why don’t I just get it when I need it? And if I don’t need it, why would anyone buy it for me?

My family finds it hard to buy me anything. They think I have obvious needs, but then I disagree. I don’t need X, Y and Z; I have enough of everything. When they insisted that they must buy me something, I was stymied to name anything I might want. I decided on socks. I needed socks. And potholders. I obviously was planning to buy a discount card at the fabric store in our town. So these are the things I got. I am pleased, since I won’t have to go buy these things for myself right away. But then I feel a bit guilty that I have such a utilitarian view of Christmas gifts.

But here’s a major difference between being Plain and worldly. The socks are fashion socks. The potholders are practical, but I would have bought twice as many. I look forward to using the discount card, since the last time I had one (about three years ago) I saved approximately $100 in a year. But since I have been recycling fabric and clothing for a while, what will I buy?

I am more monastic than I realized. There is no piece of jewelry, wall ornament or new dress that would entice me. I have clothes. Some of them need mending, God knows! but I am decently and cleanly clad every moment of my life. I have a pair of boots, a pair of house clogs, and a pair of sandals, as well as a pair of rubber barn boots, so I am well-shod. I have a black wool coat, a black wool cape, a denim jacket, a black shawl, a winter wool bonnet and a cotton summer bonnet. I have a pair of winter gloves. There is nothing I need.

There is more food in the refrigerator than we can eat in three days. There is a security to our housing and heat, a continuity in this place which we have not experienced in a long time, and it may be illusory, but no more than anyone else’s living arrangements. What more do we need?

We received a figurine of Christ carrying the cross. It seems appropriate for us at this time of the year, for we know that the Nativity is a foreshadowing of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.  But, for us, it seems – extravagant. Our niece was certainly thoughtful, and it is lovely and and meaningful – but where do we put it? It may require a shelf all its own.

I would own less rather than more. I have no wish to acquire goods. The most meaningful light display we saw on Christmas eve was the Constellation of Orion, above the horizon in a briefly clear sky, as we returned from Midnight Mass. The beauty of that seasonal display put all the electric, artificial lights to shame, made as it was by the Creator’s hand, and set in place by Him.

I suppose, in this busy modern world, I long for simplicity , for simple purpose, for a day of keeping the hours of prayer and work in serenity. I long for a home in which nothing exists but for utility. I long for the time to gaze upon the seasons as they happen, not as they are imposed by advertisers and merchants.

Is this a blessing? I believe it is, but it an awkward one, and greatly misunderstood. Shall I say that I am glad that Christmas as it is usually kept has passed? I will now endeavour to get life back on track, back on the path of prayer and contemplation, and purposeful work.

In all we strive to serve the Lord, and not ourselves; may the Lord so bless us!

The Christmas Tree…or not…

berries-id34It’s an expected tradition that Christians celebrating Christmas will have an evergreen tree in the house as part of the celebrations. Some people get the tree inside, in the stand, and decorated at the beginning of Advent, which means, of course, that if it is a real (now dead) tree it will shed needles and need water constantly to keep it in a semblance of life, and this is close to impossible in modern, overheated houses. Or some wait until Christmas eve, which means that if one did not have foresight to buy the cut tree early, stick it in a snowbank or a bucket of water in the garage, the only trees left are monsters fit for a barn or scrawny, almost-grey rejects, the proverbial Charlie Brown trees.

We Anglicans didn’t have Christmas trees much until Queen Victoria married a German, Prince Albert, who brought the decorated fir tree to England as a family tradition. And those early Victorian trees were mere wild slips of firs, culls from the woodlot, set on a table top and decorated with coloured paper and small toys. Candles were always a bad idea.

Greenery at Christmas isn’t new, though. It just wasn’t the semi-pagan tree with little votive offerings hung on it, which, to me,  still smells too much of sacrifice to Wotan. (In the lean seasons, the Norse hung live sacrifices on sacred trees in the forest, to slowly strangle – dogs, foxes, ponies, men. This was to propitiate the recalcitrant gods. I’m not making this up.)

Christians in the temperate countries brought in sprigs of rosemary, a holy, healing plant, that scented the house like incense. Rosemary is one of my favourite medicinal and culinary herbs, and is associated with the Virgin Mary, making it especially symbolic at Christmas. Sometimes florists have small topiary rosemary bushes available at this time of the year, and for the Christian household that wants something traditional and Christian, these are a good choice. But the plant needs sunlight, good clean water, and not too much direct heat to survive to spring.

For the English, holly was the Christmas green. It is spiky like the crown of thorns, ornamented with red berries like the blood of Christ, and is green through the year, a symbol of eternal salvation. I love holly, too, although it’s medicinal use is incidental to its beauty. (It was the leaves that were used, as the berries are somewhat poisonous, and quite emetic.)

When the children and I lived in Maryland, we had a beautiful holly bush in the yard. It must have been decades old, as it was taller than me, and quite full. One year when I had no money for Christmas gifts, I sent my parents in Maine a big box of holly clippings. My mother was amazed; holly will not grow in the subarctic, and she had never seen so much holly all at once.  She decorated her house, gave some away to friends, and varnished some to save for the future. It takes ten years for holly to mature to the point where the berries are consistent and plentiful; it is definitely an investment in the future. Of course, holly trees grow wild in parts of England, and it was wild-gathered for generations, then put up in churches and homes, along with the wild English ivy, the sort that climbs all over brick houses and makes the brick crumble. English ivy is also medicinal, and is used particularly to ease birth pangs in animals. Quite an interesting factor for an evergreen associated with the birth of Our Lord!

If the Christmas tree is too pagan for your Christian household, there is still rosemary, holly and ivy. We do not need to reject all household decoration at Christmas; it should be meaningful, symbolic, and befitting Christian tradition.

The Advent of Our Lord

If thee is feeling those Christmas-time blues, those “How do I get it all done?” anxieties, remember this:

Christmas is not about the tree, the gifts, the meal, the family visits, the good times, but the humble preparation we must be making for the return of Our Lord, God and Saviour. Our own creche is out on display, and the star over the stable is cosmologically very much like a double-tailed comet, a sign of great occasion in the heavens. Tomorrow evening we will go to church, to lift up our hearts and souls to the Advent of our King, born once to save us all, returning in glory to gather His flock.

“Suddenly the Judge shall come, and the deeds of each shall be laid bare; but with fear do we cry at midnight: Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O God, have mercy on us.”

This is from the Russian Orthodox morning prayers, and what better words to remind us of our place before the Lord?

I am encouraging all of thee as I have encouraged my family: Put aside the worldly trappings, the anxiety, the tears, the heartache of this so-called celebration, and bring thyself in humility to that manger, also a throne, and cry before thy King: Lord, have mercy upon us.” No greater gift can thee give Him than this:dec-21-2008-0082 

A broken and contrite spirit.