Crofting: Coping with Setbacks

Croft cottage on Harris

We seem to have had a fair share of setbacks this year, probably enough for two or three years. It is hard to not be discouraged, but losing heart doesn’t get anyone anywhere.

I have had continuing illness which doesn’t seem to be resolved by the usual means, either allopathic or naturopathic. I am mostly resigned to riding it out. I’m of the opinion that metaphysically, my whole being is rejecting modern life. My allergies are centred on the refined mould byproduct called penicillin, a common antibiotic used for humans and animals. We are all aware that antibiotics are regularly added to commercial animal feed to make meat animals grow faster and to wipe out any insidious bacterial infections. The end result of that is hypersensitivity in some people (me) and penicillin resistant bacteria permeating our human ecology. That’s not a good thing. Worse, many common chemicals mimic penicillin, including preservatives and plastics. I am always in danger of fatal anaphylactic shock from common substances, such as sunscreen and commercially prepared foods. I can no longer treat pain with common over-the-counter medications such as aspirin, NSAIDs, or acetaminophen. I cannot use cleaning products with fragrances in them. I can’t use most personal care products, from antiperspirants to shampoos, and have had to find more expensive natural alternatives. Usually plain soap and vinegar is all I need for both household cleaning and personal care, but I am discouraged by the growing list of “don’t-touch” products.

The illness, though, has been expensive when I needed acute care. It has cost me energy and ambition to get things done as I planned.

Bad weather and my lack of good health have put our garden projects seriously in danger. We have been able to recover a little from that, but the majority of the major work is delayed until this fall and next spring. We will see some food, but not as much as I hoped. The gardens look pretty weedy, too, but I expect that the first year. Since we were unable to completely work the second garden plot, I am going to drop in some onion sets and broadcast sow some lentils to at least break the soil and perhaps furnish something of a crop. I have some kale to put in, and some late cabbages, and along with late root crops, we should have a post-frost harvest into October. I am looking for a way to make row covers and hot caps, if we can’t afford them. My backup plan is to buy in quantity at the farmers’ markets, and can that.

A major decision to make is whether to sell the truck. Right now, I have it on offer as a trade for a horse and buggy and a smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicle. I can’t really afford to sell it without a back-up plan for transportation. It isn’t worth a great deal, but it would be helpful to have cheaper transportation.

I am looking at freelance writing. I have had a few low-paying assignments this week, but they make little difference in the overall scheme of things. It does give me some practice and the opportunity to become familiar with new aspects of online publishing, so I’m not knocking it too hard. Still, I couldn’t make a living from it.

I am still praying and hoping for work in the church. I have yet to hear from the bishop’s office, but I did say I could wait for an appointment, with a tentative suggestion of meeting before the end of July. After that, I am going to assume I am not wanted, or not being heard, or something. There are procedures for pursuing this beyond that date, but I am reluctant to take them.

The world has changed. It is much more difficult to lead a rural life, since in the past it has depended on the cooperation of neighbours. Our neighbours are people who do not live a rural life. They live a suburban life in a rural setting. Older farmers are retired and have sold their equipment. There are no young farmers except for a handful who will inherit family farms. It makes me wonder how people expect to get fed as food costs rise because of high transportation costs.

Plain Dress November

Plain is as Plain does

I’ve been Plain since 2006, along with my husband. He was naturally plain, I think; even as a child, when his mother, a very good seamstress, would make him fashionable shirts and clothes, he would only wear them to please her, preferring jeans and dark shirts. He was a natural for clergy garb – black pants, black shirt with the funny white plastic tab in the collar. (I absolutely despise those tabs.) He’ll wear the same shirts now, without the insert. Oddly, he always hated belts – the buckles were never plain enough for him, and he’s not shaped well for a belt, anyway. When I switched his trousers to braces buttons, he was well-pleased.

He hates suits. When he’s had to wear one, especially if it means a tie, he looks like a dressed-up bear. He rolls his arms forward and leans out of the tie. He no longer has either.

My journey to Plain is well-documented here; I don’t need to recapitulate. I’ve survived the hostility from friends and family, and in some cases, I’m still waiting for some people to come mend their side of the fence. Those that don’t like it can go on not liking it; I’m done defending myself because for Heaven’s sake, I have done nothing wrong in this.

Should others become Plain? Only if called. When the call is felt, it is inescapable. I was probably called from childhood. I loved Plain people, Quakers and Amish. I loved nuns in traditional habits. I thought our Baptist ministers in their suits and coloured ties were real peacocks compared to the Catholic and Anglican priests! (I’ve since met some really flamboyant dressers, and have toned down my opinions.)

We do need to think about Plain when we are called. It will be a long, hard meditation, with a lot of wavering. It isn’t vanity to take pains with Plain when we start. It took me a couple of years to refine what I needed to do. Some of it is pragmatic – the stiff caps instead of soft caps, the length of skirts, the choices of colours. (My husband is partially blind for the last year and more; I’ve switched to brighter colours so he can see me more easily.)

Dressing in the morning is now more than undies, jeans and a pullover. I have to consciously think of how the clothes go on, and remember why I am doing it. Long dresses, some of them cotton, require shifts and such underneath, and an apron (or some such) over for modesty. (I have a lot to be modest about,which I used to flaunt, or at least emphasize. I’m not ashamed of it, but it isn’t what I need to present first to the world.) Priests of the high church party used to have cards outlining the prayers they were to say as they put on their ecclesial garments, a practice derived late in the 19th century from the vesting prayers of the Orthodox Church, which are ancient. I have used both, although when alone my vesting prayers were along the lines of “Please, God, don’t let me say anything stupid out there, and keep me from tripping over my cassock again.”

In the church, I was plain at the altar. I wore cassock and surplice (a really long one that looked like a nightie; it subbed as an angel costume) and black stole, known as a tippet. This is also called a preaching stole. I very rarely wore coloured stoles, an alb or a chasuble – the round garment that signifies the prist who is celebrating the communion. Some priests wear their university hood with cassock and surplice and stole. I was taught to wear one or the other, hood or stole. I’ve lost my hood, and I doubt if I will replace it. It says to the people, I think, “I’m smarter than you.” There were times I would get called out of the vestry, not get back in, and start the service in just cassock. I sometimes said the service in street clothes. Everyone there knew who I was and what I did, why did I need special clothes?

Things I like about Plain: I don’t send mixed messages. I don’t look rich, or sexy, or trying to look younger than I am. People ask me questions in a friendly way. Sometimes I have amusing encounters with people who guess all the wrong things about me (except that I am rich, sexy or young.) I can make my own clothes and ear them for years without anyone wodnering why I’m out of style. My shoes are comfortable. I get to wear aprons.

It is an easy vocation, now that I’ve done it for quite a while. It is a blessing.

Buried in Paper

Magdalena at the Altar

I don’t mean that literally. I’m not a paper hoarder. I throw it out as soon as I can. I am buried in government forms! I seem to get something new every week to complete, sign and return. Then I think I’m done, but something got lost somewhere, I need to get a new copy signed, and oh, yes, we need this one, too…

I used to fill out government forms for a living, and mortgage forms, and tax forms – I was good at it. I could whip through a complete filing in about twenty minutes, fifteen forms and a cover letter. Those of you too young to remember the old IRS filings have no idea what it could be like – trying to figure out what forms the client required, what numbers went where, and then 10-keying everything three times to get it right. I made it through to on-line filing via dial-up, available only to accountants who subscribed. Then the forms would be couriered back to us! Twenty-five years ago, and it sounds like ancient history. This year, I sat down at the computer, keyed in a few numbers and filed electronically.

But tax forms are the only ones, it seems, you can handle that way. Everything else is paperfiling. I am so confused by some of this I have to squint at the form numbers at the bottom to figure out which government office gets what. Heaven help you if you send something to the wrong office, because they can’t share the information around!

I am praying that by Friday I will have the latest set of papers filled out and ready to go.

One of the best things about working for the Anglican church was a blessed shortage of forms to to file. We had one major summary to file with the bishop’s office once a year. The treasurer took care of the tax stuff. All I had to do was legibly fill in the vestry books after each service, an archaic task that evoked the early C of E, with the parish priest serving as the monarch’s clerk recording births, deaths, marriages and the cycle of the year.

If I can get employed by the church again soon, a lot of this government paperwork will disappear, and I can go back to being anonymous and relatively paperwork free.

Do We Need Our Cathedrals?

I’m not so sure anymore. I used to be “Oh, it’s the new Jerusalem typified,” and all sorts of high language learned in seminary. But now I’m not so sure we need to have these fancy church buildings at all. Instead of being the welcoming halls of God, our churches are barred and shut and inaccessible.

I love cathedrals, but whether the church can afford them is uncertain. Big buildings are a big drain on resources. Old big buildings are a bigger drain – they require repairs and maintenance well beyond their net worth. Money shouldn’t be part of the reason for getting rid of them, though; there are other reasons I can think of.

The main one is their inaccessibility. Unless a cathedral is also a tourist attraction, they are shut up and locked during the hours not in use. This is so opposite to their purpose that it astounds me. Cathedrals, and churches in general, were meant to be public spaces. They were in use at all hours,with prayer, worship, eucharist, confession and people meeting casually. Markets grew up around the cathedrals, people were in and out of the building and the churchyard daily. Now they are big monuments to the past, more like museums that are opened for the public on occasion.

The Washington National Cathedral, the cathedral of my home diocese in the States, is focussing its mission more on drawing tourists than on outreach. Tourists bring dollars that support the infrastructure, poor people do not.

Do we need our church buildings? We need places to gather, but this barely used hulk in the middle of town doesn’t seem to have much purpose. Locked, cold, dark except for Sunday morning and the rare midweek service, it seems to be sitting there, not only eating its head off, but a recrimination to how we who call ourselves Christians have neglected the faith. Why isn’t that church open all day, every day, with people gathering for morning and evening prayer, Bible study, children’s activities? Because the faithful have left, or keep their faith for Sunday morning.

Even Sunday morning can feel cold and stark. When was the last time a stranger at church was invited to someone’s home for a meal? When did the whole church gather for a shared meal that was free to all, members and visitors, passersby and strangers? Well? When did your church last have an open meal for which they did not charge?

Churches have become fundraising institutions and not the Body of Christ.

Maybe every church that is costing its parishioners more than they give to the poor should be sold. Maybe renting the high school auditorium or meeting at the Lion’s Club would make more sense. And maybe the flock is small enough that they could meet in a living room. The Church is not the church. The building, especially if it is old, authentic, historic, newly built and full of gadgets, musty, dusty, haunted, expensive, state of the art, brass-plaqued to a faretheewell, or George Washington prayed there, is a monument to the past, perhaps a mystical future and certainly to the egos of its supporters.

I don’t mean just the ornate and ostentatious churches either. When I was a child, there was great debate in the Baptsist Church as to redecorating the sanctuary. Was the plain brass ‘resurrection’ cross a possible idol? Apparently not; it went up over the choir’s heads, seven feet tall, shining brass and backlit. The windows were ornamented with gold curtains, the pews covered with gold cushions. There was as much pride in that simple “not at all papist” church as in a forest of crucifixes, icons, and stations of the cross. It was superstitiously plain – we had debates over whether we could have pictures of Jesus.

So, is it time? Do we turn over our cathedrals and expensive empty churches to some non-profit historic society? Someone come up with an argument that is not pomp and circumstance, please, and tell me, how do we go back to the vibrant, open church? How do we unlock the doors?

When We Became Plain

We’ve been publically Plain for more than four years now. It was a very easy step for us, but the consequences were great, and no one expected it of two middle-aged Anglican priests. My husband, Nicholas, had lived in southern Ontario for quite a while, and often encountered Amish and Old Order Mennonite as he travelled around the province in his work. He openly admired them, the simple, Christian way of life, the lack of materialism. He adopted some of that simplicity in his life, although it wasn’t that obvious. Anglican priests, for the most part, dress quite simply. Black is the colour. That’s about it. Black shirt with white collar insert to look like clergy, black jeans or trousers, a plain black jacket or sweater. Yes, I know Anglican clergy, male and female, who are veritable peacocks. (You know who you are.) Most of us, though, keep to the simple and narrow way – it’s easier and it hides the coffee stains, which are an occupational hazard.

I, on the other hand, had closets of clothes. My daily dress was basic black, with some grey for variety. Off-duty, once out of overalls and denim jackets (raising sheep limits one’s wardrobe, too) I had dresses of fanciful shape and hue, and shoes, shoes, shoes. I had designer clothes. Oh, yes, tasteful designer clothes in those timeless styles, but cashmere, expensive wool, silk. Poor Nicholas was more than a bit intimidated by my high style when we met. (I wore designer jeans, a silk blouse and a suede cowboy hat. He was wearing an ugly plaid shirt and khakis – it just screamed “priest out of uniform.”)

Once we were together, and I had winnowed the chaff from the grain, wardrobe-wise, I was motivated to go one step further. Nicholas gave me his copy of Scott Savage’s The Plain Reader. I was home at last. Within a few days, I was down to two dresses, a skirt and blouse, and boots. I kept my black wool coat and made my first prayer kapp, thanks to Shepherd’s Hill.

But why?

It wasn’t mere Amish-enthrallment, motivated by romantic novel covers. I had known Mennonites and liked them, and had felt a bit of a tug to get Plain, but didn’t follow through. Anglicans aren’t Plain, I reasoned. No one will understand, people will hate it, I will look silly.

So I put that impulse aside. Little did I realize at the time that the hounds of heaven were on my heels.

Nicholas and I talked it over. It was a new life for us. We were already rural people, living a very simple life. It seemed practical, but it seemed more than that. We were making a break from the worldly past, and we were eager to show it. In Plain dress, with kapp and sturdy boots, I felt armored for the battle. I was ready. I was under the shelter of the heavenly hand.

That was the fulfillment of my search. I once said, “If only we could go out into the world, and take the monastery with us!”  I meant that we need to carry peace and mercy with us, sheltered by God. We move in this world, but we are not of it. We live in His Kingdom, here on earth. We are not citizens of the world of commerce and trade, just sojourners eager to return Home.

I went through many permutations of Plain, from nearly monastic to what I wear now, a Quakerly cape dress or jumper and a white or black kapp, and a very Plain Mennonite bonnet. I have made myself a slat bonnet, and those who know me as the most Austere of Austere Plain will be surprised to hear that today I bought two print fabrics for summer dresses, by Nicholas’s advice.

Nicholas looks the same as he has for four years or more: black shoes or workboots, black or blue jeans, black braces, Plain cotton shirt in white, beige, blue or black. He does have one madder red shirt he calls “orange” and thinks way too flash. He wears a black felt hat in winter, a plain straw hat in summer, doesn’t cut his hair and wears a full beard. He was wearing the Brethren chin beard, but his low vision now prevents him from shaving properly, and his beard and mustache have filled in. His winter jacket is his old peacoat, which he has had for many, many years. He’s a handsome man and I am blessed to have him by my side.

That’s us, Plain.

Mistakes in Hospitality

If the churches don’t come up with a better definition and understanding of hospitality, I think we will continue to have problems as happened recently in Toronto. (Sorry to those involved that I am dragging this out in the light again, but I really don’t think it’s been addressed adequately.)

A man came to church with his dog. That’s not the problem. I’ve taken animals to church myself, including a just-born lamb. He was new to the church, but was an acquaintance of the interim priest in some way. He came forward to the altar rail for communion and the dog came, too. The priest, for whatever motivation, deliberately gave the dog a consecrated wafer. That poor priest didn’t get home, I bet, before someone called her bishop. (This is an Anglican church, obviously!)

We don’t give consecrated bread to animals.

There are many reasons why she might have given the wafer to the dog – St. Francis gave consecrated host to the birds, and in some places, consecrated wafers may be spread on the ground for God’s creatures to take, if the wafers are unusable. This does happen: I’ve had to do it myself, when someone spilled water into the ciborium, when reserved sacrament had become so stale that it was inedible, and when a nursing home patient spat the host back at me. Burning the unusable host is preferable but not always practical. So it isn’t wrong for an animal to eat the host, but only if it is incidental.

She may have thought it was hospitable to the guest and the dog to give the animal what the people were getting. It was the deliberate nature of the act that caused her trouble.

On the flippant side, we could argue that the dog isn’t baptized and shouldn’t receive the sacrament of communion. This is a rather important point in Anglicanism. First one, then the other.  Anglicans do not have confirmation firmly tied into communion as other faith groups do, but baptism is pretty much non-negotiable. First you must be washed, then you are clean for the table. We are baptized but once: As we are physically born but once, so our spiritual birth is but once. And as we need our daily bread at home, so we go to the Lord’s Table frequently and in the company of others, our spiritual family.

To get serious: Animals are not in need of atonement. Although they, as with all creation, are groaning for the consummation of the Day of Judgment, they are not fallen in soul and are sinless. Animals can appear vicious to us in how they obtain their food and when they attack or defend, but it is not in a state of sin and willfulness that they kill. They are acting under instinct and it is our interpretation that it is vicious. So the sacraments are reserved for humans in our sinfulness. We are made in the likeness of the Creator, and can be fallen in sin and willfulness; we require atonement. We require grace.

The priest’s error was to perhaps impulsively offer the consecrated sacrament to an animal, thinking that she was hospitable.  The metaphor Jesus used in his conversation with the foreign woman about the crumbs falling from the table and eaten by the little dogs was not meant to be taken literally. (Jesus said to the woman asking for healing for her daughter: “We don’t give the children’s bread to the dogs.” She answered, with a lot of faith and courage: “But the littel dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table.” And her daughter was healed; Jesus did not come just for Israel, but for the whole world, even those Israel considered unclean and beyond the pale. He used that old insult to test her faith, so that grace might be abounding.)

It is not true hospitality to hand out communion wafers to every mouth that opens. Human food is not appropriate for dogs, especially the food we eat these days. A communion wafer is nothing more than a little bit of white flour and water. It did the dog no harm, but it didn’t do any good. The larger issue is our vocation to feed the world. We are certainly not doing that, and we don’t even feed ouselves well. We prefer the depraved foods we invented in the last century, the foods lacking real nutrition- white sugar and flour, hydrogenated fats. We allow multi-national corporations to ship these foods to other countries, where they entice the population away from their native foods. We then do not have enough whole foods to share because we have refined them for our spoiled appetites. We have ruined irrevocably large tracts of wilderness and animal habitat, so that God’s creatures may not feed themselves. We have been poor stewards and unable to show God’s hospitality.

Real hospitality has nothing to do with who gets that poor substitute for bread we serve at the altar; it has to do with real bread, and the real love of Christ.  We get very caught up in the show of sacramentality while forgetting or ignoring the sacramentality of love Christ gave us.

After the communion was over, did anyone invite that visitor and his dog home for a meal?