Plain and Maintain

DSC01152When I became Plain, friends asked me how I could give up the “fun” of fashion and shopping. I didn’t think of it as giving up fun, but as finding peace. I was no longer bound to the anxiety of styling my hair, buying clothes, managing an extensive (closets, people, CLOSETS) wardrobe, and “watching” my weight. I had the fun of sewing, choosing fabrics that are suitable and of good quality, and of being confident that in all occasions, I was appropriately dressed. I no longer worry about the ups and downs of weight gain and loss triggered by a chronic illness. My hair is gloriously long and gloriously weaving silver strands amongst the chestnut red and brown. I don’t spend anything on cosmetics and jewelry. I have no valuables to lose, I don’t have to replace clothes because they are no longer suitable to the fashion. I have freedom. The price of being a clotheshorse was not only the hit to the credit card, but the constant level anxiety of trying to look good. That anxiety is gone, and I resent it when people tell me I should have it back, and give up Plain in the way I express it. Am I sometimes “mistaken” for a nun? Yes, but that isn’t really a mistake, as I belong to a religious order. Am I sometimes mistaken for Amish? Yes, but that is no insult, to be “mistaken” for a woman of peace. To be a woman of peace is my goal.

Currently, I have to wear a uniform at work. I don’t really like the uniform, but it is part of restaurant culture. I do it. I keep it as simple as possible. It seems to be an accepted part of modern life, that many of us require special clothes for work. And then I do wear a “uniform” the rest of the time – the simple Plain dress and kapp, or the habit. Plain is more than having just a few choices of clothes. Jeans and a sweater are not Plain, unless that is one’s expression of Kingdom living. Mere simplicity is beneficial, yet there is a deeper spirituality to Plain.

Hermosa House Julie Larry and Iska May 2014

I have come to love the habit. It is what I have been longing for, in my heart, walking under the protection of the roof of the Church. It tells people who I am and what I am at a quick glance, just as the architectural vernacular of “church” is expressed in formal ways. The form follows function, in that it is modest, easy to make (really), and yet complicated enough to remind one that in essence, the wearer is cloistered, set aside, protected, while still serving God in the world. The head covering is our protection, and the sign of prayer, much as a bell tower or steeple is. The scapular is a narthex, covering all that is within, and our yoke to bear for Christ. The long tunic unites all dedicated religious, the nave of the church. No matter what we are inside, no matter what tribulations and wounds we have borne, we are included in that body. Whether we wear shoes or we are discalced (wearing sandals, or barefoot), we do so with simplicity and practicality. My shoes are all functional and very plain, good quality, and bought to last for years. Every piece of jewelry I wear now has religious significance – cross, St. Michael’s medal, holy images. Plain is how I express living in God’s Kingdom. I have left this fallen world, and while I am still in battle to keep it from overwhelming my one small castle, I am secure within its walls.

Teresa of Ávila, Roman Catholic saint and mystic, wrote extensively on mystical union, once writing, "If Christ Jesus dwells in a man as his friend and noble leader, that man can endure all things, for Christ helps and strengthens us and never abandons us. He is a true friend."

 

Advertisements

Staying Plain

Plain as Prophecy

It seems a double handful of friends in various places have decided they are no longer plain. When I ask why the answers range from “My husband/family didn’t like it” to “I was tired of telling people I’m not Amish.” The most honest answer was probably “It was a mistake, I wasn’t meant for this.” I won’t question people’s motives, but I can’t see it myself. Plain is so easy – so low-key – so cheap!

A long time ago I got tired of the mirror. I didn’t want to be the person checking her hair, checking her clothes, checking her make-up. I wasn’t fashion obsessed, but I had the idea that as an artist, my body was a canvas, and I would show the world who I was by what I displayed on it. But instead of having a number of “costumes” that went on easily, so as to get on with the day and serve as a billboard for my creative work, dress became a matter of insecurity.

I was projecting who I wanted to be, not who I was. I was manipulating how people saw me. They didn’t get to know me, they got to know my clothes.

While I am usually in habit now, out on the street, I still dress Plain at home and when I travel anywhere. Do people think I’m Amish? Maybe. Not a bad thing. I don’t do anything that would embarrass an Amish woman or mislead someone about the Amish. (This also reminds me to behave modestly in all things.) And if someone asks me if I am Amish, I say that I am not, and that I belong to a different church. If they are curious enough to ask more questions, it is an opportunity to witness to them, to spread the gospel. Either in habit or Plain dress, I am happy to pray for or with someone if they ask. This is apostolic witness; no Christian should be ashamed of it.

Me, full habit

Me, full habit

Stay Plain. Become Plain. It means you never fuss with clothes again. The habit is a medieval form of Plain; those in religious orders might consider taking it up if they put it off. Plain is comfortable. It is practical. It is inexpensive. You can have a smaller house because you don’t need extra closet space. It doesn’t go out of fashion. It is easy to sew. Covering means that you don’t worry about hairstyles, grey hair or thinning hair. Plain means you need one mirror in the house. You gain self-confidence. You know how people see you: As a Christian. It is a commitment to a way of life that liberates.

medieval nun

Plain means you stop thinking about yourself as some sort of ornament decorating the world, and become Real. Becoming Real means living in God’s Kingdom, now and always, rather than staying in the illusion that is the world and our insecurities.

nun in cloister

The Modesty of Self

I haven’t posted much on modesty lately. I am so fully immersed in my modest ways, that I no longer think much about it. That’s why the nun’s daily clothing was called a “habit.” There’s a lot to be said for the habit, for just stepping into the simple garments meant to just clothe the body, without a thought as to flattery or appeal. Everything I wear is easy, even if I have to wrangle some pins into it right now. My daily dress routine takes mere minutes, and unless I have some unforeseen encounter with kitchen splatter, garden mud or barn muck, I’m pretty much set for the day, no matter where I go.

apron over apron - upper Valley tradition

I used to be a clotheshorse, being slim and pretty. But that was living in what the world expected of me, not what the Lord expected of me. In choosing clothes and spending time on appearance – hair, make-up, outfit – I was making a little idol out of the image in the mirror. It was about ME. Either it was about my feeling like an attractive woman, or it was about me wanting to be just like others. Even as clergy, that got reinforced. I think many of us had a fear that ME would drown in the collar and suit. We even fretted over vestments, expensive lengths of cloth that cost a small fortune, to be worn one hour at a time on Sunday morning. Choosing the right vestments (for flattery and to express one’s innate good taste and brand of theology) was a major issue. After a few trials, I came to dislike vestments greatly. They are heavy, expensive, easily stained, difficult to clean, and a downfall of pride for priests and clergy. When I had several services a day, wearing vestments felt like spending a whole day modelling wedding dresses. The weight of the cloth, the care needed to keep it unsullied, the moving about in yards of satin and brocade – I dreaded it. I switched down to cassock, surplice and black stole pretty quickly. That felt as natural as a dress and apron.

So why was I still getting into the plastic collar and suit? To prove that I was a real priest? To impress others? Some of both.

What I am doing should tell people what I am. If I’m at the altar, or i n he pulpit, or visiting the hospital, I’m the pastor. But mostly I’m a Christian. Part of what I do is stifle that vanity and pride.

Being a Christian became more important to me than being the priest. I identify more strongly with the simple portrait of Jesus and his disciples in the Gospels than I do with the medieval role of the presbyter.

But I needed to stop identifying so strongly with the cultural role handed to me at birth – attractive woman, whose appearance evokes lust, envy, desire, smug approval, or pride. This is what happens when we unthinkingly, unquestioningly, accept what the culture wants for us, without regard for what God wants. And sometimes when we do question the cultural normatives, we still give in, out of fear of being different, out of pressure from those who don’t like our choice, out of persuasion from friends and family who are embarrassed at our rejection of what they accept. Subconsciously, we know that the adoption of a uniquely Christian way of life and its call to separate ourselves visibly will hold us up to a standard we may fail. We may want that opportunity to let our standard slide a bit.

I found that the clergy collar did not require a high standard. Too many clergy have used the collar to hide their sins. Others in recent years have boastfully worn it in the midst of their worldly life – ambition, envy, desire for wealth and status.

God calls us out of that.

And there’s no excuse for pride of modesty either. I see this in evangelical young women, for the most part, mainly because they are the ones who come to me for guidance and advice. There is a lot of initial enthusiasm, and they flaunt their new modest (but fashionable) dresses and headscarves before their less modest friends. They wear modesty rather than are modest. They are not interested in leaving the sinful world behind while aiming for the new Jerusalem. They want to be the Christian character in the game of culture. Others – usually young American women who have read some Amish novels or have seen some “Amish” themed movies or television – desire the Plain life, but find it means Self disappears into the cape dress and kapp. When the cape dress fails to flatter them as they wished, they abandon it. They have not given up the idol in the mirror.

Plain is as much a dedicated life as the monastery. It is a practice of Christian self-denial, and to some degree, all Christians are called to it. The context of it will be different from one place to another, but it is the same. It is a modesty of forgetting the anxiety around the projection of Self. God requires that we become transparent to His Will, both in receiving it and giving it forth. If what we want to project is our own personality, contrived as that is, we cannot be the medium for God’s Peace.

I will say it bluntly: Christian life, no matter who you are, requires great self-sacrifice. It requires great sacrifice of all that we may hold dear in this world. We don’t live in the world of popular culture – television, entertainment, parties, popularity, personal attractiveness, amusement, status, shopping – we live in the Kingdom of God. Jesus brought it to us, and we inherited it with His death, resurrection and return to the Father. We have it now. What we bring into that Kingdom must be beneficial to all who live in it. What we carry out of it must be what proclaims the Kingdom, and the reality of new life through Jesus Christ. It isn’t just a matter of “believing in him,” a brief prayer that we memorize as a talisman, but a change in our daily lives. We are called by Him – really called, like a parent calling a child home at dusk, and no matter where we are and what we are doing, we are with Him and alive in Him, and He in us. When the rest of the world looks for Jesus, they will see you.

from Amish Village

Plain: Practical, Yes. Historic? No.

Everyday Me

It’s a quiet day here, as I am under the damping effects of a minor cold. Colds are slightly more serious for me than most otherwise healthy people. I have an allergy to viruses, and even a cold can cause flare-ups of eczema, hives and angio-edema, the most serious form of that group of allergic reactions. So I am on the couch, coughing and sneezing, waiting for the subcutaneous bump on my forehead to disperse (it usually takes about 24 hours) and doing some on-line reading. I use Google Reader and the tag surfer on WordPress, and this opens up a lot of sites it would take me hours to find on my own.

I don’t have to tell my readers how much misinformation is online about Plain groups like the Amish. People who barely know what Anabaptism is about criticize Amish, Mennonites, and anyone who looks Amish as cultish, needlessly romantic, and anachronistic. The Amish and such Anabaptist groups are not a cult, and don’t come close to a definition of a cult. Most of those misperceptions are based on watching movies and television. Although the Amish follow an ordnung, or code of behaviour, so do most Christians. But most of us in the mainline churches don’t take it seriously; that’s the main difference. Then we sit around in committee meetings at church wondering why so few people care about the church anymore. Our blatant hypocrisy may be the key answer to that question. I could have been accused of this myself a few years ago, and justifiably in some ways. But not in the way most people would think: my divorce and remarriage. That was setting to right situations that had gone horribly, destructively bad. Details aren’t necessary here; but it was the worldliness of other behaviour that was really isolating me from fulfilling God’s intentions for me. I was a clotheshorse and a culture dilettante. I was trying to live with a foot on both sides of the Jordan River. I was called into the Kingdom of God, but I wanted to keep a pied-a-terre in the world.

Practicality is my natural turn of mind. There is nothing baroque about me. “Plain” was, perhaps, easier for me than for others. I think all Christians are called to give up the world as much as possible. We are not to be a frivolous people, and we are always called to a life of sobriety. We are to be considerate, thoughtful, and aware of our place in the Kingdom. We are given joy and even happiness, as long as we do not forget who we are.

I submitted to Plain in dress and way of life. We have occasionally ventured back into some worldly pursuit – television was the worst temptation, when we lived in a place where it was always available – but after a spell, we left that behind. Even in reading secular literature I am always asking myself, “What does this mean to me as a Christian?” We can’t completely avoid interacting with the world and culture, but we are called to do that on His terms, not the world’s.

Giving up a worldly wardrobe was a bit of a wrench at first. Through clothing I told the world who I thought I was. I expected that the world would take me at my word, and it pretty much did. I had a classically proportioned figure and I let the world know that. And as one friend once told me, “You are quite beautiful without make-up, but with it you are stunning.” So I would play up the blue eyes, high cheekbones and cupid’s-bow mouth. I wanted to be admired and desired. But that was making an idol out of my appearance, and that kind of  shallow self-absorption was contrary to my natural self, who didn’t care much for frivolous indulgence.

I missed my fine clothes because costume was a canvas for my projection of my pretensions, a rendering of my view of self-worth. Once gone, and once in sober black and grey dresses and white kapps, I didn’t mind anymore. Without make-up, I was more concerned with my real health issues, rather than being focussed on appearing healthy while disguising the neglect of true health.

I took to Quaker Plain dress quickly and easily. It is comfortable, inexpensive and easy to maintain. It doesn’t go out of style quickly. The Amish had adopted Quaker style when they emigrated to Pennsylvania, and the two Christian denominations seemed to have supported and influenced each other for about a hundred years.

But modern day Plain dress, whether overtly Amish as in an ordnung or Conservative Quaker as it has evolved and been adapted, is not historic. Even a hundred years ago Plain Quakers and the Amish had a more elaborate form of dress, especially among women. Skirts were much longer, in keeping with the expectation in the dominant culture that a modest women doesn’t even show an ankle; aprons were at least in two parts, cape and skirt; many Amish did not use buttons but continued to use straight pins, as some conservative groups do today. Kapps covered more of the head, had wider ties, and were invariably tied under the chin, especially among the Amish.

Today’s typical Plain dress is simpler in construction, and shorter. Aprons may still consist of two parts, but are much shorter and use less fabric. Only a handful of Old Orders bother with the open front cape and the innumerable straight pins to hold clothing closed. (And the pins aren’t that bad to use once the wearer gets accustomed to it. I have rarely pricked myself pinning on a dress or apron. I went to safety pins and snaps because my husband became wary of all the straight pins. A lost straight pin is much easier to replace than a lost button, too.) The kapp can be a very light, almost transparent confection that sits gloriously on the wearer’s glossy, swept up hair, or it can be the cupped and pleated style that covers the head from the ears back. It is practical because it keeps the loose ends of hair under control, and I don’t often have to redo my bun and kapp unless I have been caught out in a gale.

As for footwear – shoes have become as much a status statement in Western civilization as an expensive automobile or an exotic vacation. Shoes are a bit of poshness that most women can covet and even express. The more ridiculous the shoe in material and height, the greater the status. Stiletto heels say exactly the same thing as footbinding did in imperialist China. Just like displaying long, painted fingernails, the wearer is saying, “I don’t have to work, walk or do anything for myself.” This is where feminism failed us. Instead of being about equal rights under the law for women, it devolved into “Do what you want.”  So how can anyone take women seriously if women act frivolously just because, well, they can? We as women object to men being lifelong adolescents, concerned with sex, fun and drinking. Why do we accept the same sort of role for ourselves, and worse, put ourselves in fetishistic, impractical outfits to do the same stupid things?

I am liberated by Plain dress and Plain life. I am not chained to a credit card anymore. I am always suitably dressed for any occasion, assuming I am not covered with flour, goat hair or garden mud. And if I have become disheveled in doing my real work, I can easily change into a fresh apron. I don’t have to choose special undergarments on which to hang my tight, skin-exposing clothes, and I am not in four-inch high hobbles.

Yes, I dress Plain as a statement of Christian witness, but part of that witness is that I am no longer a slave to the hell-driven commodification from Madison Avenue. Not only has Jesus Christ given me spiritual freedom, following His way has freed me from the anxiety and wasted energy of fashion and status.

Titus 2 Woman – Do You Mean It?

I’ve had a number of young women approach me about the following passage from Paul’s Letter to Titus. Titus, a student of Paul, is a bishop appointed to Crete, tasked to appoint others as bishops and priests. He is also to teach the elders so appointed to be devout and trustworthy.

“But speak thou the things which become sound doctrine: that the aged men be sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity, in patience. The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness. not false accusers, not given much to wine, teachers of good things; that they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the words of God be not blasphemed.”

It is quite evident to me, that taken in context (the appointing of elders and overseers), Paul is instructing Titus to ordain both men and women. Those who do not see the passage the same way at least see that elder women were to take some governance of the young people, and especially to tutor and lead by example, so tha the young women would know how to live in a Christian manner.

I readily admit I am counted now amongst the elders, as a woman over 50 years of age. I have been ordained, and I hope that, mostly, I have kept to Paul’s instructions here.

Young wives and mothers come to me, asking if I will be their “Titus 2” elder. All right. But this is the where it falls apart: they are happy to be instructed, some of them, as long as it doesn’t interfere with what they want to do. As long as I cheer them on, and give advice which they could probably reason out for themselves, they are obedient acolytes. But about half of them who have asked for this favour have dropped out of the relationship when I have offered correction instead of accolades.

One young woman described to me how she was led to dress modestly, in skirts, and to wear a head covering. She considered it an act of obedience to scripture, an honour for her husband, and a demonstration of Christian modesty. I encouraged her in this; she was called to it. This lasted a few months, but under pressure from other family members, she abandoned her modesty, bought a pair of jeans (which, sad to say, were too form fitting and, in my opinion, unflattering to boot) and took off her cover, with the excuse that she could be just a good a Christian in jeans and styled hair. When I reproved her for it, reminding her that she had invoked a call from the Lord to be apart from the ways of the world, she replied with a statement like this: “You don’t really understand my faith journey.” Oh, so was she lying to me all those months?  Was her sense of vocation to be a modest, head covering Christian woman all a pretense?

Perhaps it was. Perhaps she was looking for approval from others in that, and when the approval from the right sort of people didn’t come with it, she abandoned this notion and went back to worldliness. Maybe that is her excuse – she wasn’t really called, she had selfish reasons for adopting modesty. I can say to her, in that case, we all have selfish reasons. No one’s motivations to follow the Lord are entirely pure. We all put on an act at first, and it is probably necessary. Just as children pretend to be grown-ups in their play in order to learn their adult roles and duties, so new Christians need to “put on an act” even if their heart isn’t in it yet.

The best actors don’t just pretend when they take on a theatrical role; they become that character, and in the best of scripts, each character is an aspect of humanity and human relationships. At first, the actor has to pretend, has to mouth over the lines, and contemplate how to enter the character in order to project the deep reality in the stylized pretense of the play. Baby Christians have to do the same thing, with God’s help. They have to say no to the party, the illicit relationship, the old bad habits, the chatter and cynicism of the world, even when they would much rather hang out with their drinking buddies, have a fling, or lose themselves in the brittle public comedy of daily life. They have to look to a model of Christian behaviour in order to learn what “charity” really means in terms of sacrificing self gladly for the love of God and others.

God doesn’t call us to be just  good Christians. He expects us to be the best Christians, or little Christs, that we can be. We grow in faith as we grow in practice of that faith. Part of that practice is modelling behaviour on a mentor; the study of hagiography and iconography is to discover models for Christian living.

The women leaders in Paul’s church were to be exemplars. They were chosen partly on how well they could model that Christian behaviour, which means they were not neophytes. They weren’t just out of their catechism – Christian instruction – but had been living in the way of faith for years. They may have been teaching the catechumens, or students, and were experienced in guiding those young in the faith. I am certain that they did not expect the new disciples of Christ to tell them how it was done.

there is a contractual nature to mentorship. The instructor undertakes to be honest with the student, faithful and devoted to the teaching. The disciple suspends his or her own prejudices and preferences, is willing to let go of preconceived and possibly erroneous attitudes, and is obedient to the way of the mentor. That is usually where the contract falls apart.

I would say that young women, for two generations and maybe three, have had a false self-confidence. I know I had it as a young woman. Promotion of ‘self-esteem’ in our culture gives people a false sense of achievement. We think we know more than we do, that we are smarter than we are, that we can trust our own inner voice to guide us. It is worse than the blind leading the blind – although that is certainly the case with youth culture – it is the blind refusing to have their sight restored, and preferring to wallow in the ditch than walk clear-eyed on the high road.

When someone says to me, “You don’t know my faith journey,” I can state, with a bit of humour, that I indeed know it, because all of us walk that same road. We may be on different stages of it. We each walk the road of faith alone, in a way, but we are never the first over that stretch of ground.

The requirements Paul sets forth as to be achieved by those who will call themselves experienced Christians are fairly straightforward: A serious frame of mind, reliability, faithfulness with other people, great love at heart, action rather than talk; a settled person who practices patience; someone who is satisfied with her or his place, who knows the obligation of obedience. These virtues take diligence. They come by prayer, meditation, and practice.

This is the exchange: True peace at heart rather than false self-esteem; humility rather than hubris; true companionship rather than shallow friendship. Self-esteem is casting but one vote for the best person in the world (me); hubris is faith in one’s self rather than God, a rather sad and desperate form of idolatry; shallow friendship is looking for fellowship that is no more than a mutual admiration and a support for vices.

The Lord chastises those He loves, and sometimes He allows that discipline from the hearts and mouths of people who truly act in our best interest, even if it hurts our feelings.

Plain Dressed Men

Someone asked recently how men can dress Plain, as to be distinguished from some guy in jeans and a blue shirt. Plain as a conviction of a Christian witness is a powerful statement. Plain attire is as much an identiification factor as a Franciscan’s brown robe or a priest’s white collar. I’ve found some images to help those who are Plain outside traditional Plain communities.

Mennonite, 1947

The flat black hat (or flat straw hat) is associated with Plain orders. The wide brimmed hat is practical and distinctive. This older man is wearing a placket shirt and a black jacket without lapels. His square beard and lack of mustache indicate that he is Anabaptist and married (or widowed). Why the lack of mustache? Either because the mustache was associated with military rank, or to indicate the setting aside of vanity. My husband has a full beard and mustache, because he finds shaving to be very difficult with his reduced vision, but he prefers the “peace” or “brethren” beard. Some Anabaptist groups have men start their beard when they married, and a few others when they are baptized.

Amish men at barn raising

This old postcard shows young men working at a barn raising. They are wearing “broadfalls” – old-fashioned button fly trousers – with suspenders. I’ve noticed that Amish and Mennonite men have their suspender buttons sewn outside the waist band, the opposite of what I was taught by my tailoring grandmothers, that suspender (or braces) buttons go inside the waist band. They are wearing long-sleeved shirts of the basic Oxford type, with the sleeves rolled up. Most Plain men now wear blue jeans or basic dress cut trousers in a  dark colour. A few groups continue to wear broadfalls.

I would guess these men were photographed at a mud sale, or spring auction. They are more formally dressed in mutze (jacket), dark trousers and the black flat hat. Plain men do not wear neckties or belts, as both are considered indicators of fashion. Plain men used to wear just black boots, but I’ve noticed a number of even older men have taken to wearing workboots, Oxfords, and running shoes, all for practicality. My husband wears workboots, casual Oxfords, or plain black dress oxfords. He used to wear a pair of all black running shoes at work, since he was on his feet all day.

I made this plain black vest, Nicholas’s “Sunday meeting” attire, worn with a white banded collar shirt and black jeans.