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."

 

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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.

Why a Bonnet?

Amish Bonnet, Pennsylvania

If any one article of women’s Plain dress says, “I am not of this kingdom,” it is the bonnet. It is the public declaration of being different. It covers the hair, a source of vanity. It shadows the face, a clear boundary of privacy. It is the symbol of feminine identity as a Christian: Quaker, Amish, Mennonite, Anabaptist, Brethren, Salvation Army worker, Plain Anglican.

Amish bishop and wife

The bonnet is unmistakeably a way to say,”I am a serious Christian.”

It is anti-vanity, anti-lust, anti-world. It says that the wearer intends to guard her femininity.

It also says, "No foolishin' around."

I described wearing the bonnet as having the monastery on one’s head. It is a place of security and grace when one takes it on with the understanding that under it, one is in the Kingdom of God.

my bonnet

Amish Economy

Old postcard of Amish kitchen

We might be excused for thinking that “Amish economy” is a result of people who deliberately stay rooted in an agrarian way of life; that the Amish, and other Anabaptists, are thrifty and hard-working from necessity. Those in the Old Orders almost never have education beyond American grade eight. They learn trades and crafts rather than professions.

Amish economy is based on old Anabaptist principles that are about community rather than money. This may seem strange to Americans, whose goals are generally centred on obtaining a comfortable life, with a fair amount of ease and luxury, even if it is not ostentatiously rich. Most modern Westerners admire the rich, and are fascinated by the lifestyle of the wealthy. Vacation resorts make a good deal of money promoting this fantasy. If this attitude was not widespread, there would be no lotteries, no Las Vegas, no People magazine. There are no Amish equivalents to these cultural phenomena.

Yet the Amish and other Old Order groups do not live as asthetes and monks. They are focussed on living a Christian life rather than a comfortable life. Some people are surprised and even shocked when they see an Amish home that has a recliner, a gas stove, and wall decor; they were expecting something more austere and self-denying. But Amish life isn’t about austerity; the self-denial takes other forms, such as a rejection of popular culture and anything that will fragment the family and their own Amish community. Electricity is rejected as being the conduit for radios, television, DVD players and now, the mindless popular entertainment of the internet; but a gas stove and refrigerator (if allowed in that district) are good for the family. The home telephone is rejected as a means for idle chatter and hurtful gossip; yet Amish business people (and some teens during rumspringa) use cell phones to stay in touch. The automobile as a family-owned personal conveyance is rejected, but most Amish will accept or hire a ride when needed for doctors’ appointments, shopping, or long-distance visiting.

I can understand all of this. The telephone is an instrument that spreads petty talk and divides friends; the automobile takes families to distant places where they are apart from community, and encourages young people to stay away from home; and I don’t think I need to say anything more about the unChristian intrusion of commercially produced television and films. The economy of the Amish is “ekkonomia” – management of the household. Early Church bishops and priests were admonished to practice good “ekkonomia” in their communities. The Amish still take that seriously.

There are old Anabaptist principles on what is good work. It must benefit the community. It must allow for parents to be home with their children as much as possible. It is not possible to practice good work if the industry in which one works is destructive. Pacifist Anabaptists would not assemble rifles, or build tanks, or sew military uniforms. They will assemble woodstoves, build RVs and bicycles, and sew coats. They do not like their young people to travel far from home to work, although carpenter groups did travel together.  While most young mothers stay home with their children, others will work in retail or food service as they need to, if it does not interfere with being home with the children at crucial times of the day. (Many Amish women have home-based businesses, as well. This probably comes out of the background of an agrarian culture.)

Some underlying principles of Amish/Anabaptist economy are that the business owner should not earn much more than his workers – one old rule was that the owner should realize no more than four times what he pays the least paid of his employees. The business itself should keep its workers close to home, so that they can return to their families every evening.

Amish men at a horse auction in the 1950s

Gellasenheit is the Amish concept of self-surrender, of standing humbly before God, of not trying to rise above one’s neighbours and friends. It is the reason for the Ordnung, the way of life of that community. “Gellasenheit” is avoiding self-idolatry, or of being too pleased with oneself, of staying away from anything that smells of status seeking and privilege. It isn’t false humility; if one is good at doing something that benefits the community, then one should do it. Those who practice gellasenheit, though, will not draw attention to what they have done; they will not boast or risk the criticism of the group for putting oneself forward.

It is also an Anabaptist principle to be sufficiently independent financially, of being able to carry one’s own weight in the community. Those who cannot because of disability, age or circumstances can be assured that they will receive the care they need. Being financially solvent, free of debt, and able to earn a living wage and provide sufficiently for family and neighbours in need are the goals of the Amish householder. Amish and Mennonites are always quietly rasing funds for those who are suffering. Collections are taken door to door, auctions held, thrift stores run, to benefit “the least of these.” Because the churches are either held in houses, or at most are small, low maintenance structures among some of the Mennonites, and the clergy, for the msost part, serve without stipend, monies raised within the church can be used for the benefit of the needy. “Charity begins at home” is often misquoted to justify keeping church funds within the  immediate community rather than disperse them in the wider church-world; the Amish more typically exemplify this saying in its truer sense, that one learns to love and care for others first within one’s home group. (The charitable work of the larger Mennonite/Amish community benefits many worldwide, not just in their own home states, and not just among the followers of their particular kind of faith.)

This outreach is also part of the Amish/Mennonite witness of non-violence, “to do good and not evil.”  The Amish witness is of the “two kingdoms” – a Christian cannot serve both God and Mammon (money, worldliness). The Christian lives first in God’s kingdom, and is only of necessity in the world. In 1530, an early Anabaptist, John of Leyden, wrote, “A believer’s church should be a community of faith that practiced mutual aid.” That is, the faithful were to care for one another, and as Christ admonished his followers, to care for the stranger as oneself, exemplified in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Church is truly not “every man for himself” but “every man for each other.”

For further reading online: www.religionomics.com; www.reformedreader.org.

Witness: To Peace

Quaker, 1866

As we discussed Plain dress recently, I think a number of us offered all the usual reasons for it – conformity to Biblical precepts, practicality, denial of self. These are all good personal reasons for Plain dress; I say it is my Christian witness. When people look at me, they know they have seen a Christian. But couldn’t I do that with a cross necklace, a modest skirt and blouse, a kerchief instead of a prayer cap? I could wear a t-shirt even, with Bible verses and great fish graphics. Christian. I could wear my clerics – Christian.

But as I thought about it I was inspired: my Plain witness is a Witness to Peace. I am a Peacemaker.

The Quakers are, throughout their whole Plain history, notable Peacemakers. The Anabaptists who followed Menno Simons were pacifists. that white prayer kapp, apron and long blue dress say “Peace be with thee.”

My husband’s beard and long hair, as well as his Plain coat and hat, are symbols of Peace. The early priests in the apostolic church grew out their beards and hair as a way to disassociate themselves from the Roman Empire, whose male citizens were shaven and shorn, a symbol that they were eligible to join the army.

Most people know about the Amish mostly from popular fiction like the movie “Witness.” The witness is a young Amish boy, but the “Witness” is the Amish witness to Peace throughout the movie, over against the kill-or-be-killed ethic of the corrupt police force that the protagonist works within.

The white kapp and the black bonnet, the beard and the broad-brimmed hat, are symbols that we, Nicholas and I, are dedicated to that same Witness. We live that non-violence, and we let people know that. We are witnesses – and hostages – to Peace.

Quaker woman with bonnet, ca. 1890

More Bonnet Styles

These are not bonnets I have made, but I will try to describe them for you.

Ohio Amish bonnet

A traditional Amish bonnet, the sort a young woman gets at her baptism. The brim is stiff and shaped. Shellacked bonnet board (heavy cardstock) was used in the past, but flexible plastics and plastic mesh are used now.

Old Order Amish bonnetSame Old Order Amish bonnet, side

This bonnet was described as an Amish slat bonnet, but I think the owner was mistaken, and it is just a stiff-brimmed bonnet, again of the typical “outing” bonnet style worn by Old Order Amish women in different districts.

Lancaster Amish sunbonnet

 The collector called this a Lancaster Amish sunbonnet, and described it as vintage. It has a vintage look to the fabric and what I can make of the stitching. Quite possibly it was a homesewn sunbonnet for field work, saving the outing bonnet for “nice.”

Black slat bonnet

I would think this slat bonnet was machine sewn and not old. It was described as Amish or Quaker; I’m thinking it is a recently made bonnet for the re-enactor’s market. A slat bonnet has slim pieces of ash splint or heavy cardboard sewn into the pockets on the brim. It lies flat when not in use, so it can be put in a drawer rather than requiring a peg or shelf space. The long cape in the back covers the neck and upper shoulders, and has a tie in the back ot sort of pleat the excess fabric together. The brim hides the whole face. I wear one working outdoors as I am very allergic to sunscreens. One of the reasons I think this is for a more sophisticated buyer than the average farm woman is that it is in black, which is too hot to wear in the field. A friend made a beautiful slat bonnet in dark wool that I think would be perfect for someone who walks a lot in winter, rather “Jane Eyre”-esque.

Amish-made child's sunbonnet

 A child’s sunbonnet found at an Amish auction, I would hazard that this is made from a man’s shirt or even a remnant bought at an “Englisch” (non-Amish) shop. I’m dating it from the forties or fifties. A windowpane check is a bit wild for most Amish households.

flour sack slat bonnet

 The collector who posted this photo thought it a strange shape for a bonnet. Well, it is, because she has it the wrong way round. The neck ruffle is at the front, the slats facing down. She called it a flour sack bonnet. Cotton flour sacks were produced in chintzes, florals, and other  patterns for the farmwife to turn into aprons and bonnets and even children’s dresses.

Amish women in Lancaster, vintage postcard

A vitnage postcard from Lancaster County, Pernnsylvania, shows three Amish matrons chatting on the street. The bonnets look to be more of the field style rather than the more formal and stiffer outing bonnet one would wear to church.