Life and Tragedy

It’s been a tough day, emotionally. A dear friend suffered a devasting loss, and I was reminded of the fourth anniversary of the Nickel Mines tragedy. Tragedy seems the right word today – that despite our eternal optimism, and our noble aims, life end  in death, unexpectedly and ignobly.

Four years ago an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania was inexplicably invaded by an armed gunman. Visitors and a teacher to the school escaped and alerted authorities; the man sent the boys in the class away with the remaining adult. He was greatly troubled in mind, obviously distraught and deranged. He shot the remaining children, all girls. Five survived; five died. He then killed himself. It was one of the worst elementary school tragedies in United States history.

I cannot speak of this horror aloud without breaking down and crying. The little girls, by the accounts of the survivors, were brave and acted with Christian charity. They tried to comfort the man in his distress. Raised with stories of the Anabaptist martyrs, they faced their own martyrdom with courage. God help me, I don’t know if I would do the same.

I don’t know why he did this; maybe he didn’t really know. We will never know now. Evil is overwhelming for those who fall victim to its control. Human experience tells us that evil exists for its own sake. It feeds on fear.

But the response of the Amish community was one of faith and strength. They comforted the family of the perpetrator. They have reached out and included them in their own grief.  They worked and prayed to transcend the evil that befell them, and to fulfill the will of God and follow Christ, who forgave his killers from the cross on which he died in pain. (“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”)

If you have not read Amish Grace by Prof. Donald Kraybill, please do. Prof. Kraybill spends a lot of time in Amish communitiesand has written several books on their way of life. For today, have a look at Amish America at Erik has written briefly and succintly on the tragedy. Christians have much to learn about grief and tragedy from the Amish in these circumstances.

Plain Life, Plainly

Plain chores

It looks like we are seeing the leading edge of a Plain revival. The twentieth century left many people stranded spiritually; we moved from an all-encompassing Modern philosophy to a Post-Modern zeitgeist. The Moderns are still in control of most institutions, but those of us outside the mainstream of those same institutions are, from a Post-Modern perspective, looking to the past and lost tradition for a way to follow into the very uncertain future.

What is Modern and Post-Modern? In my context, the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, a move in academia, society and politics to a philosophy of Progress and optimism based on human achievement, is the beginning of the Modern era. (Most academics would agree, I think.) Post-Modern (don`t be afraid of this term) is based on experience and philosophy of the twentieth century, when the senseless destruction and chaos of the world wars and other conflicts brought into question the legitimacy of Progress. Its seeds were sown in the Enlightenment itself and in the social protests of the nineteenth century. Widespread genocide and ecological destruction reinforced this philosophy amongst academics and influential thinkers. Post-Modernism asks:

How can we believe what we were taught when those beliefs brought so much destruction –

How can chaos and violent anarchy be Progress –

This is the meta-question that has led many of us to find another way. We want a way that follows the teachings of Christ without the excesses of culture that we now reject, such as materialism and consumerism. The cultural churches – the mainline Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican institutions – seem to be still enmeshed in the dominant, destructive culture. So in the late twentieth century, other ways of faithful living have been explored, rejuvenated and reworked, such as the New Monasticism and the Plain movement.

I can`t speak to the New Monasticism; while we live in an informal community, it is not ordered in any way except that we are all Anglicans and the centre of our week is Sunday attendance and participation at worship. Nicholas and I are very Plain but have accommodated ourselves to the way of living here in the rectory. We have electricity, a vehicle, an internet connection and television. The house is old and not particularly up to date. But we are unable to garden since that would mean the removal of old trees much valued by the neighbourhood, and recycling is not as efficient as I could wish it. I make my own clothes, do some canning and we interact with other Plain people when we have the opportunity. We are trying to maintain our Plain philosophy in a more worldly church community. I don`t see that we have any influence on them at all.

It is what it is; this is a transition stage for us, and with some matters becoming realized, we should be able to move on to a more suitable place for small scale farming and a self-sufficient life.

I think this is where many of us Plainers are headed. While not Anabaptist in profession, we are looking for suitable places to adopt some of the best of Anabaptist and traditional Quaker ways. (I will acknowledge that not all Plain followers are necessarily traditionally Christian; we need to make room for Quakers and others who are more liberal in their theologies.) I hope that as a movement we do not fall into the sectarian errors we have seen in the past. (Formal shunning and the ban, for instance, are inappropriate. We can avoid close association with those whose influence on us is deleterious, but we cannot withdraw from our witness.)

The great irony, of course, is that one of the tools we use to be a Plain community is the internet. Most of us express some concern and even dismay that this is the best we can do, but I doubt if we can give it up without losing community. I would prefer a more traditional form of communication myself. Scott Savage tried this with Plain magazine, but the funding fell short and he could never exceed a certain circulation number due to the printing technologies he used.  (I have still not written to Scott as I had planned. He`s been through some rough stuff in the last few years, and I don`t want my concern and curiosity to sound as if I am criticizing him for choices he made.) I envision something more like the Amish Budget, a newsletter with many columns written from many locations, giving the local news and views. But publications are supported by advertising, and no one wants to advertise in a publication for people who reject consumerism; we are not a very good market.

I`m not at all sure we can define ourselves yet. We are Plain, but we have so many expressions of that. We don`t have an ordnung and won`t, since we don`t fall under but one authority as a group, and that is Christ. We are working out our salvation with fear and trembling, day by day, question by question, leading by leading. We are drawing on the Anabaptists who have been the living encyclopedia for Plain life, and the traditions of Quakers, monastics and other groups who chose to be isolated from the Modern world. I would prefer that we do not quarrel amongst ourselves – I had enough of that sojourning with the Orthodox and their many cries of `You are not canonical!` (If you have been part of an Orthodox community you know what I mean. The Paedalion is both beacon and cudgel.) This is a weakness in the Anglican church, which will ignore the dissenters until they get tired of the yelping and throw the pups out. (Puritans, Quakers, Methodists and now the Biblical Conservatives, whatever they are going to call themselves.) The Quaker meetings are, in their erudite and polite way, at odds internally all too often.

Let`s keep it simple and courteous. Let`s speak Plain English (not Plain speech, except amongst ourselves) and give the St. Francis sermon – preach with our lives, using words only when necessary.


as Plain as can be

The Witness of Plain life is not for everyone. It is a rocky road to walk, and it is a narrow way. The Holy Spirit has called a few of us out of our old lives into this New Life, and though it is a path trod by others, we are not a throng.

I think some people – women particularly – are in love with this expression of faith because they have encountered it in romantic situations. They read novels set among the Amish, they have visited Old Order communities, or they have admired a much younger Harrison Ford in the movie “Witness.” While this is an introduction to the Plain Life, it is not the whole of it.

Plain Life has its roots in Anabaptism, a separatist movement at the time of the Reformation. (You can look up the history on-line; I’m not going to go over old ground here.) The core doctrines of Anabaptism are believers’ baptism (hence adult baptism or rebaptism), pacifism and nonresistance to violence, and the two kingdoms (God’s Kingdom of the faithful and Satan’s kingdom of this world.) The physical sacraments of baptism and communion (the Lord’s Supper) were retained from the old church.

So it’s not just a matter of costume. The early Quakers adopted much of Anabaptist practice, and moved away from the physical sacraments to a spiritual understanding of sacramentality. The simple form of dress was a bit of cross-pollination, it seems. While Quakers learned much from Menno Simons, the Amish and Mennonites who emigrated to North America adopted Quaker standards and styles of Plain dress.

What is common to Plain people from these traditions is pacifism and nonresistance. This goes beyond refusing to answer an assault with like kind, but spreads out into a life of peace, including exemption from military service or the punishment for refusing to serve. Quakers and Anabaptists have often suffered because of their pacifism. For the Anabaptists, martyrdom is always preferable to violence.

One cannot be Anabaptist or Quaker and a patriot. They are mutually exclusive. Traditional Quakers will not support an established military; Anabaptists believe that established government is of this world, not God’s kingdom, and the two are by necessity separate.  Their political philosophy is one of self-governance and mutal support within the community, a benign anarchy under Christ. (We are the body; He is the head and sole leader. Bishops, ministers and deacons serve in prayer and humility, not in power and control. That’s the ideal, at least.)

This is one of the reasons that Plain Life is difficult. It represents more than five hundred years of living a way that the world doesn’t understand and that Satan doesn’t want the world to understand. It is a heavy legacy to carry.

I find myself struggling with it daily. I have to ask myself often if I am following the Way of Christ, or if am I following my own notions. I am convicted that Plain Life is the Way to which we are called, my husband and myself, but I also have to ask if decisions I make are based on the Way or on legalism, on following Jesus our Saviour or on compromise with the world. Unceasing prayer is the only solution to the inner conflict, a constant sense of the leading of the Spirit.

We want to be separate from the ways of the world, but we also want to be a Witness, for as John Donne wrote several centuries ago, “No man is an island.” We are interdependent with Christians who are not Plain, as well as with nonbelievers. Keeping in the middle of the road isn’t easy when there are so many distractions around us, and they are so beguiling. But what good is our witness if we will compromise and abandon the principles of our faith on mere whims?

It’s always a balancing act between faithful living and moving through the world.

9/11 Again; Time to Move On

Okay, call me un-American. Call me a liberal. Call me names if you must. But it is time to move on.

I wasn’t in New York or even in the United States when the World Trade Center was targeted by terrorists. I was in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. I lived in the States, but was studying across the border. Soon after I moved to Canada permanently, partly because politics in the Untied States was beginning to threaten Constitutional freedom. I had a good job offer, and I took it, and I have never returned for more than a few days at a time. I do not intend to live in the United States again.

So if someone wanted to tell me to get out of the USA if I don’t love it like my own dear mother, well, too late. I left.

Tragedy falls to everyone. Everyone. No one is exempt. Sometimes it is a manmade tragedy – the use of commercial jetliners as bombs against national symbols of power and prosperity – and sometimes it is the inexplicable nature of things – hurricanes, earthquakes, cancer, epidemics. We will all suffer loss, if we are not the victims.

The tragedy nine years ago is now tied by political opportunists to conservative Christianity and Christianity in general. (Not regarding conservative Christians like myself who are pacificists, believing that is the Way that Jesus Christ taught us by dying a painful, bloody death as a falsely-accused criminal for our salvation.) 9/11 is rapidly becoming an ethnic schism in the United States, taking its place with other hotspots of ethnic violence. “Remember, do not forget,” is the key phrase. “Hate those who did this. Keep the hate alive by making a moment of tragedy into a national warcry.”

Armenians and Turks; Serbians and Bosnians; Palestinians and Israelis. There are a thousand other ethnic conflicts fueled by “Never Forget” rhetoric. Atrocties, injustices, ugly human vitriol are the continuing result.

Time to move on; forgive, forget. God has forgiven your sins simply because you asked Him to do so, and He has put them far from you, as if they were drowned in the deepest ocean. He forgets. He always forgives. Weep over those who were lost, but weep more for the tortured souls who would take a human life to make a political point.

Jesus said, as he suffered agonies on the cross, “Forgive them, Father, they don’t know what they have done.”

Can Americans say the same thing?

Raise Up a Child

Patience (almost three years old) loves the kitchen. She has a play kitchen of her own, and we have bought child-sized real pots and pans and utensils for her. She loves to make raisin soup (six raisins in her little stockpot, stirred with a wee wooden spoon) which often as not gets fed to the dogs. But there is nothing as wonderful to her as real cooking, at the kitchen countertop, with real bread dough. She has a little rolling pin, and she rolls with great intent and concentration.

making her own pizza

When she knows that she will be participating in the kitchen project, she runs to the closet for her apron, gets her rolling pin and pushes a chair over to the counter. “Me cook!” she announces. “My cooking!”

But last time she got involved she wanted to run the show, and slapped at my hand when I reached for “her” mixing bowl. She was plucked from the chair, levitated into the living room, and set down in the time-out chair in the wink of an eye. She was then shut out of the kitchen. Her Nana came to see what happened, and found her, flour-covered and contrite, murmuring sadly, “Sorry, Dodie,” over and over. She was then restored through the intercession of a grandmother, gave a tearful and hopeful “Sorry, Dodie,” in person, and happily went back to work with no more temper. (“Dodie” is now her name for me. I used to be “Jii” rhymes with “Wii” but I like “Dodie” better.)

She will sweep with a broom twice her size with great vigour and little effect, will take a cloth and polish the furniture, and loves to wash her play dishes in the canning kettle.

a woman's work is never done

Housework is the work she sees day to day, and she takes to it enthusiastically. She is at the imitative stage of intellectual growth, so it is time to encourage this, and teach her not just how things are done, but that they are in fact fun and rewarding.

I see no reason for women (or men, for that matter) to treat housework and homecare as something distasteful. It is necessary and a clean, safe, beautiful home is a haven for the family. God intends nature to be self-renewing; in the natural cycle of life, things go gently into the soil as they decay; winds blow away the dead leaves and keep the air fresh; micro-organisms break down that which is harmful and then make it elemental. Humanity has made great strides in destroying the natural cycles, and the planet is not as God intended. But if you have ever been in a wonderful old-growth forest, or on a clean, untouched beach, or climbed a high mountain well above civilzation, you know what I mean. It is clean and sweet and pure, as God intended.

Our homes should imitate that purity. We can’t live on a forest floor, and we need to sweep and wash to keep our manmade floors clean, but God intends us to live in cleanliness and order. We live in an ordered universe. Even what seems random to us has been millenia in the making.

If we teach our children that housework, cooking and homecare are drudgery and demeaning, they won’t want to do it. They won’t want to participate in the natural order. We divorce them from nature by sending them to regimented schools, by dressing them in artificial fibres, by entertaining them with television, electronic games and shopping malls. We treat them to polluting and energy-consuming amusement parks, where adrenlin and constant novelty are stimulated. They don’t learn the satisfaction of a job well done, the quiet assurance that they are doing the best they can to care for others, and the joy of living in God’s creation. They are instead subjected to adrenal rushes, screams, flashing lights and overheated, overstimulated crowds.

I don’t want to be a prophet just identifying the problem; I am proposing solutions. Teach your children well. Teach them the benefits of natural living. Grow a garden, bake your own bread. Get off the worldly treadmill.

Don’t disparage the work you do, whether it is in the home or elsewhere. Be of good cheer about what you do. If you have a job that is soul-destroying, it may be time to move on to something else, even if it means cutting back on your  “lifestyle.” Get some education in a field you love. Don’t complain and have a morose attitude. Do what you do well, and set a good example.

Complaining less is one of my goals. My dissatisfactions weigh down those around me.  That doesn’t mean I have to take a passive attitude, it just means that if something isn’t going well, I need to work to correct it, and if I can’t I probably need to shut up about it. I’m a bit of a complainer, and quite eloquent about what’s wrong – it ends up being counter productive, since my complaints, while relieving my anxiety and stress, just pass the burden to others.

Raise up a child in the way in which he should go; and do it by good example.

The Friendly Skies?

I received a question from a reader overseas today – what do you do about headcovering when you fly? I haven’t flown covered, since I haven’t been on a plan since 2005. It was enough hassle flying in a clergy collar and suit jacket. I was a bit concerned that I would have to remove not only my jacket and shoes, but my collar and studs. (I wore the white dog-collar, fastened on with two brass studs, fore and aft.) I made it through without completely disrobing. Now, I don’t know what I would do. My kapps are fastened with bobby pins or clippies, and if I am wearing a three-piece dress, the aprons are attached with safety pins. I expect that the airline security would confiscate my pins! So there I’d be, half-dressed.

Has anyone had any experience with this? She has thought about switching to a secular type cover for flying, but feels reluctant to give up this witness.

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.