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

Back to the Land

Now that we are confirmed in moving back to the Maritimes, and we have a place to go, the reality of planning is setting in. I’ve known many homesteaders over the years, some living quite successfully on small acreages, others failing bit by bit, year by year. Realistic planning is the key to starting well.

Although we are welcome and encouraged to raise food and animals on our little patch, I am not rushing into this. Some steps have to happen first. We have to set the money aside for animal shelter and fencing. We have to get the garden area opened by plow. We have to arrange for organic fertilizer – which is fairly easy in that neck of the woods, since there are several beef and sheep farmers. And I am not feeding animals over the winter who won’t produce anything until next year! The advantage of getting layers and milkers cheap right now is offset by the expense of them eating their heads off with no production for months. Sellers are anxious to move their extra stock in the fall, but I can’t make it cost out this year. Since the only outbuilding on the property is an old garage, we need to see if that will be adequate for shelter if some box stalls are built in it. Right now, we have agreed to let the vehicles stored in it stay rather than inconvenience the landlords, who are generous, Christian people – a great blessing!

The house is heated by oil or baseboard electric heaters, which is the only downside to the rental. We are all right with being a bit cold this winter; Plain people wear a lot of clothes anyway, and we will be snug in sweaters and comforters when we aren’t outside working. I don’t see an easy switch back to wood, since the house hasn’t had a woodburning unit in decades. I know I want a Pioneer Maid stove for cooking, heat and hot water; how to do this is the big question.

The house is two bedrooms, plus a small room as an ante-chamber to one of the bedrooms, just the right size for the grandbaby’s crib. There is a good-sized back entry room, heated, so I have a place to sew and spin and keep the dog. The kitchen is large. The living room is pleasantly situated to look out toward the woods that border the river bank. There are two bathrooms, one with a washer and dryer, an unexpected convenience. I will use the washer through the winter this year, and switch back to my laundry tubs in good weather. There is a clothesline already, and I always travel with lines, as well, if I need more room for drying. The dryer won’t get used much, except for real emergencies. I have my wooden clotheshorse for indoor drying.

Our plan is to stay home most of the time. I will buy groceries in bulk, and since we have two long fasts before summer, beans and potatoes will figure in the menus a lot. I intend to get a secondhand freezer, not too old, and bargain for meat in quantity. Since we will be mostly vegetarian, I doubt if we will use more than one pound of meat a week. Using about fifty pounds of meat a year isn’t much, and it may prove out to be less. I could quite possibly cut that in half, if we keep the strict fasts, which are twice a week, every week, with advent and lent about a month each, and the two short fasts of two weeks in June and August. The fasts are not only meat free but dairy free. The strict fasts exclude fats most days.

I have patterns for all our clothes but men’s trousers. Jeans are still very cheap in the thrift shops, and our winter clothes should go another year or more. Unless I find good dark wool on sale, I doubt if I will get my cloak made this winter, but my cloth coat will do. We are fine for shoes except for muddin’ boots. I have fabric for dresses, bloomers, nightgowns and patch quilts so I have plenty to do on days at home. Nicholas is looking forward to time outdoors with the dog, planning for next year, moving a bit of snow in the driveway, and generally helping around the house.

For being at home is a big factor in homesteading. Some people have to take outside jobs to get the mortgage paid for a few years, but we are hoping that selling produce, wool, lambs and maybe preserves will cover what extra cash we need. We want to live simply and to work together day by day. It’s a form of Christian discipline as well as a social protest against greed and worldliness. Maybe if some of us put on the brakes of this runaway cart we call modern life, the rest of the world will slow down and see the light.

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.

The Kitchen Prayer

all things come of thee O Lord

One of the bonuses of living in a rectory is that we have first pick at the church rummage sale. This seems to be a universal bonus for clergy families. The rationale (at least my rationale) is that we can find things that we know are needed by those who can’t afford even to shop rummage sales. I have gathered in children’s clothes, kitchenware, and work clothes for people who needed them from my own churches in the past. We either write a blanket donation check (usually more than the goods were marked) or we tally it up and give the dollar amount.

I had a list; Mother Kay is away and I knew what was needed. Now, some of it is for us, admittedly, but we are so far behind in replacing lost household items that I need a head start.

It was a good bunch of stuff.

Canning jars – quart and two quart, square. The perfect homesteading canning jars. Four boxes. The prize of all rummage sale prizes!

Two winter sweaters, one for each of us, a pile of children and baby clothes for struggling families (including our own) and a new, still-cello-wrapped family Bible for Kay to present to someone. (Clergy have first dibs on all Bibles at church rummage sales. Dear Father John Pearce, now with the Lord, used to pull them off the shelves in thrift shops, walk up to the sales clerk and ask, “How much for these Bibles?” even if they were clearly marked. I don’t think he ever paid for one, because the answer was always, “For you, Father, it’s free.” He gave them away within days. There really is a need and hunger for the Word in this world!)

Two new quilting patterns, and an Amish doll pattern -you know how expensive those are! A pile of Icelandic yarn and knitting needles and patterns. Fabric remnants.

A knife block with two Henckel knives and steel. A beautiful honey pot. A casserole dish and carrier. Two aprons.

And this:

“Lord of all pots and pans and things, since I’ve not time to be

A saint by doing lovely things or watching late with Thee

Or dreaming in the dawnlight or storming heaven’s gates,

make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates.

Altough I must have Martha’s hands, I have  a Mary mind,

And when I black the boots and shoes, Thy sandals, Lord, I find.

I think of how they tread the earth, what time I scrub the floor,

Accept this meditation, Lord, I haven’t time for more.

Warm all the kitchen with Thy love, and light it with Thy peace.

Forgive me all my worrying and make my grumbling cease.

Thou who didst love to give men food, in room or by the sea,

Accept this service that I do, I do it unto Thee.”

It is a simple letter-press card, about 5×7, in a plain wooden frame. It is signed “Klara Munkers” and at the bottom is the chi rho, over a large M, flanked by loaves and fishes. I think I have some old prayer cards by this publisher; I will have to see if it is the same emblem. It is dated 1960, so I don’t think I violated any copyrights here.

Need I say that this is how many of us live? We have the daily duty of feeding our families and others, and caring for their well-being in the most mundane of things, such as washing up. We aren’t St. George slaying dragons; we are Brother Lawrence scrubbing pots. Jesus compares the loyal followers to those servants who sit up in the kitchen, waiting for the master, making sure that all is in order for Him, and He then tells us, “What you do for the least of these, you do for Me.”

When we fail in our daily work, when we put off the ordinary but necessary tasks because we have so many more interesting and exciting things to do, we fail our Lord. He gave us our families and neighbours in trust, to care for them as He cares for us. I’m not saying to be rigid and obsessive, but an attitude of “housework isn’t important” or “cooking is for those who like to do it” fails others. It is an honour to do these things, to care for the children of God. He don’t need to be heroes, we don’t need to be important. We don’t need praise and recognition – we have His approval and thanks already.

The Cost of Shelter – Where is Your Palace?

no palace for the King of kings

Have any of you been looking for housing lately? We expect to move into our own place at the beginning of the year, but where? And how much will it be? It looks as if everything is way more than we can afford!

Now, I’m not very fussy. If it keeps out the snow and rain, can be heated with a woodfire (safely) and has some form of sanitation and a water source, we’re pretty much okay with that. We would prefer, obviously, a garden, some sheds or barn for animals, a quiet, natural setting. But we have been happy in a nineteen foot travel trailer and a 300 square foot cabin. We don’t need much.

Housing is expensive because it is a valuable commodity. It should be a basic human right – shelter. We live in manufactured mansions while many in the rest of the world live in what barely counts as shelter – it doesn’t keep out the rain, or animals, or thieves. (Yes, thieves steal from the poor all the time – a few dollars, medications, a wedding ring, even food.)

But for the poor, housing and basic shelter are a constant struggle. Nothing will bring me to tears and all-out panic faster than the prospect of being homeless. I find looking for affordable housing to be exhausting, discouraging and frustrating.  We hear things like, “We will need a deposit,” although every place we lived together has been in better condition when we left than when we moved in; “no pets,” although my old sheepdog has neve done damage, barely makes a noise, and I always clean up after herin the yard, and heaven knows, it would break our hearts (hers and mine) to be separated now;  “you’ll have to take it month-to-month, I may want it back for my daughter in three months” or “you’ll have to sign a lease because people move out of here after just a couple of months and I’ll want the whole year’s rent,” which means there is something terribly, terribly wrong.

If I could buy a house it would be cheaper by the month, but even if we can scrape together a down payment, I don’t have a job and we won’t qualify for a mortgage. There are cheap properties in rural areas, perfect for homesteaders like us, but after a year and more of financial disaster due to Nicholas’s stroke, we have no credit.  We don’t have parents to co-sign. My father is the only surviving parent, he is in his eighties, and he is in another country.

One author we like, Ferenc Mate, in his book A Reasonable Life, pointed out that it used to be that when a couple got married, they went out to the edge of the village, everyone helped build a house, and the young people moved in. Land and property weren’t commodities – they were community property. Oh, in the days of feudalism, one had to ask the lord if it was okay to put up your hut or cottage, but likely he’d say yes, because a newly married couple meant soon-to-be-born babies who would grow up to be productive labourers.

Just about everything we see on real estate and housing, home decoration and family life, is geared toward selling us the American dream – the big house, the rooms full of furniture, kitchen heavy with granite countertops and stainless  steel appliances and expensive cookware. But people don’t seem to live in these houses; they merely exist, moving between bed, car and soul-grinding job. They long for escape. So then we see the advert with the father finding the family members scattered in different rooms, all of them connected to a different electronic device. He takes them on a vacation in a motorhome to make them reconnect around the campfire, under the stars.

What?

That house, in this market, must have cost a half-million dollars; everyone is in their own room. They are not talking to each other because they are comfortable in upholstered furniture, passively receiving communication through television and the internet. Is there some reason they can’t build a fire in that fieldstone fireplace in the barn-sized living room, turn off the devices and talk to each other in their own home? A half-million dollar home, filled with tens of thousands of dollars worth of furnishings, and they have to buy an $80,000 furnished, self-propelled dumpster to have a conversation?

All right, I’m serious about this. We are looking for, first of all, community. We want to live among other Christians, we want some self-supporting work, we want to grow our own food. I don’t know yet how much we can pay in rent, or if we could possibly buy something with a low down payment and low monthly payments. We are clean, tidy and skilled. We are quiet. We aren’t perfect. We have the occasional light drink but you would never know it. We are good neighbours. I am used to being called out of bed in the middle of the night because someone is in need of help.

Is it possible? Does the medieval sense of community still exist? Is it possible to recapture the sense of the early church in being Christians together?

We are poor financially, but we are rich in knowledge. Who needs that in their community? Who has room?

The Two Kingdoms

Born in a poor man's house, not a palace

From the beginning of His time on earth, Jesus Christ rejected the power and privileges of this world. The Magi, expecting a king as foretold in the prophecies and by the splendour in the heavens, went to the palace to find Him. He wasn’t there. He was in a poor carpenter’s one-room house.

He never owned a house of His own. He didn’t settle down and raise a family. He was questioned by the authorities concerning all that He did, and He answered in authority, although He was penniless and homeless. He said it Himself: My kingdom is not of this world.

So whose world is this? Not meaning the Earth – for all of Creation is His – but the “world” of power and gain and privilege – which means private law. The world is the world of money and things bought and sold, of profit and anxiety. It is the world of wanting more, of grasping. It is the world of competition. It is Satan’s world for now.

We have to live in this world to some extent. Christ gave us the Commission to go forth, preach, prophesy and baptize. We are the good news, even if some want to shoot the messenger. We can’t live entirely out of the world, unless we are called to a kind of special ministry in that – but even the hermit monk is called to pray for those in the world.

We aren’t to fall in love with the world. We are not to accept its standards. We still live in the other Kingdom, even if we move through this present one.

This is a terrible tension in which to live. The world is beguiling. Pleasure is its promise, even though it doesn’t really deliver it. Holding that tension can destroy Christians if they wander too far from the Way of Christ.

I’m going to try to put this in words that aren’t too Christiany. The world is a harsh, terrible place. The marketplace is a a monster looking for victims. It is not a place for Christians, because we have to keep our hearts open, honest and loving. We can’t toughen up or we will miss the opportunities God sends us to help others.

This is not our kingdom, either.

I live in this tension every day. I can’t ever put off being who I am. I can’t imagine it anymore. Leave the house in jeans and my hair down, with no protection on my head? I would feel as if I were thrown into the Coliseum. I can’t go shopping all day in the mall, buying with a credit card. I would know I was out of place, and I don’t have a credit card and never will again. And what is it I need there? Ninety-eight percent of everything in the shops is trash. It is useless, it is wasteful. It will be replaced by something else in a few weeks. I can list the things I believe I will need in the next year, and none of it would be purchased in a mall. The mall, online shopping, catalogs and big box stores exist to sell worldly people things of this world.

Politicians, even though they may claim to have our interests at heart, are of this world. They owe favours to the people with money, and they have to pay them back or they won’t have campaign money next time around. Politics and government support people who want to make lots of money, who charge outrageous amounts to the taxpayer for roads, hospitals, transportation, communication and even the food we eat drugs we use. These people like luxury, like to have pots of money set aside. Money is how they keep score.

All right, I don’t get that. I have no use for huge, expensive houses or power boats or planes, or even for fine wine and food. I can’t tell the difference between the $15 VQA from Niagara and the $100 chateau-bottled vintage. I like sausage and kraut. I’m not tempted in that direction.

But if I were…as I was when I was young…I still hope I would know that it is not the life for Christians. I don’t have the right to more than my own fair share of the earth’s resources, no matter how much money I have. I don’t have the right to make a huge profit off the needs and wants of others. I have the right to a fair exchange of goods of value – so I’d better be able to do something useful. God has put me in the world for a reason, and it is to preach Christ, crucified – and risen.

So I do believe in being separated from the world, as much as I can with a good conscience. I show my separateness by the way I dress, in clothes that are not only modest but distinct. Plain is deliberately historic; it is deliberately unornamented. These tie us to Christians of the past, and make us recognizable as such in our culture. As global homogenization continues, we are noticably different. We choose a way of life that is in reference to the ways of our ancestors (always a prophetic cry to Israel in the scriptures – to return to the ways of the fathers) and is one of less impact on the environment. We buy much less; we provide for ourselves as much as we can.

As a Christian, it is not just a matter of looking different and acting different. (Teenages have been doing that for generations.) If we dress Plain and live simply just because we are fascinated by the Amish, the novelty will wear off and we will tire of the game. I practice Plain life because it is my calling, my discipline and my sacrifice to God.

It is my calling, my vocation. I am called to live out my faith in a particular way, and Plain is part of that. It is my discipline because it keeps me faithful and mindful of the way of Jesus Christ. It is my sacrifice to God because I have given up the things of the world that pleased me most. My prayerful goal is to strip off the layers of worldiness from my personality and my soul, to be outwardly what God has told me inwardly.

How is this life in the Kingdom of God lived? It’s the simple way of living, the deliberate modesty and covering. It is daily prayer and Bible study. It is refusing to do things that other people take for granted – recreational shopping, enhancing one’s appearance, going to casinos. It is also something deeper than that. I mentioned credit cards; I am opposed to borrowing money for high interest rates. This just impoverishes people and drives up the real cost of goods. We have to pay taxes and buy car insurance, but I won’t buy life insurance. We will accept charitable help when we must, because stubborn pride and starving to death can go hand in hand. We will be collecting the disability insurance Nicholas had through his Canadian pension; he paid into it for many years and there really isn’t anway to opt of it if one is working in Canada.

We will not sue other Christians – and I’ve never had an opportunity to bring a suit against anyone else. We are admonished in scripture to take our case before the bodyof Christ and not to the civil courts. The legal system is of this world; it sets people in adversity against each other. I could have sued the church when my employment was unjustly terminated, according to a lawyer we consulted. I chose not to, for more than one reason, but primarily because it is not Biblical. I could not see any possibility of reconciliation with the church if I brought a lawsuit. We are still not completely reconciled; I pray for it everyday. I have asked for forgiveness and reconciliation, and it is not resolved yet, after five years. But we are also admonished to be patient in our petitions.

We did not sue the hospital where Nicholas was so badly injured. There was a communications error and a mistake made, but it was not negligence or maliciousness that caused the accident. Suing the hospital would have helped us a lot financially, but it would have brought harm to our neigbours who support that hospital with their taxes. The hospital did a lot to make up for what happened; individual staff members were kind and generous, as were people of the community. They did what they could. I did not want to gain by injuring them.

Yes, people think we are crazy. They think we are religious fanatics. They think we must have guilty consciences and are trying to make up to God for it. But we are reconciled in Christ; we are forgiven and made whole. Nothing crazy about that!

A serious Christian, my husband Nicholas

Plain as Prophecy

Plain as Prophecy

Friends and I recently commented on the question, “Why the Plain witness?” Most of us can say not much more than it is our vocation, an individual call and answer. When the Lord calls, the only answer is “He nai ne,” – “Here am I,” in Hebrew. It is not an answer of confidence, an answer of “Send me, because I am ready to go,” but an answer given trembling in the dark, “Yes, Lord.” What else can one answer?

St. Paul told us to be ready, to be girded in the armour of God; the Lord Jesus tells us that we need to be watchful, to be ready, to be sober, for the master will come quickly and without warning, and we need to go to his side with our lamps lit.

And that may be the Plain witness, to have our lamps lit. We cannot be hidden under a bushel, the world’s measure. We cannot be a city deep in a valley, no beacon or hope to the lost and terrified traveler. We are to be a city on a hill. We are the visible witness – not only to our own faith, but to the life of the world to come.

That is the prophetic witness. We have been called out of the world because the world is not His. The world has gone its own way. What is that world? It is the world of buying and selling, the world of entertainment and idle talk. It is the world of being concerning with one’s own pleasure. It is a world where people are used rather than honoured, where each is after his own and never mind what anyone else needs. That’s the world in which we have to live, but we don’t have to bow down to it. We don’t have to surrender and be assimilated.

Plain is a witness against the exploitation of innocents. Plain is a witness against the carelessness of modern living. Plain is a witness against industrialism and commodification. Plain is a witness against cold-hearted government and fiscal irresponsibility. Plain is a witness against the the world, the flesh and the devil – against greed, selfish pleasure and evil.

That is the prophetic witness of Plain.

There are false prophets – I can think of cults that use modest and plain-type dress to control their followers, but these are not people following Christ; they profess their own way and make themselves gods. They have usurped the style of Christians in order to hide themselves – wolves in sheep’s clothing. But by their works you will know them – secrecy, criminality, exploitation. We are warned that there will be many false prophets and christs as the world careers into self-destruction.

Those who practice modesty of heart are dedicatd to the scripture and to service to the least of God’s children, who are humble and meek and gentle in spirit – these are the true children of God and who walk in the Light. Their prophetic witness is growing.

“Let your light shine before men.”