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."

 

More Plainer

Whenever I write about being Plain outside a traditional plain community, I get a lot of comments here and on facebook about why, and how, someone tried it and left. Well, we all have our own faith-path to walk. Sometimes it was nothing but a notion, a bit of romance, and was not a vocation. Sometimes, though, someone lost their nerve, and couldn’t face a sense of criticism or rejection. But the world will always reject Christians who do not compromise with Satan. That is the way it is and always has been for more than 2000 years.

The last post on this struck a general nerve in the opening description of a young woman who suddenly rejected the Plain life in which she was raised and lived. I was not focussing on her story; it was a mere example of how sometimes people miss the point entirely of Plain life. The essay following on living as if at sea was the focus. But Plain dress makes people nervous.

If you dress Plain, fine. Do it because you are called to it, and if your community doesn’t understand, just keep doing it. You are not as conspicuous as you think. Don’t be afraid to be different. In a Plain community, Plain dress serves the same purpose as a habit does for nuns and monks. It makes people equal. Besides its practicality – and it is practical, especially if you sew, and even if you buy your Plain dress, it is cheaper overall than fashionable clothes – it is a group identifier, and a reminder to the wearer that they are separated from the world. This is the most important part of Plain. Separation. If your faith is accommodating to the world, you will not want to be Plain. Most Christians never feel the call to be separate, even as we are told by the gospels and the epistles to be so. (I recommend the Epistles attributed to Peter.) Early Christians were recognized on the street as such by their unique, old-fashioned (for the time) clothing and their gentle manners. They were also the people hauling the sick and injured and starving out of the alleys and gutters and taking them off to a hospice of some sort. In the first century, Christians were notably different.

 

Once Plain (On Avoiding Mirrors)

I do not think I will be leaving my Plain life. I am at home in Plain. I am comfortable Plain. My husband, house and way of life are Plain. There are moments of dissatisfaction. I wondered last night if I would ever consider a dishwasher, for instance. But since I had the supper dishes washed in less than ten minutes, I think I answered my own question.

But people I have known over the last three or four years as Plain have been leaving the life. Some attend traditionally Plain churches, but are shifting to a faith community where Plain is less accepted or known. They are timid of taking their Plain selves there. Sometimes the shift is because they are disenchanted with Plain.

I feel sorry for them, and sometimes a bit frustrated, especially when they sought deep advisement about being Plain. But apparently it was not a leading for many, just a notion. A reverse vanity, even a real vanity – Plain but vain.

I was surprised when one young woman dedicated to her Anabaptist way of life changed churches, dropped her prayer kapp and full aprons, and started dressing in modest but fashionable outfits, “covering” with nothing more than a folded scarf or a hairband. She started wearing make-up. She painted her walls bold colors and bought room accessories. She let all of us know about it. In effect, she left behind what her ancestors had struggled to keep. I sadly relinquished her friendship. She was too vain to be Plain. She courted having hundreds of friends and acquaintances through writing and publicizing her new-found fashionable Christian life.

As I said, I cannot imagine giving up Plain. Maybe it’s because I am so aware of how fragile life is. I want to live close to its roots. A life stripped down to essentials, a life lived under an open sky, a life full of challenge and opportunity to know God, not just know about God. I don’t think that can be found in an elegant house, with elegant friends, pre-occupied with career and the frivolities of modern distractions. It’s a way of being at sea while living ashore. I love that about life at sea. It is basic. It is all sky and water and distant land to be sought. It is birds overhead, fish flying from wave crest to wave crest, whales and seals. It is the wind for a tutor, and the sea itself as a home.

One cannot take anything extra to sea. There is no room for superfluous baggage. Before the voyage, one has to plan minutely what to take. There is no shopping mall, no easy way to refuel, restock, take on fresh water. There must be enough, and what is packed aboard must be of use. Potatoes and canned food, certainly. Repair kits for clothing and sails, medical equipment and supplies. Warm and useful clothing. Charts, sextant, radio, GPS, books of nautical and natural knowledge. Bedding, soap, dishes, pots and pans. The barest of basics, and if there is extra space left, a bit more of those basics. (I once sailed with someone who had insisted on bringing her glass coffee maker. Everytime we hit a patch of rough sea, the first thought was to go stow the coffee maker in someone’s berth. A Chemex coffee maker does not make a good bunkmate.)

And that is Plain life to me. It is carrying just what one needs for the journey. To give up on it from insecurity, vanity, or the desire to please someone else, is the same as swallowing the anchor. It means giving up the life lived as to drink it down to the lees. It is to accept the cosseting and spoiling that numbs our souls.

I worked in the marine industry for a couple of decades. I lived on the waterfront, worked on the waterfront, and traveled across the water itself almost daily. I knew many sailors who lived aboard. Some had made the great sacrifice and divested of the extraneous, the merely pleasing. They sailed. They traveled. They called from far distant ports in other countries, on other continents. And others had not divested enough. Their decks and home-wharves were cluttered with effluvia – the extra bicycle that needed a new tire, the lockers of old clothes and mouldering books, the hoses and lines and chains that never found a home. They crammed their small living spaces with shirts, jeans, running shoes, notebooks, mementoes, odd china, cookware, cookbooks, torn sails, artwork, broken computers. All of it was to be used – someday. But in the meantime, they were held back. It is impossible to really sail with loose goods on deck or below. It is dangerous. It is frustrating. One might motor on a calm day from harbour to harbour, but it is not possible to successfully set sail and heel the boat. Some vessels end up so overcrowded with the retained flotsam and jetsam of the owners’ lives that they would simply capsize.

Plain is the sailors’ life. It is the life that can travel to new spiritual ports of call. The early Quakers and Anabaptists knew this. They kept their possessions to a minimum. They might have to up anchor and away in t he night. They at least knew, deep in their bones, that any of us can be called away on a moment’s notice, leaving behind everything earthly. They did not want their souls weighed with the baggage of regret for what was lost.

From dust we came, to dust we shall return. Anything that is traveling with us is merely dust, no more, in even a few short years, anything more than its compounded elements.

So the mirror – liar, that it is, is our enemy. It tells us what we think we are. It is merely an image, not the woman or the man. Avoid mirrors. They will provoke discontent, insecurity and vanity. They will make a Christian envious, because the image is not that of what the mind wants to be true. The mirror can be left behind on the long voyage. How the sailor feels in the face of the wind, what the muscles of the body say, how warm and comfortable the skin is in sun and breeze and water is the real living being. The mind at rest and the soul that can answer its Maker without hesitation are the  true image.

Jenny Wren

The dolls' dressmaker

I am sewing doll clothes this end of week. This is another round of Amish dolls, and the dolls themselves will be sewn next week, after the muslin arrives in the mail from my friend Bernadette, who threw in odds and sods of fabric remnants, lace, notions and general sewing et cetera. I am as thrilled as if I were getting ten pounds of Godiva chocolate in the mail.

I have little choice in fabrics now.The nearest fabric store in Canada is two hours by gas-guzzling truck. I still do not have documents necessary to re-enter Canada, so traveling to Maine isn’t possible. My friend Milli shops in Presque Isle sometimes, but she says that prices are going up rapidly, so their expeditions to discount shopping are becoming less frequent. Wal-mart carries some fabric, but the price of pre-cut yardage of muslin is about the same as a nice cotton chintz, which makes it far from economical.

I sew with my aging and ancient Pfaff, circa 1965. It is all steel, and with a little coaxing and good sewing machine oil, it will run like a champ. I had to have a friend in Moncton buy needles for me, as they are no longer available locally. I find it hard to believe that so few people here sew. It used to be the cultural normative. Of course, clothes from the one big discount store are cheaper than sewing your own, but they are desperately poor in quality, and the result is everyone goes around in the same t-shirts and jeans/leggings/sweatpants. Mao couldn’t have asked more of the Chinese people under the old Communist regime. My Plain dresses, aprons and kapps look downright original.

The Chinese factory seamstresses whip out those discount clothes, earning pennies an hour. The skillful ones bead wedding dresses. Yes, those expensive, top of the line dresses are made in Asia. Beading, like basketry, can not be automated. It is tedious, eye-straining work.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Charles Dickens wrote about the seamstresses in England who turned out the exquisite, fine handwork so demanded by Victorian ladies. In Our Mutual Friend, the teenaged Jenny Wren, crippled by congenital disease, sews delicate dolls’ clothes for the children of the wealthy. She hobbles on crutches to view society’s beauties coming from the theatre or church, or riding in expensive habits on Rotten Row. Taking mental notes, she draws her designs of the current fashions and makes them up as doll clothes for her clients, everything from mourning dresses “for a doll what lost a canary bird” to elaborate evening wear.

Dickens evoked pity for these destitute women and children who took to sewing millinery, beaded bodices and slippers, and dolls’ wardrobes, by hand, often late into the night by candle light in order to make a meagre living. Few thought of the poor home-based workers who provided their finery. Nor do we – rather than make an effort to sew our own clothing, make our present wardrobe last, or buy clothing that is ethically produced, many prefer the quick turn-over and fads of cheap garments. These garments are often out of shape and unusable after a few months.

I wish home sewing would come back as a popular pursuit. It is economical – my handmade clothes last for years. I am not dependent on someone who has had to leave their rural home or distant town in order to relocate to a smog-covered city in order to make a bare living.

London Street, Victorian era

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