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.

 

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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.

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 Life, Real and Imagined

I do get the occasional hostile comment here or on facebook about faux-Amish, Amish-wannabe, or how tiresome I am about Plain dress and life. Or that I am sanctimonious and attention-seeking in the way I dress and live.

That may be. Well, no, I mean, that isn’t it at all.

This is what people think Plain life is:

You Know

When I was a 30ish widow with young children, yes, I would have liked for Harrison Ford to show up to rescue me. But I wasn’t Plain-living then. My husband and I had planned on selling the Bethesda condo and building a little log or timberframe house out in the countryside of Virginia, or up North in Maine, but his sudden death following cancer surgery turned all of that upside down. I went on to finish university instead.

We dress the way we do and live the way we do for two reasons: It keeps us honest in our journey with God, and it is practical. I can sew our clothes (except his jeans – they are cheap enough from the thrift store). We can raise our own food and be less dependent on the market. We can live on less money (a necessity right now.)We have lots of time to be together, which is so important to us. Every day  is a gift from God when I can spend it with my husband. I almost lost him two years ago, and I treasure the time God gives us.

This is the reality of our Plain life.

spring view from the croft

Lots of rain this spring, but that’s a good view, isn’t it? Isolated, peaceful, and (could be) productive.

And what we look like (photo by Kendra)

 We aren’t Harrison and Kelly.

 

A Plain Advantage

Down-priced food

A friend recently admitted to me that she didn’t like to be seen buying deep-discounted things, and would never ask for a mark-down, even on a damaged item. She was afraid people would think her cheap. Her self-image, and her projected public image, were of a woman who didn’t need to pinch pennies.

Being Plain, people would wonder if I had lost my mind if I passed up a possible bargain. No one looks at me sorting through the dented and dated bin at the back of the market and says to herself, “Well, I never expected that! Maybe they aren’t making much money…” Anyone who has seen my snaggle-toothed truck or my husband’s spliced bootlaces knows that we aren’t making much money, and maybe we don’t care to, either.

Nicholas jokes whenever I serve lentils that we mustn’t let the neighbours know, “Or they will think we are poor.” My answer is always, “They might as well think it, because it is true.”

The prayer kapp, apron and sensible footwear really must say, “Here’s someone who isn’t wasting money on clothes – or much else.” I quite peacefully rummage the bargain bin, pick up the half-price items, and ask the manager for a discount on an item I want that is shopworn. If I loaded my grocery buggy with caviar, t-bone steaks and premium ice cream, the neighbours would think I truly had lost my mind – or won the lottery! (Which I never play; Anglicans in this diocese are prohibited from gambling. I wouldn’t anyway, since a dollar spent on a lottery ticket ensures one has almost no chance – just about a zero chance – of winning. Whereas not buying a lottery ticket guarantees I still have the dollar, which I will spend on Reese’s peanut butter cups, which guarantees I have a delicious snack.)

This is what I bought today on discount: macaroni, cornmeal, canned tomatoes, canned beans, yogurt starter, two heads of cabbage, dark rye bread, a pound of mushrooms, apples and tangerines. Toupie hams were half-price,  a lot of meat for $6. The pharmacy gave me a $10 gift card for groceries when I picked up my husband’s prescription, as well as a coupon for 50 cents off another purchase. Even toilet paper was on sale, 30 rolls for $12. I didn’t pay full price for anything today, not even the scrumptious, irresistable Reese’s cups.

half-price fresh food

What is worrisome is that the large supermarkets seem to always have food marked down, especially fresh produce and bread. Some items never sell for full price, it seems. It used to be that we only found the bargains on Monday morning, when beef, fish, and specialty fresh items that didn’t sell on the weekend would be discounted. Now, I can go to the supermarket anytime and find even apples, lettuce and tangerines marked to half-price. Meat is regularly re-priced at 30% off.  New specialty gourmet items – Starbucks instant coffee, which was about $8 for the packet of little coffee tubes- are already on the half-off table, and no one is buying. If the public can’t afford apples and lettuce, they surely can’t afford Starbucks indulgent single serving instant coffee. This supermarket now has a half-aisle shelf of marked-down cosmetics, soaps and shampoos. More items are having to be marked down just to get them to a price people can afford.

Living Plain

Plain in Fredericton

We went to the local Anglican church on Sunday, where I used to be pastor. It’s a great community, and I love seeing our old friends there. Yes, we are the only Plain people there, but I think they are all used to it by now. Nicholas doesn’t look much different than he did before, except for the long hair and the big beard.  I am different, with my covered head, my full dresses and boots. Oh, wait, maybe not. I didn’t cover back then, but the parish usually saw me in cassock and surplice – and boots.

The neighbours aren’t used to it, though. As we disembarked in the parking lot – and at the roadside edge, since we were a bit late, as usual – a couple of vehicles slowed down, and the occupants turned back to look at us. His broad-brimmed black hat, my trim, tied bonnet and black shawl; hey, when did the Amish move to New Denmark? I wave when people stare like that.  There is no reason to be hostile or unfriendly – they are curious, and I want to make a good impression for the next time they see us. And since that might be at the farmer’s market, I want them to have the idea in their heads thart we are open and approachable. And that isn’t just a marketing ploy, because we had a good ministry through the last farmer’s market where we sold. It is not a matter of making a few dollars, but of being witnesses to the love of Jesus Christ.

I know what the questions will be at the market: Are you Amish? Then what are you? Are there many like you? Do you dress like this all the time, or is it a costume just for the market? (No; Plain Anglican; a few; yes, we do, and no, it isn’t.) Because we are mistaken for Amish or Mennonites frequently, and I have no problem with that, we are conscious that we are held to a kind of responsibility by our choice, to avoid behaviour that would shame our Anabaptist brothers and sisters. Around the world, Plain means sober and quiet Christians, whether Anabaptist, Brethren or Quaker. Admittedly, good Christian behaviour isn’t much different, but there are things that a secularly dressed Christian can do without anyone saying, “Hey, did you see that?” Go to rock concerts; have a drink in a bar. We wouldn’t do that, as it would mislead people. (And you may be Plain or modest dressing, and say, “I have no trouble with that!” but that is your own decision. I’m not telling you what to do, just saying what we are comfortable doing.) We avoid loud or aggressive behaviour in public or while driving; I try to be extremely polite and helpful. We try to be the people of peace we are saying we are by our outward appearance.

Our daily life is as Plain as we can make it, with the addition of internet communication. We keep a phone line for emergencies. But we try to live as simply and as honestly as we can. We avoid luxury and ornamentation, as much as possible. We don’t need to show that God has blessed us with material goods, as we believe that excessive possessions are not a blessing, but a tie to the world we want to leave behind.

It’s not a matter of looking Plain, but of being Plain, all the way through.