Thursday, December 30, 2004

An Old Article on Christian Community

I've just been rereading an article called Proposal for a Radical Discipleship Community that I wrote back in the 1970's. At the time, I typed it up on a mimeograph master sheet, ran off a couple of hundred copies or so, and passed it out to all kinds of people I thought might be interested. The community I envisioned never came off, but I pursued other versions of it from time to time over the years. Well before I even wrote this article I had lived with a group of draft resisters and their supporters in Albany called The Community of Loving Resistance [I know, I know, a really corny name, but we were children of the sixties, what can I say.] Then I had been part of the New Swarthmoor Quaker community that then had a house in Clinton, New York. After this article, I also participated in a quasi-ecumenical attempt at Christian community called Morningstar. It included some Quakers, some Mennonites, and some Roman Catholics (including Janet Accetta, who is now my wife). Morningstar had a communal house owned by the Mennonite Church (the same building is now called Menno House and is located on East 19th Street in NYC), but most of us who considered ourselves the Morningstar community didn't actually live in the house. We just went there two or three evenings a week for worship, Bible Study, and business meetings (!). The latter were sort of Quakerish in form. As I recall them they were also largely dominated by two or three talkative men (one of whom was me).

Looking back on the Proposal I wrote, I find that it still expresses pretty well some of the longings I have for Christian community, but that I wince a little now at some of the rhetoric and some of the details in the proposal.

Here's what I would change if I were writing this proposal today:
1) I would talk a little more bluntly about Jesus and not go on about Christ having all those different "names" in Christian/Quaker tradition.
2) I would propose that Quaker Meetings become radical discipleship communities, rather than that they have such communities within them.
3) I would abandon the whole concept that this would mean people had to share housing.
4) I would radically de-emphasize the whole section on disownment.
5) I don't think I would talk about refusal of jury service as some kind of radical witness. I have come to think that jury service is actually a good thing.

Maybe that sounds like I'm repudiating the whole article. But I don't feel I am. I think there's still a core there that I want to hold onto. I hope some of my blog-readers will read the article then come back here and comment. Eventually I may write an updated version.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Anna Curtis

In a previous post (one of my first) I said I might talk about the forerunners of the contemporary practicioners of the "New Plain", especially William Bacon Evans and Anna Curtis.

It turns out that I don't actually have much solid information about them, knowing of them only from oral history (aka Quaker legend). However, did stumble on a biographical statement about Anna Curtis. I am going to put the link here and also in my sidebar list of memorials. I find it somewhat surprising that this statement doesn't mention her plain way of dressing or speaking.

Biography of Anna Curtis

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As Others See Us

I have long been fascinated with the observations of people who visit Friends Meetings for the first time. In my article Do Messages in Meeting Really Come From God I quote at length from Thomas Merton's acount in The Seven Story Mountain of his visit to Flushing Meeting.

In 1999, a friendly article appeared in Spirituality and Health Magazine about a visit to our own Fifteenth Street Meeting by a reporter named Rosemary Cunningham. It is now online at Visiting a Quaker Meeting. I've been meaning for a long time to write something about this article and my reaction to it. I may not get to that very soon, but I have inserted the link here in the hopes that others may take a look at the article and make any comments that seem appropriate.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2004

The Tidal Wave

One of the dangers of the "religious" preoccupations is that they can come to substitute for real concern about the condition of people in the world. This despite William Penn's famous observation that (if I recall the quote rightly) "True godliness don't turn men away from the world, but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it."

I've been told that the minutes of New York Yearly Meeting in the 1770s and 1780s make no mention of the Revolutionary War, but contain some lengthy deliberations on the proper height of tombstones in Friends' cemeteries. This may be questionable history as I haven't researched the actual minutes to find out. However, it does seem plausible, given the way that Quakers sometimes think.

Note, for example, that this blog and my other one have serenely been devoted to discussions of various religious services, plain or not-plain clothing, and my current reading list, while it was being revealed in the popular press that from twenty to forty thousand people have been killed and perhaps a million more been rendered homeless by a tidal wave in the area of Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, South India, and others.) Many thanks to Christopher, whose blog is called Bending the Rule for providing some links to some organizations that can use help in responding to this disaster, namely: The Salvation Army and Oxfam. To this, I will add a link to American Friends Service Committee Asia Relief.

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Monday, December 27, 2004

Two Christmas masses

It was interesting reading Ryan's account of attendance at a Roman Catholic mass on Christmas eve. Unlike Ryan, I no longer experience any temptation to actually partake of the bread and the wine felt by Catholic believers to be "sanctified". Perhaps I'll say more at another time about how I understand Jesus' words at his last supper, and about "sacraments" generally. Suffice it to say that I attend mass largely to share the experience with my Catholic wife, Janet, and our Catholic son, Nicholas. Nevertheless I often find the hymns, prayers, readings, and the priest's homilies to be edifying and insightful.

This year I went to two Christmas masses. The first one was midnight mass, which I went to with Nicholas. Since Janet didn't want to stay up that late, I went to another mass with her around 10 hours later.

Normally a mass is anything but "unprogrammed". Everything that happens is not only planned in advance, but is largely in accordance with a very detailed liturgy. However, some surprising things did happen at both of these masses and they put me in mind of unprogrammed Friends Meeting.

The midnight mass was at St. Domenic's in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. The service was to begin with a "blessing of the manger". The church building had a fairly elaborate model of the stable where Christ was born, with figures representing Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the wise men, some of the animals, etc. In the center was a manger that was supposed to contain a doll representing the Christ child. Just as the ceremony was to begin, however, the priest was seen to confer hurriedly with an altar boy, who then walked briskly out of the sanctuary. "We have to wait for the arrival of Christ", said the priest, "we forgot to place Him in the manger." After awhile, the altar boy returned with a doll and placed it in the m anger. The service then proceeded. But in the interim, what were we doing? We were waiting in silence for Christ to appear! How much more Quaker can you get?

The 10 a.m. mass was at a different church: St Andrew's in Bay Ridge Brooklyn. I have the impression that the priest there is a humane,liberal and progressive kind of guy and perhaps a bit of an iconoclast. The lay members of the parish also seem to be unusually active as compared to the few other Roman Catholic parishes I have experienced. The choir, the liturgical ministers, the deacons, etc. all seem to participate very actively in the liturgy, and - one senses - even in the governance of the parish.

During this particular mass, however, the priest did something (whether spontaneously or with premeditation I don't know) that the congregation and deacon did not seem to expect. He left the sanctuary and went with the Sunday school teachers and students to speak with the children, turning the adult service over to the Deacon. Of course, he came back in time to consecrate the elements and preside over the eucharist itself, but the deacon, people, and choir had to get through the homily, the readings, and the hymns without him.

The deacon though he was able to speak extemporaneously for a couple of minutes, was apparently then at a loss for anything further to say, so he asked members of the congregation to speak about what Christmas meant to them - - and they did. So here we were in a Catholic Church with members standing up to give "messages" that were definitely unprogrammed. The choir, too, came up with an extra hymn that hadn't been on the bulletin in order to fill in some time until the priest returned.

What exactly was going on, I don't know. Still, I believe that surprise is good in any kind of worship. The less is planned by man (or woman), the more room there is for the spontaneous moving of the Holy Spirit.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2004

More About The New Plain

I started to talk, a few posts back, about the possibly suprising phenomenon of 21st century Quakers adopting something very like the dress of our Quaker ancestors: the broad brim hats, the collarless coats, etc. I made some general points about this and said I would expand them later.

Instead of sticking to the outline I started with, however, I'm going to step back a bit and record my own personal reactions to these new Plain Friends, with a focus on why I'm not becoming one of them.

My first reaction is that I'm glad to see them. I like the look. I even think it could become "fashionable" in our circles, though of course worrying about that would not be in the spirit of plainness. (I note that Amanda has a post called "Plain But Vain" or something like that, which is a good example of what I said about the element of irony and humor in The New Plain). But more than liking the look, I like the fact that these folks have revived the outward forms of "plainness" because in examining those forms I find an opportunity to rediscover the inner spirit of it.

Let me give an example. Friend Larry says that he dresses plain partly in order to not be using the products of slave labor in China. I hear myself thinking "But you can avoid using the products of slave labor and still wear contemporary designs". This leads to the next question: What about me? Am I avoiding the use of the products of slave labor? How often do I look at labels any more? How much trouble am I prepared to go through to find clothing that's not blood-stained? The Plain Friends do me a service by prompting me to think of such things. Note, though, that this can happen becaus I already know a little about where they are coming from and what the tradition behind their plainness is. I don't think that the "world's people" get the same message.

I have my own kind of "plainness" or simplicity in clothing. Part of my concern is wastefulness: both of natural resources and of my own funds. I limit the number of clothing items I own at any one time, and try to keep wearing the same things for as many years as possible. Recently I accidentally left a pen in a pocket when I did the laundry. The resulting (thankfully small) ink stains on a pair of light-colored pants have not discouraged me from wearing those pants to work and to Meeting on Sunday.

I'm pretty indifferent to fashion (deliberately) and also to clothing aesthetics (because I'm aesthetically challenged). Being indifferent to fashion is different from being hostile to it, though. When I do get around to buying something new, I don't reject anything just because other people are buying it this year too.

I actually did wear a broad-brimmed "Quaker" hat for a few years in my mid-twenties. I was a tad self-conscious (but also proud) about its conspicuous distinctiveness, but I lived on the Lower East Side at the time and noted that all kinds of unique clothing, sometimes bordering on costume, was commonly seen on the streets, so I didn't really feel radically out of place.

One of the things that eventually led to my hanging up the hat was that I found it promoted some misunderstandings and stereotypes about Quakerism. People I talked to thought that I "had to" wear the hat because of some Quaker rule. It helped them place Quakers in their minds as a "quaint" people whose lifestyle decisions were governed by a peculiar tradition, as opposed to a radical people of faith whose way of life truly challenges the values of the dominant society.

I may (or may not - I've learned that my intentions for this blog can change rather rapidly) have more to say in another post about the relationship already to alluded to of plain dress to vanity and to pride.


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A Second Blog

I started another blog today: Brooklyn Quaker's Reading Log. I intend it primarily as a record for myself of what I have been reading. Why I should put such a record on the world wide web is a mystery. But you're welcome to peruse it, if interested.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Note about my Links

I hope that those of you who read my blog (all two of you) look not only at the posts but at the links in my sidebar. There are some memorial minutes for 15th Street Friends, a partially completed transcription into HTML of the Journal of John Richardson, and an ancient web site displaying 20 of my very own poems. Not to mention the links to official websites of every meeting in New York City that has one (I think).

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A Full Day at the Meetinghouse

Yesterday at Fifteenth Street Meetinghouse was an unusually full one for me. I arrived at 9:30 a.m. and decided to attend the Manhattan Meeting's programmed worship service, rather than Fifteenth Street's own unprogrammed service held at that time. (Both worship services are in the same building in different rooms. "Manhattan Meeting" and "Fifteenth Street Meeting" are actually both in Manhattan and both on Fifteenth Street, but they are separate congregations with different but related traditions of worship).

I do not attend Manhattan Meeting's worship very often, but when I do I am usually glad I did. The pastor of this meeting is Noel Palmer, a Jamaican-born recorded minister who I feel has a very real gift. Although the sermon has been prepared (prayerfully) in advance, and there is a program of hymns and prayers and readings also pre-selected, the meeting nevertheless seems very Quaker to me. It incorporates silence and is conducted in a simple and unpretentious manner.

Yesterday was the last Sunday before Christmas, and the sermon had a Christmas theme, but the text was from the gospel of John rather than from the familiar nativity story in Matthew or Luke. Noel spoke about the encounter of Jesus with the woman of Samaria in John 4 and made it come alive as a story about "telling", what Jesus told the woman, and what the woman told her townspeople.

Following the hour of worship, Manhattan Meeting Friends held a Christmas gathering to which they had invited us "silent-meeting" 15th Street Quakers. A lot of kids and adults from both meetings came, and there was some enthusiastic intergenerational singing. My participation in this gathering had to be brief, because I also wanted to attend the hour of unprogrammed worship starting at 11 in the other room. (I'm sure this story is getting confusing: there are so many opportunities to worship in that one building every Sunday!)

The unprogrammed worship at Fifteenth Street had an unusual number of messages, but seemed to me very deep and wonderful. One Friend spoke about the need for us to be "holy fools". Near the close of the Meeting another Friend offered prayer, addressing God as "Emmanuel" and asking him to truly be with us and guide us. She prayed explicitly in "the name of Jesus" which is a relatively rare phenomenon in our Meeting. We have apparently progressed to the point where this can happen and not become the cause for division or distress. At the end of the hour of worship, the children of our First Day School sang a number of Christmas-themed songs for us, ending with "Silent Night" which most adult Friends also joined in singing. I'm not sure I can explain why this would be so, but I felt deeply happy and very moved by the singing. My eyes were tearing up, which is something that seems to happen to me more in meetings for worship than in any other part of my life.

Even this was not the end of our "full day" at the meetinghouse. Several Friends who wished to do so came down to the central benches after worship was over and we read together from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke - starting with Caesar's decree that all the world should be taxed, proceeding through the birth and circumcision and dedication of Jesus, and ending with the story of his journey to Jerusalem at the age of 12. Finally, at 1 p.m. we also had a study group on "Listening Spirituality" based on a book by Patricia Loring. The group was ably led by our Friend Carol Holmes.

I have not forgotten my intention to write more about Plainness and Simplicity. Ironically, I seem to be so busy that it's difficult to find the time to attack such large themes in my daily postings. Still, I think I'll get to it soon.


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Monday, December 20, 2004

Just A Quick Note

I have just enough time for a quick note now. Stayed up late last night adding some links to the sidebar of this page. It takes forever because my ancient computer at home can hardly cope with a browser modern enough to handle blogs. The computer works fine with Netscape 4.0, for example, but Netscape 4.0 doesn't even show the sidebar on this blog, much less allow me to edit it. Netscape 7.2 does the job, but it takes several minutes after clicking the mouse to get from the "edit HTML" to "Preview".

Question: Is refusing to buy a newer computer with more memory an aspect of what I've been calling the New Plain? Or is it just being cheap?

We had a full day at the 15th Street Meetinghouse yesterday. I hope to say more about that later.

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Friday, December 17, 2004

Plain Things (A Poem)

I'm feeling a bit too tired to write something new about plainness today. But I'd like to paste in a poem called "Plain Things" I wrote some time ago:

Plain Things

The Sun Light at Dawn
Falling on Gray Pavement,
Old Houses,
New leaves, New Grass.

Raw peas pushed from the pod
With a thumb,
Snapping between the teeth,
Squirting juices in the mouth.

All raw fruits,
Blemished and pure
Sweet, tart, ripe,
Broken from their stems
By human hands.

A washed pane of glass
Passing Light
Between bright days
And this dark room.

A Bald head a gray beard.

A bare throat, no pearls.

A smile made of real teeth.

A human face like yours
With colors, flushes, pallors,
Expressions
Of its own.


- - - Rich Accetta-Evans (May 2002)

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The New Plain?

Two of the links that I included in my first post are to blogs by New York City Friends who have an interest in "plain" clothes. Depending on your prior knowledge of Quakerism (or lack thereof) this may surprise you either because:

  1. You thought all Quakers dressed "plain" already, like the man on the Quaker Oats box, or the Amish believers who many people confuse with Quakers.
  2. You thought it was a myth with no historical foundation at all that Quakers dress any differently than anyone else.
  3. You don't expect seriously spiritual people to get hung up with issues like how you dress.

The truth, as usual, is more complex than either (1) or (2) above would suggest. Most Friends today do not dress "plain" in the sense that our ancestors did. When my Friend Larry appears at Meeting in his broad-brimmed black hat and his vest and collarless coat, he stands out as unique. The other Quaker men who are present favor blue jeans or slacks and sports shirts or workshirts. Many (before they met Larry) were probably unaware tht Quakers once really did look so much like the Amish that we don't like to be confused with.

One hundred and fifty years years ago, however, almost all the male Friends in meeting would dress a lot more like the Larry of today than like their own non-Quaker contemporaries. Plainness has has a complicated history among Friends.

In the very first years of Quakerism (say 1648 - 1700) there was no unique Quaker costume, but Friends did try to stay clear of any adornment they considered gaudy, immodest, vain, or frivolous, and they consciously abstained from modifying their clothing in order to keep up with fashion. In this they were quite different from certain other social groups of the time and quite similar to others. Think of the "Cavaliers" (generally high-church aristocrats with a fondness for foppery) vs the "Roundheads" (straight-laced Puritans) of the late 17th century. The Quakers were more like the Roundheads in this way, though in other ways, such as the crucial one of theology, they were anything but Puritan. My point here is that Quakers at first dressed pretty much like other "sober people" of the time. (One exception was George Fox, whose hommemade "leather breeches" were unique. Fox is generally credited as being the founder or originator of Quakerism, and his example was followed by other Friends in many things, but for some reason the leather breeches never caught on.)

By the early 1700's the situation had evolved. As other people changed their modes of dress and Quakers didn't (at least so much) Quaker clothing came to look more and more conspicuous. Quakers were pretty unpopular in some circles and their distinctive clothing made them easily identifiable targets for mockery and scorn. You might think this would be an incentive to Friends to try to blend in more with the ways of the world, but it actually had the opposite effect. Dressing plain and putting up with the world's disapproval became a marker of Quaker committment and of loyalty to the Quaker movement. It was seen, in fact, as a way of taking up the cross. Any Friends who might be tempted to compromise on this point earned the disapproval of their Meetings and could even be disowned if they persisted. Gradually, the definitions of what was and was not plain became much more defined. This continued to be the case until well into the 19th century. But in the last half of the nineteenth century and especially in the twentieth century most meetings stopped enforcing the older dress codes and most individual Friends stopped wearing their broad-brimmed hats, their bonnets, and their black or gray attire. Plainness persisted as an attractive ideal, but it was not spelled out in detail. Friends could dress pretty much in any way they wanted, but what they wanted (in most Meetings) was generally less flashy and ornate, less expensive, less formal, and more comfortable than what "fashion" would dictate.

So where does Larry come in? Or our new Friend Amanda? Outwardly they are starting to look a lot like our Quaker ancestors. But in my opinion they represent something new. A kind of "plainness" that differs from the plainness of 19th century Quakers in several ways.

  1. The New Plain is voluntary rather than mandatory. There is no committee of elders measuring hat brims. If anything, the New Plain may be a tad defiant of the prevailing Quaker ethos.
  2. The New Plain is more individualistic than communal. To dress this way inevitably sets one apart, not only from the wider society, but also from most Quakers themselves. Friends in the 1700's expected to look different from "the world", but they emphatically did not want to appear "singular" among their Friends.
  3. The New Plain is improvised in its details. Since the Quaker community provides no guidelines, and there is no contemporary tradition to support their choice, these Friends have to make up their plainness as they go along: choosing fabrics, finding just the right hats, etc.
  4. The New Plain justifies itself with new arguments, drawing in part on the Quaker past, but also reflecting contemporary realities.
  5. The New Plain, while it is deeply serious, also incorporates irony and humour.

In my next post, I hope to illustrate these points a little more - using examples not only from Larry and Amanda's blogs, but from some other contemporary "plain Friends" and from some in the recent past, such as William Bacon Evans of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and Anna Curtis of New York Yearly Meeting, both of whom died in the mid twentieth century.


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Thursday, December 16, 2004

Poems

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Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Introductory Post

Many thanks to my friend (and Friend) Larry Otway for introducing me to his blog "Plain in the City" and those he has linked to. I had hesitated to start my own blog because of a feeling that it was an incredibly vain and narcissitic thing to do. But I see that Larry has a blog, and that our friend Amanda has one and they are both humble Quakers, (right?) so it must be OK.

Since there will be a lot about Quakers on this blog, maybe I should begin by listing a few other Quaker websites and blogs.
Fifteenth Street Friends Meeting Websites (official and unofficial):
(This is the Friends' Meeting I attend even though I live in Brooklyn and it's in Manhattan.)
  1. Fifteenth Street Meeting itself http://www.nyym.org/15thstreet/
  2. Fifteenth Street Meeting's Shelter http://www.friendsshelter.org
  3. Larry's "Plain in the City" http://plaininthecity.blogspot.com
  4. Amanda's "Of the Best Stuff But Plain: http://ofthebest.blogspot.com

Brooklyn Meeting Website:

(This is another Meeting I love and it may be the one you want if you came here wondering about Quakerism in Brooklyn)

  1. Brooklyn Monthly Meeting http://www.nyym.org/brooklyn/

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