Monday, January 03, 2005

Is Plainness Asceticism?

Martin Kelly commented after one of my previous posts that choosing "plain" clothing has to do with rejecting things that appeal to the "vain mind". I'd like to think about that some more.

On one level, my reaction is that my vain mind and your vain mind may be drawn to different things. Some of the plain people seem to think that suspenders are more plain than belts, but I can't say that I have ever spent any time admiring my belt in the mirror. Similarly with hats. I actually think that the beautiful broad-brims I see some Quakers wearing would appeal more to my own vain mind than the very practical small-billed workman's cap I wear in cold weather.

On another level, I'd like to explore more about what "vain" means anyway. I've been reading Garry Wills' translation of Augustine's "Memory" (Book 10 of the Confessions). Somewhere in there Augustine says, addressing God, that "no one loves you well who loves anything else except because of you." This, I suppose, is the attitude of the ascetic. It is not my attitude, though I think Augustine's statement is saved from being completely false by the inclusion of that all-important phrase "except because of you".

What I would say, in contrast to Augustine's statement, is that "No one loves God well who does not love all that God has made made." After all, who would claim to "love" Michaelangelo DaVinci or Rembrandt as an artist if they didn't love the artist's creations?

And within "all that God has made" I would include the marvelous ability of human beings to make lesser creations of their own. So, from that point of view, despite my own aesthetic preference most of the time for plainer, simpler, forms of beauty, (See the poem "Simple Things" in a previous post) I see no bedrock spiritual reason to reject adornment and decoration. I like Margaret Fell's reaction to some of the early efforts to codify what was plain: she said it was a "silly, poor gospel" to suggest that Friends should avoid colors, given that God Himself clothes the hills in colors.

To love created things, of course, does not mean to slavishly need them, or to covet ownership and control of them, or that we can't give them up cheerfully when the occasion demands. And the occasion sometimes does demand this. There are times when faithful people must suffer for Truth's testimony, or must forego a pleasure innocent in itself because pursuing it harms someone else. At such times, Fox's experience becomes very relevant. He said in his journal that he found there were two thirsts in him: one for the Creator and one for the creatures (i.e. created things). When it comes down to a choice, our love of the Creator ought to trump our love for the creatures every time.

- - Rich


Blogger Martin Kelley said...

Hi Rich,
Great post. Maybe if you had a big rhinestone belt buckle, you'd have the opportunity to admire it, grin!

It is very easy to take Quaker plain overboard and get too hung up on the details. I know I couldn't work a broadbrim hat, I think I'd end up laughing at myself too much. For me, it's been important to keep it real. Originally I was what I called "Sears plain," where everything came from a regular department store. It's only as clothes wore out that I've replaced them one-by-one with more traditional plain clothes.

But I have to catch myself, that's for sure. I was bummed out one day about six months after starting to go plain: I felt just blah, like this exciting adventure of plainness was over. I was looking through a catalog for plain clothing and didn't see a single thing I could buy. I wondered if plainness was just some fad of mine that had passed. With a startle I looked at myself and saw the dark pants and suspenders and realized I was casually dressed in clothes that would have shocked me six months earlier. Plainness had become normal. It was a nice moment, a sort of turning point (not that I don't have to watching for the Tempter of Pride still!).

There's just the one distinction that you don't really draw out, and that's plainness as group identifier. That's what the suspenders are all about. Being clearly plain opens up opportunity for conversation, especially among fellow Friends! It seems like Quakers have often tried to draw the line between a uniform and identifiable plain and it seems like a good place to try to balance. Is there no role for the distinctive dress that's marked the Society for most of it's history, Maggie Fell notwithstanding (don't get me started on that story!).

6:01 PM, January 03, 2005  
Blogger Larry Clayton said...

Re plainness: Maybe the southern Quakers are more down to earth about it. Ordinary street clothes seem most in vogue. Then they drive plain cars, like Honda civics, etc. Sometimes they eat plain food,but at other times they put on the dog like anybody.

I agree with M.F. that God showed us how to be decorative. But I have to differ with what you said about Fox. Instead of Creator and creatures, I would put Father (or Mother if you prefer that metaphor) and his sons and daughters, our neighbors, our fellow men. That stems from the (two) Great Commandment(s).

"Beloved, even now are we sons (and daughters) of God, and it doth not appear what we shall be."

7:30 PM, January 03, 2005  
Blogger Lorcan said...

Well, ... yes to all the above, as I say on my blog ( in Richard's links Plaininthecity ) there are many reasons for plain - for me witness is a huge part.

Just yesterday, on line to go into a film, a tall fellow excused himself and asked if I would not get angry if he asked a question. I laughed and said, most likely not. He asked if I was a real Quaker, that he had just read about us first coming to the US. As he was an African American, I thought he was going to ask about the underground railroad, as that may have been the introductory reading, but rather he asked about the English persecutions. He said that he had never met a Quaker before.

I assured him that he might well have, but few today dress in traditional plain dress. It is this identifiable witness which I wear instead of the message buttons I see so many other Friends wear.

For me, a button says only as much as it says. My clothes speak to my full witness. There are times, I have to laugh at being mistaken for some of the more evangelical faiths, I heard someone on a train point me out as a Jehovah's Witness!? of all people ... but more often than not folks get it.

Today, Amanda and I were looking at industrial sewing machines for making Quaker shirts and dresses, (we have hopes). We found a great machine and the shop owner looked a bit pensive and then said, "You DO know this is electric!"

We laughed and explained we were Quaker not Amish, but thanked him for his thoughtfulness.

As to Sears, sure, but frankly as a legal worker, I would look out of place in court in Sears, I would feel out of place with a collar and tie or a suit made by child labor, so in a suit made by a Bangladeshi friend, or well paid Mennonites in Lancaster (see the weefox post on my site ) I feel different from some - but not out of place.

Thyne in the light and the shade of a big Kore Stulzfus made hat...

11:31 PM, January 03, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Both Lorcan and Martin feel that one good reason for dressing plain is that it is a "group identifier", allowing people to know that you are Quaker.

I feel some sympathy for this idea. I don't think we should be closet Quakers and conceal our Quaker identity in order to get along better in the world, and plain dressing is surely one way to avoid that. I think it was probably even more important in the days when Friends were hated and feared and "in scorn called Quakers". At such a time identifying oneself as a Quaker by one's mode of dress would tend to sharpen the issue of whether one really meant it.

In our time, however, the public reaction to Quakers is more like indifference than hostility. Plain dressing may come across more as a kind of eccentricity than as a vital challenge to the world's values.

And I also think that it may be too superficial a marker. Hard as it may be to change one's way of dressing, it's still easier than changing one's heart (or allowing God to change one's heart).

How about the group marker that Jesus said would conspicuously identify his followers:
"By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another." John 13:35

12:00 PM, January 04, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Larry said that he disagrees with the comment I attributed to Fox about the creator and the creatures. This may be because I didn't really capture the essence of what Fox said. The passage I was vaguely remembering is this:

"And I found, that there were two thirsts in me; the one after the creatures, to have gotten help and strength there; and the other after the Lord, the Creator, and his son Jesus Christ. And I saw, all the world could do me no good. If I had had a King's diet, palace and attendance, all would have been as nothing: for nothing gave me comfort, but the Lord by his power. And I saw professors, priests and people were whole and at ease in that condition, which was my misery; and they loved that, which I would have been rid of. But the Lord did stay my desires upon himself, from whom my help came, and my care was cast upon him alone. Therefore all wait patiently upon the Lord, whatsoever condition you be in; wait in the Grace and Truth, that comes by Jesus: for if ye so do, there is a promise to you, and the Lord God will fulfil it in you. And blessed are all they indeed, that do indeed hunger and thirst after righteousness; they shall be satisfied with it: I have found it so, praised be the Lord, who fills with it, and satisfies the desires of the hungry soul. Oh let the house of the spiritual Israel say, his mercy endures forever!"

12:08 PM, January 04, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Martin Kelly said "don't get me started on that story" in reference to what I said about Margaret Fell's "poor, silly gospel" comment.

I find, though, that I would like to find out what he has to say about this. Is there something suspect about this quote and/or the interpretations people have placed upon it? I don't want to perpetuate any false Quaker legends, because I regard it as very important for us to know the real history, as opposed to the mythology and hagiography, of Friends.

I am one who winces, for example, whenever someone repeats as sober fact the well-known (and completely unsubstantiated) story that George Fox told William Penn to "wear thy sword as long as thou canst."

So, Martin, please tell me what you really think about Margaret Fell and plainness.

12:20 PM, January 04, 2005  
Blogger Lorcan said...

the real question is "Is plainess Accettaism?)



12:18 PM, January 08, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Lorcan says the real question should be "Is plainness Accettaism?"

My answer: Maybe so, but that's an Otway to put it.

5:34 PM, January 08, 2005  
Blogger Amanda said...

One million groans.

12:30 AM, January 09, 2005  
Blogger Lorcan said...

Richard writes:
"In our time, however, the public reaction to Quakers is more like indifference than hostility. Plain dressing may come across more as a kind of eccentricity than as a vital challenge to the world's values."

My only response is try it!

Thee may find, as I do that the public is neither hostile nor indifferent. The only response that it is eccentric in my opinion has been from fellow Quakers! Rather, I find that in the courts, it has been a powerful bridge between myself and others. Federal Marshals and I have had very nice talks about peace and plain. As I have written before, respectful questions on the street often begin with the reflection that the person did not know that there still WHERE Quakers. This is especially important to my witness in light of the several people who have said to those of us who witness for peace at Washington Square Park, that Quakers used to be so visible in the peace movement and now we seem to have disappeared. Yes the reasons ARE different these days, Friend, but Quakerism is not about living the past or in the past, we are new Quakers every time we look and listen inside ourselves.

I am serious about thee walking around in plain dress sometime, thee will find that there are layers to this witness that may surprise thee pleasantly, both what it does to thee and to others. To paraphrase or maybe quote the bard of Avon, "me thinks thee objects too much!" Perhaps there is a plain Richard itching to give it a try!

With a wink,

6:03 AM, January 09, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Re Lorcan's experience of positive reactions to plain dress: I suspect that when it comes to plain dress some Friends are better able to "carry it off" than others. And this may have to do with how clear and condident one is in adopting this way of dressing. Lorcan is very clear and very confident and carries it off very well. I - with my doubts and and ambivalence - might not do so well. And yes, I am very much drawn toward plain dress, but in my case I experience this as more of a temptation than a leading.

1:00 PM, January 11, 2005  

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