Is Plainness Asceticism?
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