Monday, February 28, 2005

Non-Mystical Quakerism?

Liz Opp has asked me to explain my view that Quakerism is not a mystical religion. Before I do, I'm going to retreat a little from the flat statement about that that I made in a comment on a previous post. I do not literally "go around saying that Quakerism is not a mystical religion" as I flippantly stated in a previous post. But I do occasionally demur slightly when I think someone else claims too strenuously that it is. And probably I should avoid characterizing what Quakerism is or isn't anyway, since it has become a pretty diverse phenomenon. Strictly speaking, I should have said that George Fox did not found a mystical religion and that I do not personally practice a mystical religion (as I understand the term "mystical"). What Quakerism in general may be, especially today, is another question.

I did think of Quakerism as "mystical" during the time I was first exposed to it. At that time I tended to place views of the world on a spectrum running from rational/objective/cerebral at one pole to mystical/religious/intuitive at the other. On that spectrum Quakerism as I had experienced it was much much closer to the mystical pole than the rational, because it involved inner experiences, spiritual ecstasies, and passionate commitments. Within my first Friends Meeting, the meeting in Albany, New York, I also viewed the members of the meeting itself as falling at different points along that spectrum, and I tended (especially in reaction to my pre-Quaker agnostic humanism) to identify with those on the "mystical" end. (Interestingly, it seemed to me at the time that these "mystical" Friends were also the ones less concerned about respectability and more open to a bold witness against the then-raging War in Viet Nam.)

The first challenge I encountered to this one-dimensional way of categorizing religions was Lewis Benson's book "Catholic Quakerism: A Vision for all Men", which I read in 1969 a few months after I became a draft resister. I also heard Lewis speak at a meeting of the Quaker Theological Discussion Group that year. Lewis was not an academic professional. He was a retired printer and a self-taught student of George Fox, the early Friends, and the early Christian Church. His interest in Fox stemmed from a spiritual struggle against personal despair in many ways quite like Fox's.

Many Friends had a hard time understanding Lewis in those days, since he didn't fit into any of the theological categories that Friends were used to. They tended to patronize him at first and then to grudgingly concede that he knew what he was talking about, even if his take on it was unconventional. Some thought that his interest in 300 year-old documents was excessive and that the kind of Quakerism he talked about was a dead issue with little contemporary appeal. Yet, my experience was that whenever the radical young Friends of the 1970's came across his writing they were very excited and engaged. I never became a thorough-going adherent Lewis's ideas, but they did greatly influence me. Lewis took the trouble to actually read George Fox's Journal, his epistles, and his doctrinal writings - a common enough undertaking today among serious Friends, but relatively rare at that time. (For one thing, most of those books were then long out of print). From this reading, Lewis concluded that the essential message of early Quakerism was a message about Jesus Christ, but a quite different message from those of the mainline churches and fundamentally incompatible with them. He thought this message had been eclipsed in succeeding centuries and replaced with a variety of poor substitutes in the various branches of modern Quakerism. One of these poor
substitutes was the idea that Quakerism is essentially a mystical religion arising within the Christian tradition, and that it was in some ways a closer cousin of mystical Islam, mystical Buddhism, and so on than to other Christian groups.

The message of Quakerism itself, in Lewis' view, had to do with calling forth a community that would "hear and obey" its Creator through listening to the voice of Jesus Christ as a "Living prophet". I invite and encourage people to look up Lewis Benson's writings and learn more about this approach for themselves. Rather than try to summarize all that he had to say (and then distinguish it from what I believe), I'll move on to state some of my own views more directly. First, I feel compelled to point out that I was over-simplifying things in my early Quaker years by identifying "mysticism" with a focus on inward spiritual or religious experience. There are many spiritual traditions with a heavy emphasis on such experiences that we would not normally call "mystical". The Methodist Church in which I grew up was the spiritual heir of John Wesley, whose life was changed by what he called a "heart-warming experience" of God's free grace. The Methodist pastors in my home town hoped to lead their flocks to a similar experience, and we Methodists often participated with other churches in evangelical revival-style retreats and rallies much more focused on spiritual feelings and inward spiritual
struggles than on any dry recitation of doctrine. But no one calls Methodists and Baptists "mystics". The same could be said, only more so, for the various pentecostal and charismatic churches and the charismatic movements within more mainline denominations. All very big on feeling and experience: none classified as "mystical".

That's because there is more to "mysticism", as that term is usually used, than a focus on feelings and spiritual experiences. The word doesn't have a single definition that fits all cases. But people described as "mystics" tend to view their spiritual experiences, perhaps in conjunction with various disciplines or "spiritual practices" as pathways to some kind of exalted spiritual state: whether it is a state of union with God or of self-emptying nirvana or simply of detached egoless enlightenment. Often these aspirations are related to a kind of pantheism: the belief that the very universe IS God. Alternatively, some mystics see the material universe as an illusion ("maya") and aspire to penetrate the illusion. Finally, some mystics see individual human beings as "divine". (Indeed, this is the interpretation some Friends today give to George Fox's phrase about "that of God in everyone", but I don't believe Fox himself would have approved of that interpretation.) I, as a Quaker, on the other hand, do not aspire to lose my identity in some kind of fusion with God or with the universe. Nor do I seek to obliterate my ego and achieve nirvana. I do want to overcome and see through my various illusions (and they seem to be legion), but I don't anticipate that this will involve coming to think of God's material creation as unreal and only the Spirit as real. I aspire simply to live as a creature of God who loves and tries to serve my Creator and His creation.

I wait on God in silence and often feel that God's spirit moves within me and among the gathered community of fellow-worshippers. Guidance comes to me and I try to be faithful to it. Moreover, along the way I have had some very vivid experiences that I suppose some would classify as "mystical". I don't view these experiences as the goal of my religious life, but as helps that Christ has given to me (usually in my hours of greatest need, greatest sin or greatest weakness) to help me find my way back toward Him. I do not believe that God is a part of me, nor that His power is available to me for my private and personal wishes. I believe that God is the Creator of all that is, but that He is different from and greater than that which He has created. In all of these things I feel I am in harmony with the witness of George Fox and early Friends. But I don't think that makes me a mystic.

- - Rich

P.S. I fear in rereading this that I have stated some things too strongly. One way in which I am temperamentally different from Lewis Benson is that I usually try to look more for points of contact with other people's views than points of contrast. I hope I have not said anything here to offend any sincere and earnest mystic or anyone who prefers to classify herself or himself as such.

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Thursday, February 24, 2005

What led me to Quakerism

In a comment on my post called "Bertrand Russell Said It" some days or weeks ago, Ruth-Ann (aka ruthie-annie) innocently asked me how I had been led to Quakerism. I responded in another comment with a rather long-winded story. Today, Amanda (Of the Best Stuff but Plain) happened across that long comment and suggested I bring it out into the sunlight and make it a post in itself. Never one to pass up a chance to talk about the glorious past (when I was your age, sonny, we didn't have no internet we typed our rants on mimeo stencils, corrected our mistakes with some kind of sticky fluid, and cranked out hard-copies in someone's garage), I've decided to take Amanda's suggestion. I notice, in resurrecting the original comment that at the end I mentoned some possible sequels that have not yet come to pass. No promises, but I have them in mind. Here is the comment I originally posted:

I don't mind at all being asked about what led me first to Quakerismm. In fact, I may answer at greater length than you bargained for.

I was raised in a small Western New York village (population at the time of about 500) in the Methodist Church and thought for awhile as a very young boy that I wanted to grow up to be a Methodist minister. After years of Sunday School and church attendance, somewhere around age 12 I decided to read the Bible straight through and actually did get quite a ways into it, but I found lots of it surprisingly troubling and began to have doubts about it, and began to read other writers who had other points of view. Between then and about age 15 I read Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason, which is a very anti-clerical book and has pretty sharp critiques of Scripture. Paine wasn't an atheist, but was a deist who believed that God had made the world, endowed it with natural laws, and then stepped back to let it run itself.

I read several popularized biology books that explained and defended the theory of evolution, and engaged in some debates about this topic with some of our fundamentalist neighbors.

Finally, I discovered the works of Bertrand Russell and he became a kind of hero to me (even if he was 90 years old at the time). I liked his passion for science and philosophy, his scepticism about religion, and his strong moral beliefs (even though I knew a lot of people considered him very immoral). This was in 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis. Russell was very critical of President Kennedy's actions during the missile crisis and so was I - almost alone among all the people I knew in my home town. I wrote to Russell a kind of fan letter, and he sent me some literature and some addresses of peace groups in the U.S. I contacted some of these groups: The Fellowship of Reconciliation, the War Resisters League, and others, and began to subscribe to their periodicals. Before long I found myself becoming a convinced pacifist, though I was still a complete sceptic about religion. I continued attending my parents' church and kept fairly quiet about my changing religious opinions until I had graduated from high school in 1965 and moved away to college. There I became very vociferous in my agnosticism/atheism but also became active in the campus civil rights and anti-war movement, such as it was in Albany, NY, at that time. I considered myself a very moral person, but I based my moral system on a kind of calculation of what actions would further "the greatest good for the greatest number" rather than on any consistently applied principles. Even my opposition to war was based on this kind of moral calculus, rather than on a belief in God's law or God's will.

In late October 1967 I participated in a march on the Pentagon to protest the war in Viet Nam. I was shocked and angered by violence I saw there directed against protesters by the military police, but was also perturbed by some of the attitudes and actions of some fellow-protesters. At one point the group I was in was charged by soldiers wielding rifle butts. A lot of the people around me started screaming and panicing and running away, while others strategically retreated and started throwing things. I didn't know what I should do, and I found no guidance from the "greatest good for the greatest number" rule. But I looked into the sky, saw some familiar stars that seemed to symbolize the eternal and unchangeable amid the chaos all around me. And somehow I felt suddenly certain that I should neither run away nor turn and fight but should stand my ground without doing violence. I was slightly roughed up as a result - kicked and hit by the soldiers but not seriously hurt. After taking shelter at somebody's crash pad for the night, I returned to the Pentagon the next day and was arrested in a very moving and very peaceful sit-in along with hundreds of others. I spent the night in the Occuquan federal pen in Virginia and narrowly missed a chance to meet Norman Mailer. (Mailer wrote a book about his experience that weekend called "Armies of the Night").

In the aftermath of that event I became physically ill and emotionally drained. Looking back on it, I think I was clinically depressed. I dropped out of college at my doctor's urging and went back to live with my parents for a few months. During those months I did very intensive reading and lots of obsessive rumination, trying to make sense of two things: my now nearly total sense of alienation from American society and my discovery of some mysterious source of guidance that had been symbolized for me by the sight of the changeless stars shining peacefully over the chaotic battle on the Pentagon steps. I recognized that what I had experiened was in some way "religious" and I read - among other things - William James' Varieties of Religious Experience. In that book, James mentions George Fox and the Quakers. As I recall it, he concentrated on one of the more bizarre scenes from George Fox's Journal and seemed to think that Fox was pathological, but that he had nevertheless discovered important spiritual truths. Since I felt pretty pathological myself, this appealed to me. The following Spring I moved back to Albany (where I had gone to college) and visited the Albany Friends Meeting.

I found that I loved the silence of the Meeting and that within that silence I often felt "spiritual experiences" of extreme intensity. My experience was usually a few steps ahead of my theological understanding, but bit by bit I began to accept that this Spiritual Power that moved within me was not a part of me but was in fact the same being that I had always heard addressed as "God." In time I even came to see this God as a personal God to whom I could pray. Yet I never experienced God as a defender of things as they are, which is how folks in my home church had seemed to relate to him. I experienced God as One who challenged me to defy conventions if necessary in order to be faithful to a vision of the new society (i.e. Kingdom of Heaven) that He wanted to bring about.

The Quakers I read about in Quaker books seemed to be serving that same God. Sometimes I wasn't so sure about the flesh and blood Quakers I met - some of whom seemed pretty middle class and conventional. It wasn't long before I felt myself to be more Quakerly than the Quakers: a dangerous delusion which time and humbling experience has gradually undermined.

My discovery of how important Christ is to authentic Quakerism came a few years later - another story that is too long for this post. In betwen there somewhere is the story of my life for over a year in a young Friends' community called New Swarthmoor, the story of my draft resistance trial, and much more. I am now rapidly becoming a codger who is all too fond of talking about the good old days, but I will refrain from doing so any more tonight.

Thank you, Ruthie, for asking.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Why Wait?

Recently I gently suggested to a Friend and gifted minister (okay, okay it was Lorcan) that even a seemingly clear leading to speak in Meeting for worship usually needs to be waited over and tested in the silence before it is yielded to. I further said that if that message is the second one has given in the same Meeting it needs even more testing than most.

The Friend's response (in part) was that
Some truths thee has always known, and they roar out like the surf... do nothing to another that which is abhorant to thee, THAT is the Torrah and the rest is comentary... for the sake of practicality I cannot ignore God in anyone or anything for that matter. I don't need to sit on that truth... it simply is.

I am reminded of such a truth that I myself hold dear and that I once spoke of forcefully and under deep conviction in a meeting for worship under the mistaken impression that I was responding to a leading from God. My belief now is that in fact I was responding from my emotions and intellect and that while the literal content of my spoken message was true in itself, the unintended side-messages that resulted from saying it how I did and when I did were false and tended more to impede than to advance the cause of Truth with a capital T.

The truth I speak of is that God is our Creator and not we His. It has been tremendously imoprtant to me to thoroughly and deeply absorb this truth, and to reject the conviction by many that there is no God, or that if there is, then He or She (or even 'It') is a purely human phenomenon, a creation of our minds, a power within us that we can tap for our own purposes but has none of His own. From time to time I hear something like the latter theories presented as "what Quakers believe" and it seems so wrong to me that I have little patience with it. I have felt very supported in this conviction of mine (which - I repeat - is still my conviction) by an incident in George Fox's life as reported in his Journal:
'One morning, as I was sitting by the fire, a great cloud came over me, and a temptation beset me; and I sat still. It was said, "All things come by nature"; and the elements and stars came over me, so that I was in a manner quite clouded with it. But as I sat still and said nothing, the people of the house perceived nothing. And as I sat still under it and let it alone, a living hope and a true voice arose in me, which said, "There is a living God who made all things." Immediately the cloud and temptation vanished away, and life rose over it all; my heart was glad, and I praised the living God.'
- - quoted from George Fox: An Autobiography edited and with an Introduction and Notes by Rufus Jones" which has been published on-line by Street Corner Society
One day in the 1990's a Friend from my meeting who was then (if memory serves) on our Ministry and Worship Committee rose in Meeting to say that pretty much the opposite of this. I don't remember her exact words or her overall message, but I remember that she said something to the effect that we have created and must create God in our own image. My heart started beating immediately. The lovely Fox quote sprang into my mind. I remembered some occasions on which God had reached into my life from outside of it and turned it around. I considered, with distress, that this weighty Friend who actually sat on Ministry and Worship was speaking a false doctrine and that there was a possibility some soul would hear this and be deceived about the real teachings of Quakerism. So I held my breath and counted to 100 several times in order to slow myself down. And then I recited the Lord's prayer silently once or twice to further delay myself and leave open the requisite period of silence between messages. But I did not truly center down in God. I did not ask God what Truth there might be for me in what our Friend had said. I did not seek for a sense of that Friend's condition or the condition of the Meeting. I already knew what I thought and believed about this message and I already knew what the right answer was and I perceived no need to wait on God for confirmation. So as soon as I decently could I spoke. I testified that God is not made in our image and does not depend on us in any way. I quoted the passage from Fox. I sat down. But instead of the sense of peace that follows on a faithfully delivered message, I felt immediately convicted that I had spoken out of turn. To some degree what had been a Meeting for Worship was converted into a theological discussion group, and the impression may well have been left in some newcomers' mind that that is what a Quaker Meeting is. Moreover, as I came later to learn a little more about the ministering Friends' spiritual journey I realized that for her this little message about creating God in our image was a step toward greater acceptance, not less, of the reality that God Is. And I learned more about her appreciation of nature and nature's beauties: an appreciation that you would think would go together with the love of nature's creator, but that is sometimes discouraged by seemingly "religious" people who overemphasize Adam's "dominion" over the rest of creation. I had thought of the Friend as a powerful and opinionated influence over the meeting because of the committee she sat on, but I learned that she was very tentative and open and tender in her beliefs. My self-confident blast of "truth" backed up by suitable quotations may have run the risk of intimidating her and discouraging her (though, in fact, she turns out to have been pretty tough and persistent in her search, no thanks to me). The Friend I answered that day is no longer with us. During her life she never reproached me for my ministry that day, nor did anyone ever "elder" me about it. But I learned three things which I hope I will not forget in future meetings.
(1)A "true" message is not necessarily a timely message.
(2)An emotional message is not necessarily a spirit-led message.
(3)God in His own time and His own way is able to "answer" anything said in worship that may need answering. Often the "answering" will be indirect and silent and hidden. Whether it is or not,I am not the designated answerer and can relax and worship rather than debate.

- - Rich Accetta-Evans

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Friday, February 18, 2005

Plain Speech - Horton Style

I do not say "thee" or "thou" very much. I call the first day of the week Sunday instead of First Day. I am not completely consistent in my usual practice of refusing to use titles like "Dr.", "your honor", "Mr.","Mrs." or "Ms.". But after a fashion I do make an attempt to use "plain speech". My exemplar is not necessarily John Woolman or George Fox, whose particular kinds of plain speech evolved in a different time. My exemplar is Horton the elephant whose version of plain speech is set forth in Horton Hatches an Egg by Theodore Geisel (who the world calls Dr.Seuss).
"I meant what I said.
I said what I meant.
An elephant's faithful
One hundred per cent!"
Note that the claim about an elephant's faithfulness may seem to be about actions rather than speaking. But its point is that what we say and what we do should not be different.

Not that I succeed in any of this. But it's a good goal I think.

- - Rich Accetta-Evans

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Thursday, February 17, 2005

A discussion on Friends' Leadership

Recently, a Friend (Chris Japely) wrote to a few members of 15th Street Meeting and drew attention to an article by Bruce Birchard of Friends General Conference entitled The Dilemmas of Organizational Leadership in the Religious Society of Friends. A discussion ensued with contributions from myself and Cynthia Large. I imagine that the discussion may continue. I invite Friends and others who read this to throw in their own comments and reactions.

My response to Bruce's article was as follows:
Thanks to Chris for forwarding this article, which makes many very valid points. Some of it applies more to Quaker service organizations than to meetings, but most of it is very broadly applicable. In a meeting, I believe that what Bruce calls the "clerk style" of leadership is very appropriate for (surprise!) the clerk of the meeting, and that other kinds of leadership must come from other Friends. The clerk must seem to be and actually be a listener and process-guider, not a decision maker or visionary leader. The visionary or prophetic leaders are those Friends seized by concerns laid upon them by the Spirit and who present them to the meeting for discernment. This doesn't mean that the clerk is purely passive, however. As Bruce points out the clerk is the servant of the whole meeting, not particular members or their agendas. There are indeed times when clerks need to be very firm about behavior that obstructs the process.

One quibble I have with this article has to do with Bruce's reading of early Quaker history. Even though he wants to emphasize an acceptable role for leaders, he says (apparently as a concession to the contrary view) that "Early Friends refused to acknowledge the authority of kings and magistrates." Actually, the first generation of Friends (and the succeeding generations for at least two centuries) explicitly acknowledged and affirmed the authority of kings and magistrates and said that it should be exercised for the purpose of restraining evil-doers and protecting the innocent. They did refuse to give the authorities flattering customary titles and bow and scrape before them, but that was a rebuke to pride not to authority itself. They also, of course, insisted that the highest authority was God and that kings and magistrates should not interfere with the authority of God over the conscience, especially in purely religious matters. In general, I think the first generation of Friends had less trouble with the concept of leadership than any generation since. George Fox was an extremely dynamic and authoritative leader, as was James Nayler until his downfall, Margaret Fell, Stephen Crisp, Francis Howgill, and many many more. When conflicts arose over leadership it seemed to have more to do with who was leading and whether they were leading rightly than with whether there needed to be leaders at all.

- - Rich Accetta-Evans

Cynthia Large's further response was:


Thank you for this article! I think it has some important ideas in it about Quaker leadership, some of which can apply on the Monthly Meeting level.

I read Rich's comments with interest, as well, about the recognition early Friends gave to the authority of worldly governments, as well as to their own leaders, while at the same time refusing to offer any forms of flattery or "respect" to these people. I suspect that this came from their understanding of Christian society functioning together as "one body, many parts." A hand may well have to acknowledge the authority of the more perceptive eye. And it takes a great measure of humility to accept, for instance, foot-hood as one's lot in life. "But now they are many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you." (1 Cor 12:20) So, the part with more authority is not a more neccessary part, it simply fulfills a different role. Each must accept his or her role with humility. The Lord is over all. I really think this was a vital part of the thinking of early Friends. Ideas about individuals, with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, while they may have been hinted at in some of the more radical groups in England at the time, had not been enshrined the way they later were in the United States.

There is one part of the article that I would disagree with. He follows this observation:

" And secondly, no one stands above the group; all 'leadings' must be tested and confirmed through a Spirit-guided group process."

with this conclusion:

"I believe that this distrust of power and authority undermines Quaker leadership to such an extent that Quaker institutions-from monthly meetings to large, national organizations-suffer."

A true leading, from God, will certainly hold up to the spirit-guided group process meant to test it. If anything, it will be clarified, burnished, and tempered in the process. The testing of leadings is what protects us from Ranterism, in ourselves as well as in others. It is a spiritual discipline, rising not out of a distrust of power and authority, but rather out of a humble acknowledgement of how fallible we are.

So, it was a very thought-provoking article! Thank you!


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Posting Again

I haven't posted anything since February 7, largely because I've been trying to get the hang of posting via e-mail (which will be immensely easier for me) and it hasn't been working. I'm waiting for a reply from blogger support to my pleas for help, but in the meantime I'll go back to posting the old-fashioned way.

This post will be mainly devoted to pointing out recent enhancements to my sidebar.

First, the sidebar no longer lists the ten most recent posts, which it used to do no matter how lame the most recent posts were. Now it lists whatever posts I've decided I like the best (and it does so whether or not they're recent).

Second, I've added some new links:

The Quakers In the News blog is especially interesting and quite different from any of the others I link to. It gives us a way to see ourselves as the media sees us. The creator of this blog, who I know but won't mention by name, since he doesn't, is doing Friends a real service by keeping up with and sharing this information. One article he lists deals with an agreement by Friends Hospital in Philadelphia to form a "partnership" with a big health care chain. Though the hospital board presents this as a good thing, my own instinct (based on my experience with the healthcare "industry") is to doubt it. Incidentally, this hospital was recently mentioned on Ruthie-Annie's blog because of its historic role as a pioneer in humane treatment of mentally ill people.

The third change in my blog is to add a page hit counter and a feature that should let me (or you) look up what pages have been linking to the blog. This is intended to satisfy my curiosity. Potentially it could also stoke my ego and flatter my narcissism, but the results thus far tend more to the humbling than the exalting.

Hope you enjoy the blog and its changes.

- - Rich Accetta-Evans

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Monday, February 07, 2005

Scripture Readings Blog

My Friend John Edminster, of 15th Street Meeting, has for some time been making a regular practice of selecting a group of scripture readings each week, usually united by some theme, and sharing them with interested members of 15th Street Meeting and others. A few Friends, under the care and sponsorship of the Ministry and Worship Committee, have been reading from these selections in a small group on Sunday mornings just a few minutes prior to the 11 a.m. worship.

John's selections often bring together passages whose connection would not have been obvious otherwise. I personally have been very helped by the practice of reading and considering the passages he calls to our attention. With his permission, I have now established a new blog with the purpose of making the selections available to others. It is possible that I, too, will recommend other passages from time to time.

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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Update on the Coat

Awhile ago I mentioned on this blog my need to decide where I should buy a new winter coat. I finally decided to but it from Justice Clothing. I purchased a black "duck jacket" with a hood for around $50.00. Once it arrived I was initially surprised that it was a bit less thick than I had expected, but I have been wearing it for a couple of weeks now and it has kept me pretty warm even on some of our cold bitter days. Best of all, the union label inside the collar keeps my heart warm. I recommend this vendor as a place to buy clothes without exploiting labor. (This is my independent opinion and not a paid endorsement.)

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