Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Proposition 15 - Simplicity

Now I am going to return to Barclay. I am jumping way ahead to the Fifteenth Proposition. This proposition is sometimes referred to “Vain and Empty Customs and Pursuits.” It was originally titled “Concerning Salutations and Pursuits.” It is the last proposition and the last part of this last section is where Barclay delves into the Peace Testimony. The reason for jumping ahead to this is because the First Day School here at Fresh Pond Meeting is going to be spending the next year exploring the testimony on Simplicity. We intend to start by looking at the testimony itself and where it arose from. Then later in the year we will look at what it means to live in a rich country in a world where poverty is common. Finally we will look at the implications of our way of life on the environment. Along the way we intend to get the kids involved in planning and undertaking one or more service projects related to this theme. This idea of carrying a major theme through the year is an experiment for us. We will see how it goes. If anyone has ideas for resources that would be appropriate feel free to mention them in the comments. So I am going to explore what Barclay had to say as a way of providing background information for our First Day School teachers.

The entire chapter can be found here. The text of the proposition alone can be found here. The following is my paraphrase of the proposition:

The chief purpose of religion is to redeem people from the spirit and vain manner of living of this world and to lead them to inward communion with God. If we always have reverence for God, we will be considered happy. Therefore all of the vain customs and habits of the world are to be rejected by all who have come to this reverence before God. Taking off ones hat to a man and bowing and cringing before another and similar customs and formalities were invented by man to feed his pride and vanity. Plays, frivolous recreations, sorts and games were invented to pass away our precious time and divert the mind from the witness of God in our heart. The spirit that Christians should live in leads to sobriety, gravity and reverence. As we live in this spirit, God will bless our actions taken to provide for the sustenance of our outward person.


Barclay goes on to say that there are a number of things which other Christians may claim to be lawful but which Quakers have found that God has ordered them to lay aside. These things make it obvious that one is a Quaker so we cannot hide ourselves without being unfaithful to our testimony.

In later periods, the Quaker distinctives came to be seen as part of the hedge that separated and protected Friends from the world. But originally they were a testimony against the spirit of the world. They served to mark Friends so that they could not hide from persecution. Quite the opposite of being a hedge against the world, they often served to provoke the world. They also marked Friends so that any failing of theirs would reflect badly on the entire movement. There was no opportunity to go off somewhere and engage in some anonymous carousing or blowing off steam.

Barclay identifies six things that Friends considered unlawful for them.

1)It is not lawful for Christians to give men flattering titles like “Your Excellency” or to use those flattering words commonly called compliments.
2)It is not lawful for a Christian to kneel or bow or uncover the head to any man.
3)It is not lawful for a Christian to use superfluities in dress as they serve no purpose but ornament and vanity.
4)It is not lawful to use games, sports, plays or comedies among Christians under the the guise of recreation. All activities that do not agree with Christian silence, gravity and sobriety should be avoided.
5)It is not lawful for Christians to swear, either vainly or in a court of law.
6)It is not lawful for Christians to resist evil or to war or fight in any case.

I will look at the specifics of these in later posts.

Barclay then goes on to some general points. The first is that these ideas do not mean that they intend to destroy relationships in which there is unequal power. In Barclay's words, “I would not have any judge, that hereby we intend to destroy the mutual relation, that either is betwixt prince and people, master and servants, parents and children, nay not at all.” When Margaret Fell and her household converted to Quakerism, she remained the mistress of the house and the servants remained the servants. Quakerism might bring us to a new relationship with God but it did not change our social relationships. What Friends objected to were those customs which implied that people in more powerful positions were in some way better than those with less power.

Likewise he made it clear that they were not economic levellers. Their vision of primitive Christianity revived did not include the communalism of the Jerusalem church where all things were held in common. In part this was to distinguish themselves from groups like the Diggers. Gerard Winstanley, one of the leaders of the Diggers, or the True Levellers, maintained that private property was a result of the Fall of Adam. He claimed that by renouncing private property he had come into the state of Adam before the Fall. One will note that this is exactly the same language that George Fox used to describe his spiritual condition. (A good source of information on the radical movements of the 17'th century can be found here.). Quakers managed to get themselves into enough trouble without being confused with other troublemaking groups with similar language.

Barclay says “Our principle leaves every man to enjoy that peaceably, which either his own industry or parents have purchased to him, only he is thereby instructed to use it aright, both for his own good and that of his brethren, and all to the glory of God.” He recognized that God had chosen to distribute his creation unequally, allowing some to use more and giving some less. He notes that, due to the accident of our birth and station, that some things may be lawful or helpful to one and not another. For instance, a man born to wealth could wear better clothes and eat well and, if he was not squandering his money and was moderate in what he did, he would be doing no wrong. In fact, if after being accustomed to this life, if he were to dress and eat as a peasant, he might damage his own physical health and gain no benefit for his soul. On the other hand, a person of limited means who spent beyond his means to the detriment of his family to have the same food and clothing as the richer man would be going against the dictates of God. He called the person of high degree to watch over themselves that they use their wealth moderately and avoid superfluities so they can better help those in need. Those of a lesser estate he encouraged them to be content with their station and not envy those with more. Rather they should recognize the abundance that they are receiving inwardly. By living simply they would walk more closely the path followed by the disciples of Christ and would become better examples to the world. By following this path, Friends would be drawn away from the love and cares of this world, even while active in it, as effectively as those who had shut themselves up in cloisters and monasteries.

Simplicity serves two purposes. First it is a witness against pride and vanity in the world. But more importantly, the process of outward simplification also helps draw the inward person away from the cares of the world and towards an inner life more focused on God.

6 Comments:

Blogger forrest said...

One way of distinguishing humans from other animals is the amount of play we do. The more intelligence and creativity in a creature, the less is pre-programmed into it and the more it needs to learn how to be "one of those" by practice.

In Barclay's time, "idle amusements" were considered to be a distraction from God; these days there's more appreciation of the role they can play in making us more what God intends.

Art, music, fiction... games. "Just playing games" is considered a bad thing, but how else can we try out a strategy for life with minimal risk to ourselves and others?

The models of life that games teach... Some are misleading and destructive, but in many games where participants fight each other, too much aggressiveness leads to defeat.

I credit go (See http://www.dragongoserver.net ) with the development of much Oriental philosophy; that's merely a notion of mine but the game was being played early enough in the right places. (I probably do play too much, without learning enough from it. "If you improved your character, you'd improve your game 100%," according to my first teacher.)

It's hard to know what old customs to maintain, what new ones might be developed. (I've found that sitting in courtrooms with my hat on, uncertain whether or not this will lead to arrest, directs my attention to God wonderfully, though that was not why I first decided it was required of me.)

My wife (Anne Curo) has found playing music (and now painting) to be, not distractions from God, but sometimes effective ways to reach a more contemplative state. I'm inclined to agree that this may be one of the reasons we're incarnated here, on this physical Earth--not to merely sit about stifling ourselves and looking Quakerly, but to collaborate with God in making more beauty here. And this is hardly an idea we can claim to have originated.

The best distinction may be, amusements that give us more life vs those which exhaust and stulify. (Or the sort of activity George Fox described as "devouring the creation"--'Thanksgiving' might be a good example...) We may not always agree on how this kind of distinction applies, but I think it's what we should be considering.

September 15, 2006 8:10 PM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

I can't resist asking the question-- why do Friends establish service projects for our children (who seem to participate as a collective or as a group of peers, nearly by requirement) but why do we not do the same for adults? or as an intergenerational service project for the entire meeting community?

This has puzzled me for years... I'm one of those Friends who needs a certain type of encouragement to participate in a service project (I'm not good with strangers and/or new activities)...

I know you've got other meaty subjects in this post, and I'll have to take a closer look at the rest of it. But your statement about "getting the kids involved" in a service project struck that curious chord in me again.

Blessings,
Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

September 15, 2006 11:40 PM  
Blogger Heather Madrone said...

I continue to struggle with the simplicity testimony. I was raised in Berkeley, and my early life gave me a diversity testimony instead. I learned to celebrate the complexity of diverse cultures, diverse ecosystems, and diverse solutions to common problems.

Simplicity is wonderful when it clears the way for us to focus on the essential. It can help us sweep away the conventions and live from the heart.

When simplicity itself becomes a virtue instead of a tool, however, there is a danger that it can replace the essential. A narrow focus on simplicity can lead to intolerance and conformity.

Our Meeting decided that the children need a regular presence to support the kids during worship, as well as having adults from the Meeting spend time with the kids. We are blessed to have found a young Moslem woman for this job. She dresses in bright, beautiful colors.

One day, she told me that she'd changed her shawl before taking the children in to worship. Her bright yellow shawl, she thought, might not be appropriate for Quaker Meeting.

I assured her that no one in the Meeting ought to be paying attention to her clothes. We are there for a higher purpose. We are not about to let a yellow shawl distract us from our worship.

On the other hand, our post-worship snack was becoming a regular feast, and the production of the snack was wearing on the Meeting. The hospitality committee decided to simplify the snack, and many Friends do seem to feel that they have been released from a burden that separated them from God.

When I have struggled with various issues in the past, one Friend has reminded me that George Fox told William Penn to carry his sword while he might. If Fox could leave Penn's sword to God and to Penn's conscience, I think I can trust that God will let me know when certain of my practices might be detracting from my attention on the Spirit.

One of my other struggles as a Friend is a tendency to think too much, and too analytically, about spiritual issues. I need to still that analytical brain and listen with my heart. I need to weed out everything that gets in the way of seeing the bit of Light that I am given.

Which brings me back to the simplicity testimony and how wonderful it is....

September 16, 2006 2:37 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

Thank you Heather and Forrest for your comments. There is a lot there. This is just the first in a series. I hope to speak to some of the issues you raise as I go forward.

Liz, let me explain a little more about the service project. There was a time in our meeting when the First Day School would organize various service projects, often collecting materials for kits for the AFSC to send to people in need. This usually happened when there was a 5th Sunday in a month. Since then our schedule has changed and the people most involved in organizing these activities moved away and that tradition stopped. In the meantime we now have a Junior Business Meeting that meets once a month. The JBM has organized a number of service projects. They held a bake sale instead of our regular after-meeting snack to raise money for tsunami relief. They organized the printing of a cookbook which they are selling to raise money "to help animals."

Projects like this have involved the adults to some extant. And since historically most of the adults in our meeting have had children in the First Day School, intergenerational activities happened pretty naturally. Our plan in this case is to involve the Junior Business Meeting in selecting and planning the project. In fact,the FDS committee chose to explore simplicity this year based on the ideas the the Junior Business Meeting had for the service projects. But we do hope that this will be something that the whole meeting can participate in.

Will

September 16, 2006 4:51 PM  
Anonymous Joanna Hoyt said...

This is wonderful and challenging. I have understood simplicity largely in terms of leveling differences in wealth and power(starting with climbing down the ladder myself.) I still believe this is important, though I might have much to learn from Barclay's reasons for thinking otherwise. But diversions from the witness of God in the heart.. that is harder for me to face. I know that I often use books and games as escapes either from the Light or from the shadows cast by the Light. Also at times stories or music have brought me clearly into the Presence. I can't claim the same thing for games and diversions, although I enjoy them. I am struggling with this. Is it ever permissible to turn aside and enjoy myself in frivolous ways, or is this putting one's hand to the plow and turning back? If I didn't do this, would I be better able to be faithful in grave situations? And if I am to keep myslef from frivolity, how to keep out of resentment?
Thank you for the very readable summary of Barclay. I would be interested also in hearing how you are living with this one.
Joanna Hoyt, NEYM/NYYM

September 17, 2006 1:30 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

Joanna,
There is nothing simple about simplicity. I have been poor and now I am not. I prefer my current situation. It certainly makes my life more comfortable. But the fact that I took up a career that pays well meant that my wife could be at home when our children were small. It means that they will have the opportunity to go to college and not be in debt when they graduate. It also means that when I was asked to serve on the FUM General Board, I knew that I could afford the travel required. Economic prudence and self-sufficiency is also a long-standing Quaker witness. Going bankrupt was cause for disownment. There were at least two models for Friends who travelled in the ministry. There was John Woolman who kept his life simple and avoided worldly cumber so that he could be responsive to the promptings of the spirit. There were other Friends in the 19'th century who advocated obtaining a "competency" early in life so that one could be free to engage in the work of the spirit. By this, they did not mean to become competent in a field of endeavor, but that they had established a sufficient fortune that they no longer needed to work for a living. I have a comfortable life by American standards and I am incedibly wealthy by world standards. I have been incredibly fortunate. I have been privileged in many ways. This continues to be a source of tension in my spiritual life. I don't have any easy answers. Robert Barclay was a member of the landed gentry. Is his position on levelling partly in response to his personal situation? One of Margaret Fell's sons was not a Quaker and he sought to use the anti-Quaker laws to get the crown to seize Swarthmoor Hall from his mother and have it given to him. Margaret Fell appealed to the King to prevent this and was eventually successful. So how much did their owning property influence their theology? How much does it influence mine? I don't know.

We cannot spend all our time in working hard at one thing or another. We all need time to relax. One of the things I struggle with are the solitaire games that came installed on my computer. I know that there is something out of balance in my life when I know that I am tired and need to sleep but instead of going to bed I am playing solitaire on my computer. There is a place for frivolity, just as there is a place for Margaret Fell's red dress. It is not a question of turning back from the plow, it is much more a question of finding a healthy balance of activities.

I hope this helps.

Will

September 17, 2006 9:51 PM  

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