Recently, I had the opportunity of spending the day with a group of Quaker students and adults from around the world who spent the summer together on pilgrimage. As we sat around eating traditional American foods (burgers and potato salad), we talked and laughed about some of the differences between their home countries and mine. “In England, we call pants trousers” “And we call all dessert pudding.” We laughed the hardest when I tried to speak with a northern Irish accent, and they tried to speak with an American accent (which sounded generically southern).
As we were having a rich conversation about the distinctives of Quakers internationally, one of the student-pilgrims turned to my mother-in-law and asked, “Why do you have four bathrooms?” It might have seemed like a rude question if it wasn’t so sincere. My mother-in-law was a bit taken aback. “Well, when we built this house…er…we built it thinking about community…and my gift is hospitality…” As I tried my best not to laugh, I thought, what an intriguing question. (In defense of my in-laws [who might be reading this], they do make admirable use of their home - hosting international students, their own adult children, and friends in need of short-term housing). Still, the question kept ringing in my ears (even more so as it was spoken in the most lovely queens English). “Why do you have four bathrooms?”
I’m not sure if the young lady’s question arose from a sense of Quaker simplicity, cultural differences, or curiosity. But it got me thinking about simplicity and about all the things that I’ve thought I needed to make my life more simple. Simplicity is a word that has been overused and exploited in recent times. There are whole markets selling simplicity – space savers, fashion, Real Simple magazine, books on how to simplify your life, cars, gadgets, you name it. Most of the meaningfulness of this word has been lost on the consumer floor. Recently I came across an article about Quaker simplicity written by a friend of mine. He noted that the more historically accururate term is plainness . When I read that my nose kind of curled up (ugh). How boring, right? Simplicity is trendy, and cool and relevant, but plainness? Who wants to be known as plain?
This Friend says that plainness is such a great word because it rubs us the wrong way. It is such an inglorious word and idea because it is a means not a goal.
[quoting from Wess’s Blog] For early Friends, the point wasn’t that they did these things to be weird, or to look different, plainness wasn’t an end goal. In fact, it was much the opposite and when we look back at early Friends and admire their faith, their courage and sacrifice we need to remember that this kind of vibrant and beautiful faith stemmed from a conviction that what really matters is our faithfulness to being obedient to the way of Christ. Plainness was the practice that helped them to be free to do this. Plainness is a means, it is a conviction that in order to follow Christ, some things in life have to be given up, some things need to be sacrificed because they work against Christian discipleship.
- Could we really be so free from the world’s fashions, trends, pleasures, and entertainments that we could have the space, time, energy and conviction to live lives that really speak?
- Might we then have the energy to stand against injustice, to work for healing and reconciliation, and to share life in meaningful ways?
These were some of the queries that came to mind after reading this excerpt, and pondering plainness. I’ve even thought about maybe going plain dress. I just got some suspender, now I just need the right kind of trousers.