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Plain Peace

If I were a Christian Quaker, I would be strongly drawn to the tradition of plain dress.

Perhaps it's good that I'm not, in that I don't have to do the difficult work of discernment that I probably would if I were. It does seem to me that plain dress, like all the Quaker testimonies, needs to have its seed in a spiritual leading, and I cannot be sure that my inclination toward it isn't merely personal. Pagans as a group are, after all, awfully taken with costume and theater, and even if I am extremely plain for a Pagan, I can't be entirely sure that part of my attraction to plain dress isn't simply to yet another cool set of threads.

The real issue is probably deeper than that, though. It is my desire to live absolutely, visibly, and identifiably as someone with a peace testimony.

Another of my favorite students is entering the military. He has done early enlistment and will be leaving us at midyear, and he brought me in a picture of himself in his fatigues.

I am thrilled, honestly, with this kid's pride and sense of accomplishment. He has overcome so many obstacles in his life, and his decision to enter the military represents, on a personal level, some wonderful, wonderful things he has cultivated within himself with great struggle: idealism, ambition, a desire to serve others. He is a good, good boy and he has decided he wants to become a good, good man.

I suppose that's startling to hear from a Quaker, but it is the truth as I see it. For this particular young man, the decision to enter the military reflects a level of growth and integrity that I can only honor.

And grieve. I want him to be traveling to foreign lands to feed hungry kids, and build bridges and schools, and serve humanity in the ways of peace. But that is not an option for my student; yes, I'm aware of counter-recruitment efforts and counseling, and they work wonders for lots of kids. But even if they existed at my school, even if I were not the lone voice for peace, none of the initiatives I know of are a good fit for this particular student at this particular time. All I can do is try to slip into one of our 30 second hallway conversations the fact that, should he determine, down the road, that he has a conscientious objection to war, there are people who will work with him to help him leave the military.

The various alternatives to military service will not work for this student.

And the heart of my message is, must be, that I am proud of the way this young man has turned his life around. He hasn't had nearly enough people being proud of him in his life. We, his teachers, are it. And nothing, nothing else is as faithful a service of the Spirit of Peace as I hear it speaking within me as communicating to this young man my deep and real respect for his decisions, deeply though they pain me.

I know what I must say to this young man when he hands me his picture.

And I know that I will place his picture on my altar at home, burn candles for his safety (spiritual and emotional as well as physical) and grieve and grieve and grieve that he will be going off to war.

I want for my opposition to war to be as obvious as my gender. I want it to be so clear and self-evident and beyond question that it is always there, as the subtext, when I am telling this student that I am proud of him. I want him to hear the message of caring from my mouth and to see that in my eyes, and just to know, without my having to distract from the core message of deep respect, that I wish he would find another way. That he would somehow serve peace, not war, with his newfound honor and dignity.

Wearing a peace symbol is a fashion statement. Half my students who wear it support the war. Peace slogans on bumper stickers and buttons and posters strike many as sentiments fit for a greeting card--the notion that anyone takes literally that "there is no way to peace--peace is the way" is something that never crosses most moderns' minds.

It seems to me that only by visibly and consistently placing myself outside modernism and liberalism and political sloganeering will I be able to be the kind of visible beacon for peace I long to be.

I cannot harangue my students into pacifism. I know that is wrong--spiritually wrong, never mind how it might affect my teaching career. I know that it would sabotage the real work of building up spirits that is the heart of public school teaching. Which is my calling, my leading, at least for now.

So I can't do that.

Plain dress: wearing a kerchief or something on my head and wearing a skirt of some kind, while avoiding ostentation in dress... that would do it. Slowly, over time, my school would come to know that my peace testimony, my deepest spiritual convictions, are why I "dress funny". And I would be speaking my testimony faithfully even while silent.


I'm not Christian.

And the other thing that plain dress says, culturally at least, is that here stands a conservative Christian.

So no plain dress. Just a photo on the altar, and a sense of pride.

And anguish.

May all the good gods bring this child home safe in his spirit as well as in his body.

So mote it be.


Anonymous said…
I admire your approach to this student and his decision to enlist in the military. I have a few friends who are pacifists who take it upon themselves to criticize any young person who joins. I don't think that's appropriate. Seems it's better to encourage the best in everyone, however they choose to express it, all the while praying they will eventually choose peace.

As far as simple dress--I could never do it! Growing up as a conservative Christian, dress was overly important and all wrapped up with how "good" you were or how "sinful." I also learned early that you can't please everyone, and everyone has an idea about how you should look.

For me, having fun now with dress is parallel to what I see in nature. Plants, flowers and animals are exuberant in their variety, their color, their camouflage, and it simply brings me joy. I think dressing simply as a peace testimony is wonderful, but I think your message might be clearer by simply living your message, regardless of how you happen to clothe yourself.
Anonymous said…
This post touched me deeply, Cat. You did what was right for your student, who is doing the most right thing that he can--and both of those right things are painful. Buddhism teaches that doing good always makes us happier; how do we account for the grief you describe?
Hey, Riverwolf,
I'm really fond of the Margaret Fell quote, in which she says that simply adopting plain dress as a way of demonstrating your goodness, or judging others by their ornamentation of dress is a "silly poor gospel." At the same time, I am deeply moved by the living testimony that some Conservative Friends bear in their carefully discerned plain dress.

I had not before thought of dress as a reflection of natural diversity and beauty--and you are right, there is a wonderful exuberance there. I suspect there is as much integrity in your current enjoyment of dress as there is in many traditional Quakers' adoption of plain dress.

It's all about the root of the practice, perhaps. Thank you for your support of at least my hope that I may be serving the Spirit of Peace adequately in what I currently do.

Mam Adar, thank you for the kind words.

I think there are several answers to your query about the grief I am experiencing. One is that the happiness that comes in behaving rightly is not necessarily the kind that distracts from sorrow; in my experience, though sometimes it is a flooding joy, at other times, it's just a sense of center and connection with Spirit. It is deeper than "oh, goody, a party" happiness, but also quieter, and has room for grief within it.

But another answer is that I have not yet found a way to walk my peace testimony rightly in my work as a public school teacher. I think I may be at that frustrating stage in discerning a spiritual leading where I can feel the dissatisfaction of what I am currently doing, but do not yet see an opening or feel clear about a leading for what to change.

I hate the not knowing. But acknowledging the discomfort, and waiting to be shown what comes next, has been of help in the past. Maybe I'll learn more; maybe there are ways I can be more faithful to the Spirit of Peace.
Pitch313 said…
A few of my teachers, in junior high and high school, showed me that it was possible to honorably oppose militarism and the social urge to warring.

They did this, mostly, through the complicated processes of teaching.

How to go about, in youthful cluelessness, making responsible choices in life.

At that moment in history, the military had not yet reframed itself as a job thing. It was still a battle thing.

As Pagans go, I do dress plain as to ruffles and florishes, although I do favor bright colors. I don't think of practice as a matter of costumes.

And, getting down to it, I don't think of visible fashion signs as reliable indicators of inner spiritual states or wisdom. Dirty rags can mark saintliness, Or not.
I'm realizing that, for non-Quaker readers, the way that plain dress fits into Quaker culture is probably pretty un-self-evident! I think it's clearer when looking at what plain dress looks like for Quaker men, since it doesn't get all jumbled up with Christian ideas about women subjecting themselves to men. However,there really isn't much out there in writing on the topic, for men or women. (Martin Kelley does have a few resources he lists, here.)

I once overheard Lloyd Lee Wilson, a Conservative Friend whose writings on spiritual community I greatly admire, talking about how he came to adopt plain dress. He spoke about how he moved from ordinary business-wear into the current near-Amish look he has today: first he felt spiritually required to leave off wearing the suit and tie, then he felt he had to adopt the Quaker beard. The suspenders were then important, and the hat, and finally, collarless shirts.

It's not that there is something ungodly about collars on shirts, of course, though they are what the old-time Quakers would have called "superfluities." And it is not that Wilson is a better person than another Quaker who may not have changed their way of dress. But he changed his manner of dress, with each step proceeding only because he felt he was truly required (by the leadings of his God, or of the Inward Christ) to take it. It is this faithfulness to leadings as a testimony, perhaps without even a clear sense of why they are required of one, that makes Quaker plain dress the form of witness it is.

Quakers who adopt plain dress today do so not out of orthodoxy, but in response to the immediate leadings of the Holy Spirit. Or at least, this is my sense of why those who do it properly do so. The details may be guided by concerns for environmentalism or by Bible passages, but, as I understand it, to be truly vital and alive, the root of the impulse is a leading from God.

I am feeling conflicted and ill at ease in how I carry my peace testimony in the world. That I think is from the Light. But it is not clear to me that my dissatisfaction with my mode of dress is anything but a nice but notional human reaction to my sense that something is not where it needs to be in how I carry my witness into the world. I am not convinced that this is a leading, in other words.

That, combined with the misimpression that I think would be generated by a Pagan (in "Christian's clothing", like a wolf in sheep's clothing?) makes me understand that, if there ever will be a time that it is right for me to adopt plain dress, that time is not now.

I'm not the first Pagan to wrestle with these ideas, by the way. Hystery has written on her experiments with plainness, and where her impulses to try them came from in posts on her blog, Plainly Pagan.

Generally speaking, plain dress has been linked to Quaker ideas of the importance of simplicity, rather than that of peace. Of course, Quakers like Woolman were opposed to superfluities of dress at least partly on the grounds that the labor required to produce them involved injustice--a clear and valid concern in an age of slavery--and thus laid the seeds of war.

But a nearer parallel to adopting plain dress as a form of witness would be the old-time Quakers who, in a very conservative age, would sometimes "go naked for a sign." In any case, it's not the form of the testimony that is the point--it's the faithfulness to a leading, and the consistency with the inner witness of Truth unfolded by the Inner Seed.

I am uneasy. But I am also sure that it is not my place to attempt to talk my students out of enlistment--particularly not this student. This morning, reading materials our meeting is reviewing on the Quaker Testimonies in preparation for the revision of New England Yearly Meeting's revision of its Faith and Practice book, I came across this query--a question to be asked to help discern one's spiritual state:

"Do you uphold those who are acting under concern, even if their way differs from yours? Can you lay aside your own wishes and prejudices while seeking with others to find God's will for them?"

Despite the centrality of the Peace Testimony to my life as a Quaker, I have a sense that my student is acting under a concern, and one that is not without stirrings of That of God within him.

No, I don't think God wants my student to fight in, possibly die or kill others in, a war. But there are other things that this decision reflects that I sense are part of what the Spirit is longing for for this young man. I remember that James Nayler was in Cromwell's Model Army before he became a Quaker; indeed, many of that first generation of Friends had served in the military before Friends corporately (communally) discerned the importance of refusing to bear arms against others in any cause whatsoever.

AA would tell me not to "take someone else's inventory." I think this query is, among other things, reminding me that I can't do that around others' relationships with their own souls, either.

But my heart is very, very heavy. And I wish I knew what I am meant to be doing next.
Daisy Deadhead said…
This is a fantastic post, Cat. Just fantastic.

This student is so lucky to have you for a teacher, and to pray for him.
Robin M. said…
I wrote about my discernment about plain dress here.

About young people joining the military, I think there is a lot to your point that not enough people have been proud of this young man.
Liz Opp said…
A few things I'll add, Cat.

1. "I think I may be at that frustrating stage in discerning a spiritual leading where I can feel the dissatisfaction of what I am currently doing, but do not yet see an opening or feel clear about a leading for what to change."

What a clear description of the inward conversion and conviction that is necessary before we truly change our manner. Hang in there, the wait will be worth it.

2. I have been reminded over the years that Quakers would offer clearness committees to young men who were considering enlisting in the military (or so I've heard...). The point of the clearness committee wasn't to tell the young man he was wrong or unQuakerly. The point of the clearness committee was to help the young man discover for himself if he was truly led, truly called to that work.

And I love how you nonjudgmentally reminded your student that even after he reports to duty, he still has options and resources. ...Perhaps you could give him your contact information, or information to an appropriate agency, just in case?

3. Just before reading your post, I had read a post by cubbie, which among other things, included a reference to the word "thuglife" and its origins. Robin's reflection, coupled with cubbie's words, caught me up short...

It's nice for me to read you again. I'm glad I've finally carved out the time to do so.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up
Wow... catching up on comments after the surprising impact (to me) of voting today leaves me feeling very open and tender as I read.

And it reminds me of some words of Parker Palmer's that I read today in school. Reflecting on an interaction with a student he encountered, Palmer wrote that "something I did helped draw that young man into a relationship where he was able to speak his truth."

That's where my leadings lay with this young man. And, if it is hard to trust to Spirit to teach this student what he needs that I can't give him, it's also pretty clear to me that the work his other teachers and I have done over the years to draw him into real relationships of real respect has been the work that we have needed to do.

I remember sitting in a tough business session at New England Yearly Meeting two years' back, and hearing the words over and over, insistently repeating in my brain:
"Trust God to lead, and the people to follow. Trust God to lead, and the people to follow."

It's hard not to try and do God's share, too, even though my own is hard enough for me!

And meaningful enough, for each individual I connect with, too, perhaps.

Liz, Robin, Daisy, thank you. I know you join with me in wishing, hoping, and praying that what is right for each of our kids will find them somehow.

Bright blessings, y'all.
Anonymous said…
Cat, My husband mentors young men and women through the game of chess. We refer to these young people as our "stepchildren". Some simply enjoy the game and fellowship, others are visibly affected by the positive attention my husband gives them. Though none of them have enlisted, I know we would be grieved if they did.

As for plain dress, I don't believe copying a form of 19th century dress is the right way to go. For me, it is more a Woolman approach. Was anyone harmed in the making of this garment? Was it created using methods that don't harm the environment or cause animals pain? Am I adverising a business? And everytime I think of a head covering, I start imagining batik fabrics with great embroidery and so put that aside as too worldly.
Is it practical for every day use?

One last amusing comment. We gave a dear Friend a small quilted wall hanging last summer at yearly meeting. To represent individuals, we asked Friends to check their garments for the extra buttons. Surprisingly, there were very few extra buttons, as "plain dress" was cotton knit garments with no buttons!. The embellishments on the quilt turned out to be all manner of small objects as well as buttons.
RaeVynn Sands said…
When I was a conservative, fundamentalist, fanatical Christian, I wore plain dress... not Quaker style, but more like Mennonite style. Full head covering and only dresses, no makeup, no jewelry... as symbolic of being "under submission" to god and husband. For me, walking out of that lifestyle included leaving that "uniform" behind.
I'm pagan now, and very happy. I do like to play about with costumy clothes, occasionally, but I just can't see myself covering my hair/head voluntarily.
However, I do have peace symbol jewelry :)
Yewtree said…
Yesterday I was discussing the white poppy with someone (she was wearing a red one and a white one), and she said that she joined the military once upon a time because she wanted to go into bomb disposal. I said that each person's decision on that was up to their own conscience.

Regarding plain dress - I am not a plain dresser and headscarves would be absolutely anathema to me (Plymouth Brethren upbringing, 'nuff said). But I do want to dress ethically. I think that's a good way to go about it.
Anonymous said…
I'm working out the plain dress thing for myself, too. For me, clothing has to be as ethical as possible, which means either it comes from manufacturers who have excellent labour relations and do least harm to the environment, or they're second hand. I'm also keen on paying someone a decent rate to alter clothing to fit me as my body shape changes, or to make something from scratch from (usually second hand) fabric I provide; it's rare that I can afford that, but it is the most ethical option I can think of. I'm vegan out of compassion and because of environmental concerns, and so I look out for clothing that contains no animal products - easy when it comes to most things, but difficult when it comes to footwear, though the up-side of that is that I have few shoes and boots, but am very clear on where they came from and what their purposes are. I wear flat shoes partly because I have very weak ankles, but also because I have qualms about what high heels in every day life say about women's freedoms, and because they're purely about image. I've never liked fussy clothes, and most patterns look awful on me - plain cuts and colours look best; discovering that the plainer the garment, the more versatile it is and the fewer clothes you need was a great moment for someone trying to live simply. I've been thinking about this for years, but only over the past year have I been attending Quaker meetings and been aware of the plain dress issue.

I don't usually use cosmetics; when I do, I use mineral cosmetics and try to keep it simple. I'm not sure where I stand on cosmetics, except that if I'm going to wear them they must be cruelty-free, simple, and bought from ethical companies.

I think one of the main things for me is the motivation behind how I choose my clothing and present myself. I'm not against the adorning of the body as a celebration of life and authenticity. I have serious concerns with surgery, clothing, and cosmetics to cover up the real individual, thereby denying authenticity and integrity, and perpetuating self-hatred. It seems to me that the extremes of the fashion industry and of the cover-it-up fundamentalists both work on body hatred, and particularly misogyny.

The other consideration is consumption. I want to buy as little as possible, so want to buy items that are sturdy and multifunctional (that goes for things other than clothing, too). Keeping it simple makes my life easier, on top of all the other ethical considerations.

I was talking to my parents the other day when they complimented me on my skirt and sweater. I said they'd come from charity shops at a grand total of £7, and I was really happy to have found them. My father said, "God, how sad." My mother shook her head in exasperation. I asked why I shouldn't be happy to find nice clothes in good condition, know that I hadn't contributed to labour abuses or landfill, and to have contributed to a couple of charities I think are important. They changed the subject.

I'm still working on what plain dress is to me, but I'm finding it liberating to know I'm engaged in the process.

Today is Remembrance Day, and at 11am I made my peace prayer, praying for peace in every area of my life, to be an agent of peace. Then I read your post.

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