Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Quaker House Dream

I had a dream last night, about visiting some kind of Friends intentional community.

This community resided in two houses that were right next to each other. They were grand old houses, with lots of staircases, alcoves, winding corridors, and rooms set apart for libraries, lounges, and meeting spaces.

The doors to the residents' rooms were generally open, inviting socializing. The rooms were comfortably cluttered, displaying the interesting and involved lives of the residents. The residents themselves were friendly, open, and honest. Their clothing tended to be a bit shabby, but they wore these clothes with unselfconscious confidence, not afraid to appear a bit "peculiar."

I was delighted to be there. I wandered through, treasuring the faded grandeur of the place, delighting in the new surprises around each bend. I loved the people -- my people. While I was a visitor here, I knew and they knew that I had lived in similar Quaker communities myself.

And yet I was worried. While I was glad that the historical beauty of the buildings had not been ruined by the kind of renovation that destroys historical integrity, I was seriously worried that the general disrepair was close to making the buildings uninhabitable. Stairs creaked and swayed under my footsteps. "If we started making critical repairs right now, could we still save these buildings?" I wondered. "Or is it already too late?"

The residents seemed happily oblivious to the seriousness of this problem, taking pride in the "simplicity" of not spending too much money on what they regarded as cosmetic enhancements to the building. The quality of their community life was indeed high, but I feared that they underestimated the fundamental importance of tending to the buildings that housed them, that brought them together under one roof, enabling the communal life they so treasured.

I think this dream has meaning for me on two levels:

On one level, it is about my own reaffirmation (after my busy year) of the importance of taking care of my own physical self.

But it is also and especially about my growing concern for Quakerism itself. Quakerism is like an old and beautiful building. Over time, new rooms have been built, making for an interesting "architecture" of winding passageways and alcoves, libraries and meeting rooms. It is not lavishly decorated, but the "simplicity" that is prized instead evolves to a kind of clutter we barely notice because we see through that clutter to the rich engagement with worthy issues in the world that the clutter symbolizes. But the newcomer may just think, "what a mess!" and misunderstand. And though the building originally was solid, lack of attention to basic maintenance has now made it rickety, in ways we do not want to believe. We think that ancient beauty speaks for itself and will somehow maintain itself. We have gotten used to the way the stairs sway under our feet. We dare not think ahead to what it would mean if the building gave way or had to be evacuated.

If we started right now, could it be saved?

I think that the metaphor of historic renovation is a good one for us to think about. "Renovation" means "to make new again."

How do we "make new again" the basic structures of our faith and practice?

When you renovate an old building, you don't find old wood that has become as weak and broken down as the wood you are replacing. You carve new wood into the elegant old shapes.

When you renovate an old building, you do not always choose to replicate everything as closely as possible. You apply new and improved techniques for wiring, insulation, plumbing, and heating. You may even work to integrate new innovations such as energy efficiency tastefully with the best of the historic features you wish to preserve.

What would it mean for us to strengthen, repair, and polish the traditional features of our faith and practice we most prize?

What new innovations are worth incorporating, and how do we weave these in without destroying what we don't want to lose?

How might we re-organize the clutter that threatens to undermine the simplicity we strive for? How might we better present to newcomers the essential elements of our faith and practice, in a simple and attractive way that invites them in instead of confusing them and putting them off?


  1. Cs,

    I've been very busy since FAHE but wanted to check in. I never did get the email that would enable me to log onto the philosophy site for FAHE. I did want to try to get a discussion going on some of the issues we never got around to at the philosophy panel.

    About your dream, basically the new "wood" that we need to replace the old "wood" is people. As generations grow old and die they have to be replaced by the next generation. Quakerism is rather alarmingly gray at the moment. Younger Friends need to step up and start taking over the roles of Friends who are getting worn out. How do we give younger Friends the courage to step into those roles?

  2. Richard,

    I'll e-mail you about the FAHE philosophy site.

    Meanwhile: yes, I think you are right about people.

    But I am also wondering if we need to be talking about Quakerism in new ways to a wider public. In this respect, the new wood would be new language bespeaking old truths. Teaching at a non-Quaker college, I think a lot about "translation."

    Many Quaker concepts and many Christian concepts are very powerful for me, but I cannot speak of them directly to my students or most of my colleagues without their hearing them in a flat, simplistic, and distorted way. So I have to translate a lot.

    So the query newly emerging for me is this: how might I share more freely of what I have found meaningful and powerful in my Quaker faith, cast in a language that invites connection and understanding instead of putting people off?

  3. I keep finding similarities between "Jewish Renewal" and the efforts to return the Quaker movement to our source... In _Stalking Elijah_, one man tells the author: "Judaism is like an old Bentley. It's a wonderful vehicle with hand-tooled wood interior and rich leather seats. The only trouble is, you have to stop every few miles and work under the hood to get the engine going again." A woman commenting on this a few pages later: "This is who I am. So it's not a question for me. Yes, you have to crank up the car. But I don't have another car."

    When you say "my Quaker faith," are you talking about the tradition?--or the God that tradition points you to?

    The engine of what people call "our Quaker tradition" was early Friends' radical dependence on God's guidance to show them the meaning of the Christian tradition they'd received. They didn't throw that tradition away; they simply insisted that it implied that people needed, and had, God himself to make it livable.

    As for whatever externals we love, or find lacking, "your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Set your mind on God's rule and his justice before everything else, and all the rest will come to you as well."

  4. Thank you for your comments, forrest. Yes, I agree that what matters most is God, and God's justice.

    But if this particular house were finally to fall apart and crumble, something beautiful will have been lost from the world. This grouping of people would separate and find new homes. The memories of shared experiences would fade. This site for living together and sharing wisdom and encouragement would be gone. New things would happen as the people disperse to new locations, some of it quite meaningful and good. And certainly God is always present.

    But still, there is something about this faith community in particular that is unique and special, and I keep thinking that its remaining in existence is better than its passing away.

    I speak from my own experience: an experience of sometimes being regarded with disdain for taking religious faith seriously, and other times being regarded with a kind of admiration that mostly puts me in a category of being "unusual," or "peculiar." What I mean is that it is as if people often think, "wow, it's great that she takes her faith so seriously and has such high standards, but that way of living is just not realistic for ordinary people." But I am ordinary.

    In Quakerism, I have found a community that really understands.

    In the tradition we find specific insights and practices that we use to encourage each other to stay spiritually centered in this complex world.

    Yes, God is there for me no matter what, but I treasure the support and understanding of wise human beings as well. I treasure the love that connects us. I find inspiration in the stories and the writings from the past.

    And I keep wanting to do more to create and shape the physical and social environment to help us all to be our best with each other.