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?
7 years ago