Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Simplicity and Peace

I was asked to speak about "simplicity and peace" for a spirituality group that meets at the Beverly Hilton every Tuesday morning. I had attended meetings of this group and found the participants to be delightful and interesting people--professionals who care deeply about spiritual growth. They call themselves the "Mastery Circle."

Here's the message I shared with the group. Or rather I shared the first half of this talk. It was much too long for my forty minute time slot, and too long for a single post, but if it's useful, read it. If not, have a simply wonderful day!

I wanted to talk about simplicity and peace because we live in a world which seems to be the antithesis of the simple and peaceful. Our society is growing increasingly complex, our lives are becoming increasingly complicated, and we seem to be moving further and further away from any state resembling peace.

I’d like to begin by leading us in a song you probably know called “Simple Gifts.”

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right

“Simple Gifts" was written by Elder Joseph while he was at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine, in 1848. The Shakers were a religious sect that developed out of the Quakers thanks to a charismatic woman named Mother Ann Lee who lived in the 18th century. The Shakers and the Quakes both believed in the Inner Light, but the Shakers, unlike the Quakers, danced and were much more emotional in their religious expression. They also practiced celibacy. Which is the reason that they are hardly any Shakers left today.

Quakers today often sing the song “Simple Gifts.” We resonate with the way it equates simplicity and freedom. Simplicity means getting rid of all the clutter that stands between us and God. Freedom means not simply choosing to buy what we want, but to be so content inwardly we don’t need to buy anything. This inward contentment is true freedom.

The other thing I like about this song is that it equates the spiritual life not with scaling a mountain, but with going down into a valley. Climbing mountains can be us feel very important and proud—what a wise person I am! I’ve reached the highest level of spiritual attainment! This song says we find “love and delight” when we come down off our high horse and “find ourselves in the place just right.”

The “place just right” is found by being downwardly, not upwardly mobile. We find love and delight when we don’t see ourselves as higher or lower than anyone else. We aren’t ashamed to bow and bend—to be flexible and humble. “To turn, to turn will be our delight.” This turning means our life has become like a dance, and we circle around the Center—around God—like the dervishes and like the early Christian mystics, in a state of simple joy and ecstasy. This is how the Shakers worshipped, circling round and round, like children playing ring-a-round-the-rosy.

Incidentally, the tune of this Shaker song was stolen by a British Quaker named Sydney Carter. He wrote a song called “Lord of the Dance.” This song is very popular with Quakers and expresses our feelings about Jesus better than any other hymn I can think of.

Sydney Carter said: “Whether Jesus ever leaped in Galilee to the rhythm of a pipe or drum I do not know. We are told that David danced (and as an act of worship too), so it is not impossible. The fact that many Christians have regarded dancing as a bit ungodly (in a church, at any rate) does not mean that Jesus did.”

Carter regarded Jesus as a universal phenomenon, not simply a first century Jewish teacher/prophet/savior: "I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance. But Jesus is the one I know of first and best. I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus.”

I don’t know whether or not Carter was aware of the mystical tradition of dance described by Evelyn Underhill in her classic work Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. Underhill talks about the Christian mystic Plotinus who described the spiritual life as a kind of choral dance with God as the conductor or dancing master (Corypheus in Greek): "We are like a choir who stand round the conductor but do not always sing in tune, because their attention is diverted by looking at external things. So we always move around the One—if we did not, we should dissolve and cease to exist—but we do not always look towards the One" (p. 233). In ancient Greece, choirs danced as well as sang.

The image of Christ as "Lord of the Dance" (Corypheus) is found in the apocryphal "Hymn of Jesus" that dates back to the early period of the Church. The Logos or Christ stands in a circle of disciples and says, "I am the Word who did play and dance all things." "Now answer to my dancing." "Understand by dancing what I do." Again, "Who danceth not knoweth not what is being done." "I would pipe, dance ye all!" and "All whose Nature is to dance, doth dance."
These two songs help us to understand something about the nature of inner peace. It comes from a place of simplicity and freedom and joy. Ultimately, it comes from being in harmony with out Creator and with Creation.

Many people don’t have a clue when you talk to them about inner peace. They find it impossible to sit alone in a room with the TV or radio shut off for even a few minutes. Most Americans are so addicted to stimuli, and afraid of silence, they can’t stand being anywhere without background music or sounds. That’s was true of me for much of my life. I grew up in a household where the TV was on constantly. We learned to talk and carry on other tasks with a soundtrack of commercials in the background. With such constant stimulation, it is no wonder that many young people become hyperactive and need drugs to calm them down.

Our society teaches us to look outwardly for validation and happiness. We go to college not to learn and to grow in knowledge and wisdom, but to get a ticket to a job or a career that will earn us money or make us feel worthy and respected. We often choose jobs based on how much it pays rather than how much psychological or spiritual fulfillment it provides. When we become stressed out, we go shopping. Or we go to a movie. Or if things get really bad, we pay someone to listen to us as we talk about ourselves and our problems.

We even pay people to give us tips about our spiritual life. This won’t be the case today. I am speaking for free! Or rather I am speaking in exchange for a bowl of oatmeal—what better way to compensate a Quaker for sharing his two cents worth of wisdom!

What I want to share with you today is how Quakers find peace in themselves and how they promote peace in the world through the practice of simplicity.

Quakers have probably the simplest form of worship possible. We gather together in an unadorned room and sit in silence. That’s it. There is no priest or pastor, no pre-arranged order of worship. We just sit and wait expectantly, trusting we will find what we need in the silence. Sometimes someone will feel led to stand and give a message. If that happens, we seek to listen with an open hearts and mind. If no one speaks, we may spend an entire hour in silence. That can be a very precious meeting.

I wish I could say that this simple form of worship never leads to conflict, but I must be honest and admit that people in Meeting sometimes get upset about the vocal ministry. When you allow people the freedom to get up and say what’s on their minds and hearts, there is always a risk they will say something that someone considers inappropriate. I once gave a message about the Iraq war that made a woman so angry she stormed out of meeting. Another man wrote me a nasty email calling me a knee-jerk liberal.

We Quakers are taught to see conflicts such as these as an opportunity for spiritual growth and reconciliation, so I asked our ministry and counsel committee if we could have a meeting for clearness to resolve this conflict. The man accepted and we sat together in silent worship and listened to each other in the presence of Friends and learned to appreciate our differences. We have become very good Friends as a result. The woman who stormed out of meeting refused to meet with me and she has stopped coming to our Meeting. She says we are “too political” and “not spiritual enough” for her. I suspect that wherever she goes, she will hear messages and words she doesn’t like and become angry and upset. She wants peace so badly she will probably never find it because she thinks that peacefulness means finding a place where everyone is quiet and where no one disagrees with you. True peacefulness comes when we accept others the way they are, when we are able to speak our truth and listen to other’s truth without becoming angry, and when we allow ourselves to be guided by Spirit, the “Lord of the Dance.”
Practicing peace and simplicity is not easy. Some people come to Quaker meeting and find it boring or incomprehensible, and they go where there is music, a sermon, and other forms of stimulation.

But sooner or later, if we want to find peace, we need to look within. We need to learn how to sit still and center down and experience what is going on inside us—the good, the bad, the terrifying, and, if we are patient, the deep peacefulness that comes when our thoughts and feelings settle down and we can discover the Light Within.

Silent worship is what drew me to the Quakers back in 1984. At the time, I had completed my Ph.D. in British literature at Rutgers University and was finishing up a stint teaching at Carleton College in Minnesota, but my life was in crisis. I had just gone through a painful divorce and my widowed mother was dying of emphysema. I went back to Princeton—my hometown—to help my mother and my kid sister during this difficult time.

My family situation was so complicated, so fraught with emotional turmoil, I felt helpless, so I asked God for assistance. Not long afterwards, an old friend of mine from graduate school showed up at my house and seemed to radiate calmness. He had changed drastically from the hyper person I knew from grad school so I asked him what had caused this change in his life. He told me about Quakerism and how it had helped him to find inner peace. Since I needed some peacefulness in my life, I decided to give Quakers a try.

Princeton Quakers meet in an old 18th century meetinghouse located in a beautiful, peaceful wooded area near Stony Brook where I used to go fishing as a kid. I entered this ancient meetinghouse and sat down on a bench in front of a stone fireplace with forty or so others. We soon settled into deep silence. It was the most profound spiritual experience I had ever had, and it was just what I needed. I realized I didn’t need a preacher, or music, or words of any kind to have a relationship with the Divine. It was enough to sit in silence and experience the calm, peaceful Presence that lies deep within us. Quakers call this by many names: the Inner Light, the Inward Christ, the Seed. But there is really no word that can begin to describe what this experience is like. Paul perhaps said it best when he called it “the peace that passeth understanding.”

This is where Quaker peacemaking begins, in our way of worship. From this method of worship springs our Quaker commitment to peace, justice, equality and simplicity.

Simplicity is both an inward and outward experience. We achieve outward simplicity by eliminating the excess and clutter in our lives—things that distract us from Truth. That might be big things—like a job we hate or no longer find rewarding, or an expensive house that no longer fits our needs—or it might be small things. When I first became a Quaker, I stopped playing the radio when I did chores around the house. I found that I couldn’t really give my full attention to Mozart and to mopping the floor. To fully appreciate Mozart, I had to listen to his music with my full attention. And to fully appreciate mopping the floor, I had to do it with my full attention.
Gradually I learned to apply this principle to other parts of my life. Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might, is how Ecclesiastes the Preacher puts it. Tich Naht Hahn expressed the same idea when he says: Just do it. When you mop the floor, just mop the floor. When you make love, just make love.

Simple? Yes. Easy. Not at first. It takes a lot of practice to be simple. But practice alone doesn’t make us simple. We must let go, and let Spirit simplify our inward and outward life. As the old song says, simplicity is a gift—something we can’t achieve on our own. We must be open to receiving simplicity as a gift from the Divine.

The great Quaker practitioner of simplicity was John Woolman, a Quaker who lived in Mt Holly New Jersey and is the closest thing we have to a Quaker saint. He was a simple man, a trademan and tailor by profession, who came to realize that slavery was evil. At that time, many Christians, including many Quakers, owned slaves. Woolman came to realize that slavery was wrong when someone asked him to notarize a will that bequeathed a man’s slaves to his children upon his death. Woolman felt uncomfortable notarizing this document, but did it anyway. Later he felt such guilt that he never would notarize such a document again.

In fact, he spent the rest of his life visiting the homes of Quaker slave owners and tried to help them to see that slavery was wrong. To do this, Woolman had to simplify his life. He closed down his thriving retail business and took up tailoring, which required less time and commitment. He stopped wearing clothes that were dyed with indigo, a dye made by slave labor. He modeled the kind of simple life that he felt a Christian ought to live.

I have been inspired by John Woolman to simplify my life. My wife and I always tried to live simply but we found that after twenty years of marriage we had accumulated quite a lot of stuff, enough to fill a moving van. When decided to spend a year at Pendle Hill, the Quaker retreat center where we met, we sold our house and got rid of half of our belongings. I gave away over 2500 books. We eventually reduced all we owned to what could fit into an 18 foot long portable storage unit.

We were all set to leave for the East Coast when we found out my wife had cancer. This forced us to change our plans and move to an apartment in Santa Monica. We began to simplify our lives even further as we adjusted to being cancer patients.

This was an incredibly difficult, yet joyful journey. We learned to let go not only of outward possessions, but also of attitudes and feelings that were standing between us and inner peace. We learned to live day by day, in simple gratefulness for being alive. We grew closer to each other, and to our friends, and to God. We learned to appreciate simple things as amazing gifts from God.

After a valiant struggle, Kathleen’s body succumbed to cancer on May 24. I found myself alone after twenty years of a wonderful marriage. It was very very painful.

Yet even loss can be a gift. Because my wife and I were soul mates, I feel that she is still with me in spirit. She continues to offer me guidance and support. And she even gave me a clue for the current direction of my life.

Just before she went into the hospital for the last time, we had a discussion about how we were going to live when she come home. I told her I would need to find a part-time job to supplement what we were receiving in disability allowance. I said I’d be willing to do just about anything, even go back to teaching part-time at a community college.

“Don’t do it,” she said. “You’ll hate it.”

I became annoyed and tried to reason with her. I told her we needed the money and this was one way I could earn it

“Think outside the box,” she said.

I realized later that she was right. After her death, I sat down and calculated my expenses if I lived simply and realized I didn’t need a paying job. If I lived modestly, as a Quaker should, I could live on my social security and savings. Best of all, I could devote myself full-time to what I love doing: being a peace and interfaith activist. I know this is what my wife would want me to do and what she was trying to help me see. Giving up unnecessary busy-ness is in keeping with our Quaker practice of simplicity. Many Friends reduced or gave up their businesses so that they could devote themselves to their religious concerns.

Simplicity doesn’t mean poverty. It means getting rid of excess stuff—things that stand between you and what Spirit is leading you to do.

Early Quakers felt that we needed to get rid of excess luxuries that made us prideful. William Penn wrote:

Personal pride does not end with noble blood. It leads people to a fond value of
their persons, especially if they have any pretence to shape or beauty. Some are
so taken with themselves it would seem that nothing else deserved their
attention. Their folly would diminish if they could spare but half the time to
think of God, that they spend in washing, perfuming, painting and dressing their
bodies. In these things they are precise and very artificial and spare no cost.
But what aggravates the evil is that the pride of one might comfortably supply
the needs of ten. Gross impiety it is that a nation's pride should be maintained
in the face of its poor

Penn saw a relationship between excess consumption and social injustice. John Woolman also saw a relationship between consumerism and what he called “the seeds of war.” In a pamphlet A Plea for the Poor (written in 1763 and published in 1793), he argued that the accumulation of wealth was itself a form of violence and advocated what we might today call “right sharing” of economic resources in the interest of social justice: "May we look upon our treasures, and the furniture of our houses, and [our] garments, and try whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in these our possessions."7

This is certainly true today. Our addiction to oil, to big cars, to consumerism has led to our having the world’s largest military and a bloated military budget that makes it hard to have decent health care, like other industrial nations. In order to maintain our lifestyle, we feel we need to have military bases all around the world. We sow seeds of war every time we rev up our cars.

“Let Your Aye Be Aye and Your Nay Be Nay”

Another aspect of Quaker simplicity is saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Jesus felt the same way: He told his followers not to swear on oath, but to let your “yes” mean “yes” and your “no” mean “no.”

For this reason, Quakers also refuse to take oaths. An oath implies that we don’t always tell the truth, we tell the truth only “under oath.” Quakers feel we must tell the truth at all times.
Quakers do not sign loyalty oaths. The Quaker lobbying group, Friends Committee of California, was founded in Sacramento during the McCarthy era to oppose loyalty oaths.

Loyalty oaths are a relic of the McCarthy era that are still around, though not much discussed. When I came to California in 1989, I got a job teaching at a community college and I was required to sign a loyalty oath that said I swore to defend the Constitution of the State of California against all enemies foreign and domestic and had no mental reservations. The first time I was given a teaching contract, I signed the oath because I was desperate for a job, and I felt terrible about it later.

A year later I got a job at another community college and was again asked to sign a loyalty oath. This time I consulted with my Quaker friends and was told that I had other options. I wrote a five page essay explaining why I was not comfortable signing the oath. The dean met with me and we had a good conversation and I agreed to sign the oath with an asterisk that said, “See appended statement.”

Later, when I went to work at other community colleges, I simply refused to sign the oath.
Not signing an oath was an important step for me since it gave me courage to speak truth to power in other situations. Many of my academic colleagues claimed they didn’t remember signing the loyalty oath. Clearly these academics were in denial. They didn’t want to admit they had done something they didn’t believe in. I am glad the Quakers got me into the habit of taking seriously what I say and do.

Incidentally, there is a risk involved in not signing the oath. When I refused to sign the oath, nothing happened to me. But I know of cases where professors were denied jobs here in California because they didn’t sign a loyalty oath. This happened within the last year or two when a woman was denied a job for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. She was honored at a Quaker event for following her conscience, and she had to go to court to get her job. It’s not easy to be simple.

Simplicity and Stewardship

In closing, I’d like to say that for contemporary Quakers, simplicity has come to mean reducing consumption for the sake of the planet’s heath. We recognize that we must live simply so that all life forms can simply live. Many of us go to thrift shops, recycle, or go vegan. My meeting in Santa Monica put up solar panels. We encourage our Members to reduce their carbon footprint.
Being simple ultimately means trying to live in harmony with Creation and with the Creator.
I’d like to end with a time of worship sharing and the following questions, or as we Quakers say, “queries.” Queries are used to help us to think more deeply about our lives.
Queries on Simplicity

· Do I center my life in an awareness of God’s presence so that all things take their rightful place?
· Do I live simply, and promote the right sharing of the world’s bounty?
· Do I keep my life uncluttered with things and activities, avoiding commitments beyond my strength and light?
· How do I maintain simplicity, moderation, and honesty in my speech, my manner of living, and my daily work?
· Do I recognize when I have enough?
· Is the life of our Meeting so ordered that it helps us to simplify our lives?


  1. Thank you Anthony for this thought-full piece. I do believe our faith and practice have much to offer this world and appreciate your seeking to find the words to do so. Writing is your gift. I look forward to sharing this with others.
    Peace dear friend, Karen Putney

  2. This is a beautiful statement of core Quaker values, Anthony, and I thank you for it. I plan to send it to family and close friends. How does one contact you other than on a public forum; I want to request your permission for me to post this on my own blog site - - attributed to you, of course.

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