Saturday, May 30, 2015

Patience not passivity

I recently read a children's book from 1946 called The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. I am interested in children's literature, among other reasons, because of its influence on adults. In any case, in this story, a 13-year-old named Maria goes with her governess, Miss Heliotrope, to live with her uncle on his estate in the West Country. Early on, the village parson and several wise animals,  a dog (who turns out to be a lion--several years before Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and a cat, advise Maria to be patient and curb her troubling "feminine curiosity." This involves sitting and waiting quietly to be asked, for instance, to tour the estate's kitchens and other areas. Maria obeys, virtue is rewarded and Maria's curiosity satisfied--without annoying anyone in the process.

The book, which relies on the page-turning curiosity of its mostly female readers, and on Maria having the pluck to follow where her questions lead, soon drops the theme of cultivating passivity. However, I continued to ponder it, and the way passivity is often confused with patience.

Patience is not one of the fruits of the spirit contemporary Quakers emphasize. Our "p" is primarily for peace--more precisely peace-making, and we celebrate active virtues: cultivating simplicity, peace, integrity, community and equality in how we live. Sitting patiently and waiting for other people to initiate change has not been part of our tradition.

It's important, however, I think, not to confuse patience with passivity. It seems to me Biblical patience has little to do with sitting quietly. The  patience of Job had everything to do with enduring suffering, not basking in beatific stillness as he laid on the dung heap, covered in sores.  Job actively cursed God, and God told the people criticizing Job for doing that that Job was right, that nobody deserved the kind of suffering he'd endured.

Early Quakers like  Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers, who were imprisoned in Malta by the Inquisition for preaching up the Quaker word in a Catholic region, also don't fit a model of serene and saintly acceptance that we tend to associate with patience. They endured imprisonment--but they also fought back against it. Evans and Cheevers mounted a hunger strike in prison, complained vocally and resentfully about their abusive treatment and argued vigorously to refute both the theology and the threats of priests--but had the patience to resist trading freedom for, say, kissing the crucifix or recanting their Quaker testimony.

Malta cell of Evans and Cheevers

They had Biblical patience, a willingness to endure the consequences of following leadings, leadings that brought them into clashes with worldly authorities. Their patience was a fruit of activity, not passivity, and it was active in itself.

One of the earlier, lost meanings of being a "plain" people that the Quakers adopted as a label was "plaint" or complaint. The early Quakers were not simply plain because they had leveled their religion from the "airy" heights of the Anglicans or because they lived simply, but because they were people of the plaint--people with complaints--people who had suffered. They were patient but they weren't complaisant. Their patience in suffering was active and vocal, an incessant cry against the way they were treated. Their patience was accompanied by calls, again and again, for social justice.

This kind of patience,  a robust and even defiant willingness to endure the suffering brought on by following leadings, is a supernatural fruit of the spirit. The flesh shrinks from imprisonment, torture and want, the soul from the shame and censure that defying authority elicits in other people. This patience emerges not through passivity but through active immersion in the life of prayer and attention to spirit. Why does it well up during some periods and not others? Why do we seem to have so little of it today?

Monday, May 25, 2015

Eating violets: the Olney poetry slam

A month ago Olney had its poetry slam, and that might as well be an eon past in a wider culture structured to rush ceaselessly onward. We live in torrenting rapids, which threaten to smash to bits anything that can't keep pace. We hurtle into the latest event, temporal proximity lending to whatever is newest a heightened, if false importance. 

I say this as a way to note I am very late in writing about this slam. I recognize, however, that endless haste is the world speaking and will chose to live in the eternal Now, in which a poetry reading at a Quaker boarding school outweighs events much closer to us in time and (seeming) importance.

Olney students enjoy the poetry slam. 

At the poetry slam, I was impressed by Lee Tran's recitation of Brenna Twohy's  "In which I do not fear Harvey Dent." 

Lee Tran performs Brenna Twohy's  "In which I do not fear Harvey Dent" in the girl's dorm parlor. 

Lines from that poem, which likens coping with mental illness  to being a superhero,  still leap out at me: 

"you have never seen me out of costume,would not even recognize me outside of this armor

When you have mental illness, society tells you your only power is your invisibility.
Tells you that they would save you if only they could see you,
but of course they cannot see you,
of course they will not save you, no matter how bright you sew your cape.
Invisibility is not a superpower,
it is the best weapon of a broken system
desperate to make their streets look clean
I know what it is to fight monsters.I know how strong an ordinary human has to be." 
Senior Noah Howells wrote a moving original poem about his four years at Olney, friendship, community and "mango cakes at midnight." Senior Joe Kingery read a poem called "A New Addiction Please" by John Brehm, which spoke eloquently to how upside-down our society is, asking why, instead of oil, we can't become addicted to the sun and the wind. Lichen Yang recited William Blake's "To See a World,"  going beyond the often quoted opening: 
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour

to the darker condemnation of human cruelty:
A dog starvd at his Masters Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State 
A Horse misusd upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood 

to the observation

Joy & Woe are woven fine 
A Clothing for the soul divine 
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine 


Some to Misery are Born 
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight 
Some are Born to sweet delight 
Some are Born to Endless Night 
to a Quakerly use of imagery:

God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night 
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day

     Concerns over language in prior slams led to a more decorous approach this year, and the running monologue of the facilitators, seniors Amihan Tindongan and Joe Kingery, spoofed propriety. Joe and Amihan kept the audience laughing with mock British accents, pinkies in the air and lessons in proper manners and inflection. The British-themed intermission included homemade scones and the hanging gauzy drape was a mannerly white sprinkled with purple flowers. 

At the slam, facilitators Amihan Tindongan and Joe Kingery spoofed propriety.

Discouraging the f-word, the s-word and other transgressive expressions can't, however, suppress poetry's ability to speak truth to power. As I listened, I was moved by the poems the students chose, and I sank into poetry's spiritual power, which we experience in our bodies as well as our minds. Even the early Quakers, frown as they might on romances (early novels) and drama, couldn't resist the allure of poetry: I think of Elizabeth Bathhurst bursting seemingly spontaneously into ecstatic couplets to express her vision of heaven. 

"An infinite ocean of light and love."

I learned at almost the same time as the poetry slam that humans can eat violets and that the leaves are high in vitamins A and C. For weeks, the violets were interspersed with the grass, and I added the bright flowers to salads. They tasted mild, faintly sweet, and seemed a metaphor for the Kingdom of God: it's all around us but we don't always know we can have it, not just watch it from afar but let it become a part of us. 

Violets bloomed all over Barnesville for awhile: "Eat and drink, this is my body given for you."

Eating violets also seemed like a metaphor for the poetry slam. With the seemingly fragile and ephemeral, we are touched and fed by the eternal Now.