5

Complex Simplicity

During the summer I spent time as an Eva Koch scholar at Woodbrooke – the Quaker study centre in Birmingham. I was researching the subject of Simplicity, which is a Quaker Testimony alongside Peace, Truth and Equality. Testimonies are like codes of conduct – a kind-of blue-print of the values and insights – and resulting actions – that we aim to live our lives by. Over the next six weeks I will share with you a series of articles that I wrote based on my research and the one-to-one interviews I conducted. These articles have previously been published in the Friend magazine.

COMPLEX SIMPLICITY

Looking at the complexity that goes hand-in-hand with simplicity and the interplay between the Quaker testimonies.

Why is simplicity so complicated and how do we define it? This question arose repeatedly during my Eva Koch scholarship at Woodbrooke.

For my research I was privileged to conduct one-to-one interviews with twenty-six people – mainly Friends aged from their twenties to seventies from a variety of backgrounds. ‘What comes to mind when I say the word “simplicity”?’ I asked. Friends were often more sure about what it was not: complicated, ritualised, cluttered, getting hung up on material things, a weakness, conflict or extravagance.

In Testimony: Quakerism and Theological Ethics, Rachel Muers talks about ‘negative testimony’ – ‘testimony against’ that developed in resistance to patterns and structures of life. Thus early Quakers were advised against wearing wigs (which showed pride) or the swearing of oaths (which implied ‘a double standard of truth’ Advices & queries 37).

Today, Friends felt the testimony involved: ‘leading a simple moral life’, silent contemplation, thinking ‘more carefully’ about what is important and commitment to only these things, practical lifestyle changes such as decluttering and owning only what we need, a simple belief in God and spirituality, political action, and ‘being aware of what we’re doing to the planet and not overconsuming things so that there’s more for others.’

Complicated simplicity

The difficulty of interpreting and acting out simplicity was a common theme. One example given was that when we decide to buy ‘ethically’ we need to research how things are made and transported; another that we should find businesses that share wealth with their employees. Having so many choices makes you feel ‘stuck’ said one Friend, and too much money overcomplicates things. What is sufficient and does motivation matter? George Fox himself defended William Penn for wearing a wig because he lost his hair through smallpox and needed warmth.

The Oxford Dictionary’s definition of simplicity is: ‘the quality or condition of being easy to understand or do’; or of ‘being plain or uncomplicated in form or design’. The theme of ‘clarity’ was important to Friends. For one, simplicity involved ‘the distilling of knowledge… taking a lot of information and making it into something kind of manageable’. Elaine Prevallet, speaking of both simplicity and God in her Pendle Hill pamphlet Reflections on Simplicity, says ‘one sees it more clearly when not looking directly at it’.

The 1803 Extracts from Advices of the Yearly Meeting asked early Quakers to ‘keep to that plainness and simplicity in apparel, speech and behaviour, into which the Spirit of truth led our forefathers’ amidst concerns they would be led from ‘the simplicity and plainness that becomes the gospel’. Early Quakers like John Woolman found their values lead to complexity. ‘If anything, Woolman’s simple living and single-eyed knowing makes his world more complex,’ Rachel Muers says, because ‘he cannot allow his immediate wishes or partisan interests to… limit his field of vision and responsibility’.

One Friend pointed out that businesses Quakers used to be involved in, such as banking, are no longer simple because of multinationalism and globalisation. ‘Our sophistication and complexity are self-destructing’ noted Richard Rohr in Simplicity: The Freedom of Letting Go. Another Friend said ‘do not mistake the simple solution as necessarily the right one, because life is complex.’ One mother, overwhelmed with clutter, a busy lifestyle and a child with multiple needs, found creative solutions in time out at Meeting and sitting quietly with her children as they slept.

Connecting the inward with the outward

Tuning in to God helps outward decisions become simpler. In Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity, Catherine Whitmire says that her life began to simplify as she ‘learned to listen within and to focus my time and energies on what I discerned to be God’s will instead of my own.’ As a result, ‘changes that had seemed difficult and complicated were suddenly clear.’

‘Simplicity is something that you find out of complexity… there is no easy shortcut,’ one Friend told me. ‘What, in a way, we’re doing in meditation/contemplation/Meeting for Worship is trying to clear out all those kind of addictions… distortions… we have in relation to life.’

Silence was also important to Friends in helping ‘turn down the noise’. For one, the ‘simplistic, silent, expectant’ environment at Meeting for Worship helped him to ‘tune in’.

A corporate challenge

Translating spiritual leadings into action also affects communities. In Simplicity, Richard Rohr describes a discussion with a friend about why so many communities fold, suggesting that ‘they had a hard time integrating spirituality and commitment to social justice issues.’

The title of Pam Lunn’s 2011 Swarthmore Lecture Costing not less than everything appears in T S Eliot’s Little Gidding, drawing on the fourth step of humility in the Benedictine Rule. She challenges us to respond to our ‘planetary emergency’, saying: ‘The crucial and underlying question for us as Quakers is: are we content to be merely a support group for people on their individual spiritual journeys, or are we able to rediscover solidarity as people of God?’

Quakers should be ‘keeping the balance between a radical questioning and a weighty group that has respect and depth,’ one Friend told me, emphasising the importance of our history and traditions.

Interconnected testimony

Simplicity cannot be separated from other testimonies, and Friends noted links with sustainability – often seen as a fifth testimony. Many participants prioritised concerns connected to this, including transport, production methods and energy-generation waste. In Testimony, Rachel Muers concludes that, although sustainability has the hallmarks of testimony because it’s ‘collectively owned’ and a ‘settled result’ of Quaker discernment and decision-making, it actually links with simplicity, and that environmental concerns do not present a new set of practical imperatives.

One Friend said that the separation of the testimonies feels ‘false’, but they serve the purpose of expressing to others what matters to us as Quakers, defining corporate concerns. Jonathan Dale, in his talk on Economic Justice and the Sustainable Global Community at Friends House in London, noted the paradox that although ‘each great issue, whether inequality or sustainability or true democracy, seemed unrealistically Utopian on it’s own, now, taken together… they reinforce each other’.

Ultimately it is the relationship to truth that highlights what simplicity asks of us – a connection mentioned by several Friends. ‘Speaking truth is a manifestation of simplicity,’ one said, ‘if you find a truth you then have to live by it.’ And another: ‘We’re maybe not looking at the simple life right – we’re distorting it.’ She thought hard and added: ‘It’s more about what’s inside of us and coming out, rather than what’s outside of us and coming in.’

This article first appeared in ‘the Friend’ on 30/09/2016

© Anne de Gruchy

8

A ‘Thank You’ to Eva Koch

Today is the last day of my six-week stay at Woodbrooke Quaker study centre for my Eva Koch scholarship.

It has been an amazing and privileged journey to be a research scholar here. I have worked alongside three other wonderful Eva Koch scholars, all with their own special areas of interest. We have (nearly!) completed our studies and done presentations of our work at an open meeting for those who were interested.

It has felt good to be part of the community here: to see people come and go as courses finished and new ones started; to meet people simply staying for a nights B&B because of a work commitment or family wedding nearby; to get to know some of the staff and tutors a little better.

Just before I came, I was offered a new job and thought that I would be returning home to the world of employed work again. Then the job offer was withdrawn because of a disagreement between Human Resources and the appointing officer about what constituted an ‘or equivalent’ qualification. I found myself wrong-footed and a bit rudderless, and have tried to use my time here to reflect, and to discern the way forward. I know this is still something I need to ‘sit with’, especially given my father’s increasing needs.

While I was here I read a wonderful book by Verena Schiller called: A Simplified Life: A contemporary hermit’s experience of solitude and silence. Of all the multitude of books that I have read since starting my studies, this has spoken to me most clearly. Verena writes of her life as a hermit in a small cabin on the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales. She describes, with a huge depth of humanity and spirituality, her lifestyle, the landscape around her, and the draw of the islands and coastline to monks and hermits across the ages. It is a deeply evocative book, as well as a deeply human one.

It was not Verena’s isolated life as a hermit that spoke to me – though I often have wishful visions of a tiny place somewhere beautiful and away from things – but the fact that she was able to wait for the leadings she was given to crystallize and become clear. I am an impatient person who tends to move back into my ‘thinking’ head-space when I should be waiting with God for the clarity that will come if only I would make time. Time and simplicity – my Eva Koch study area – go hand in hand I have found.

Simplicity is a deeply complicated area. If you are interested in my work there will be a series of six articles in The Friend starting in early October, and later on the Woodbrooke blog. I will also be sharing a piece of artwork that derived from the many beautiful words and meanings that simplicity had for the people I interviewed as part of my research; they were so rich and varied that I felt I could not simply represent them in writing. In the meantime, a big ‘Thank You’ to our tutors and the staff and guests at Woodbrooke, and to my fellow Eva Koch scholars – Rhiannon, Jane, and Joycelin (who couldn’t be there for the photo) – it has been wonderful getting to know you and working alongside you.

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Eva Koch scholars 2016

MAD MOMENT…

Just doing this! Just applying and going for six weeks of immersive Quakerly research!!

MARVEL MOMENT…

Actually being here at Woodbrooke and the deep, rich seams that have emerged from my work and the interviews I conducted.

© Anne de Gruchy

1

A Blessing for Woodbrooke

This is a blessing I used at one of the evening ‘Epilogue’ sessions at Woodbrooke. It was inspired by the connection I felt to Celtic spirituality while I was here – the relationship this place has to the gardens and nature, and to the rhythms of work and the year.

At the rising of the sun,
when the night disperses with a whisper
and we welcome the promise of day,
let us embrace this place and the people in it:
welcoming their work
welcoming their leisure
welcoming the Spirit that travels with them.

At the height of the sun in the sky,
when community gathers to share food
and news of their efforts and of each other,
let us celebrate the harvest of our hours,
welcoming bounty
thankful for friendship
humble in the face of the beauty of this world.

At the slow, red, setting of the sun,
when the light spreads into crimson wonder
and our hearts are opened wide,
let us drink from the well of the silence,
living only in this moment
drawing deep
lighting our souls from within.

© Anne de Gruchy

2

Reflections on Simplicity

A sadness fell on me over the weekend – I realized that I had reached the half-way point in my Eva Koch study scholarship. I had to remind myself to focus on each moment in the day, and not hook into the recognition that there must come a point when I leave.

It is an immersive experience being here at Woodbrooke. You are part of this loose but close-knit community, whose membership ebbs and flows as courses and conferences come and go. There is the constant backbone of the staff and tutor teams, alongside volunteer teams who help in the garden and in welcoming and looking after guests. I have met so many interesting people, including some who simply wanted a different type of Bed and Breakfast for a business commitment in Birmingham.

You feel like an old hand here when you have seen several changes in the rota of Friends in Residence (FIRs!). But the whole is held together by the rhythm of the days: a half-hour Meeting for Worship after breakfast, coffee and tea breaks with home-made biscuits, mealtimes with wonderfully wholesome and imaginative food and a bell to request a moment of silence for thankfulness, Epilogue in the evening where we enjoy fifteen minutes of silence and reflection.

The rhythms of this place remind me of Celtic spirituality; of the focus on the spiritual connectedness of work and nature and community.

There are four Eva Koch scholars staying here this summer. We form our own ‘community within a community’ and it is a joy to get to know others who are immersed in their own fields of study. We have got to the point where we can break down in giggles together and make risky jokes (not at all a Quakerly thing, surely?). We are knitted into our little research community by a support network of tutors and meetings. We will be sharing our work soon in an open presentation for those who wonder what these weird wandering researchers are actually doing with their time.

When I started this blog post I had intended to tell you a little about my work – about the research I am doing into the Quaker testimony of simplicity and what it means to people today. I find that the work is less important than the process, and that I am learning to listen to the leadings God gives me from within and to be patient in allowing them to come to fruition in their own time.

Along the way, my research has involved conducting one-to-one interviews with 26 people, and these, alone, have been a revelation. The connections I have felt, and the openness and honesty people have entrusted to me, have really moved me. Many people thanked me and said how much the interviews had shifted and opened up things in their own lives. It is a two-way process – this research, this simplicity thing.

Eventually I will have written six articles for The Friend magazine and to be used as blog posts later, and I will have designed workshops and a weekend course. People have shared with me things that have inspired them in their thinking about simplicity – books, and blogs, and hobbies, and podcasts, and websites, and poetry, and even cookery suggestions – so I will also have an inspiring Resource List to offer people. You may have guessed by now that I might need a little more than my six weeks here to complete everything!

It is a joy, being here, and I am trying to be truly present to the gift I’ve been given. I wish you similar blessings in your own lives.

MAD MOMENT…

Joining a wonderful Five Rhythms dance course and dancing the wave through ‘Chaos’ with calf muscles that felt like someone had tightened them in a torture device!

MARVEL MOMENT…

During the same dance course: the intense peace of a walking meditation through the labyrinth; dancing outside on the grass with the sun shining down on us; the simple and deep connection that I developed with the other participants on the course.

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© Anne de Gruchy

2

Experiencing Woodbrooke in Photographs

So here I am, investigating the Quaker testimony of simplicity at the wonderful Woodbrooke study centre. I am deep in interviews and books and writing and research. I am also deep in peace and goodwill and greenery. So here is a quirky tour by photograph…

* The beautiful sculpture of a Quaker Meeting by Peter Peri. *

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* On the first evening we held a Meeting for Worship and vigil to uphold those in parliament who were making the decision about the renewal of Trident. We sat in a circle and these candles formed a centre and focus. *

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* The terrace alongside the garden lounge at night – there are wonderful words of wisdom etched on the windows and doors of the garden lounge. *

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* I don’t have to worry about missing my cat too much… *

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* The rose arch looks even better in the dark. *

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* A Friend-in-Residence allowed me to photograph her emerging flower arrangement. *

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* Wow! Looking back at the main building in thirty degrees of sunshine and flower meadow. *

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* The anti-torture garden has a beautiful statue, and wirework… *

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* …with flowers winding through. *

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* The walled garden is full of vegetables, and fruit, and herbs, and… nasturtiums.  Three watering cans make an imaginative water cascade. *

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* I met a member of the gardening team carefully clipping the Cloud Hedge.  There are so many beautiful trees – even a dead branch brings beauty. *

2016-07-19 14.07.23    2016-07-19 14.10.18

* Stepping stones across the stream – exploring the woodland beyond the lake. *

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* Word Labyrinth in the Garden Lounge. There is a grass version you can walk outside. *

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© Anne de Gruchy with thanks to Woodbrooke

0

Saturated in Simplicity

Recently I have been saturated in simplicity.

You may remember an earlier blog post of mine where I looked at the challenges that the Quaker Testimony of Simplicity posed in my life. Check out: https://annedegruchy.co.uk/2015/12/07/the-challenge-of-simplicity/ if you are interested. As Quakers we are encouraged:

Try to live simply. A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength. Do not be persuaded into buying what you do not need or cannot afford. Do you keep yourself informed about the effects your style of living is having on the global economy and environment?

Quaker Faith & Practice – Advices & Queries 1.02.41

‘How should I act?’ I asked myself in my previous post, as I pondered my ownership of more than my fair share of the earth’s resources.

Of course God listens to us, and, because I try to listen to what God is giving to me, I found my answer. The very next day after my blog post, a Quaker Facebook Friend – someone who I have not met personally – posted a link to the Quaker study centre at Woodbrooke in Birmingham and their Eva Koch Scholarship programme. ‘Could this be for you?’ she asked.

I checked it out: The opportunity to spend six weeks over the summer in the beautiful surroundings of Woodbrooke researching a topic of interest and benefit to Quakers; the chance to be part of the Woodbrooke community and to form a small research community with the other Eva Koch scholars for that year; the possibility of applying to study simplicity in an imaginative way and to share the outcomes with others.

‘Ah but,’ the niggly part of my brain said. What about dad? What about looking for a job? What if you actually get a deal on your new novel and need to go and visit agencies or publishers? What if you are depressed and can’t cope with the work?

‘Listen; be still,’ the better part of me said. And it was clear to me that this was something that I should apply for.

Since then, I have been reading and thinking a lot about simplicity. I have begun to find the connections between spiritual simplicity and the more obvious questions of ownership and stewardship. I have spoken to many people for whom these issues chime and challenge and who are keen to talk to me further. The implications of simplicity spread wide – from the need to pay attention (to be mindful) in everything we do, to the management of time and possessions, to the question of how to reduce the complexities of technology in our lives. Then there are other people to consider – our families and friends who may be affected by our choices. It is not a simple thing I have got myself into!!

And yes, I was successful with my Eva Koch Scholarship application. I feel like God’s hand was there guiding it along the way. My sister assured me that she would be available to dad during the period of the scholarship, and my assigned tutor has been very supportive and understanding that dad’s needs might disrupt my time of study. It is beginning to feel real and I have already conducted some interviews with people. I can see that the time will go very fast.

It is also a time of change for me. A pivotal point in my year between the completion of my third novel and the possibility that I may need to look for paid employment again if I am unsuccessful in placing it.

What better way to refocus than through the eyes of simplicity? As North Carolina Yearly Meeting said in 1983, simplicity ‘…must still be seen as a testimony against involvement with things that tend to dilute our energies and scatter our thoughts, reducing us to lives of triviality and mediocrity.’ (Quaker Faith & Practice 20.27).

Let’s vote for lives of meaning and richness instead.

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Quaker Service Memorial      annedegruchy.co.uk image: Simplicity Carving

MAD MOMENT…

The Channel Island connections keep on coming! One of the people who kindly volunteered to provide accommodation in London for me during this year’s Yearly Meeting (Quakerly business gathering) was born on Jersey where my father’s family has its roots. My surname is always a giveaway and starts many a conversation.

MARVEL MOMENT…

Attending a special Meeting for Worship to remember conscientious objectors at the Quaker Service Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum. Sunshine, the sound of birdsong, rustling trees, and a deep sense of calm.

© Anne de Gruchy