I love to quote Frank Zappa on this, “Your life is a ribbon of time that you get to decorate.” Early Friends were rightly wary of decoration. They dissented from “high church” practices of pomp and circumstance, oratory and argumentation, frankincense and anointing oils. They were rightly wary of self-proclaimed prophets, state-funded theocrats, and peddlers of political revolutions and snake oil. In probably the first written expression of Quaker faith and practice, the Elders at Balby advised, “[As] any are moved of the Lord to speak the Word of the Lord . . . [it should] be done in faithfulness, without adding or diminishing.” (1656) Then just a few decades later, London Yearly Meeting extended this idea further and gave their “tender and Christian advice that Friends take care to keep to truth and plainness, in language, habit, deportment and behavior . . . and to avoid . . . all vain and superfluous fashions of the world.” (1691)
Distinguishing plainness from the fashions of the world, however, is not always easy. Mindfulness meditation, for example, has become big business. “The U.S. meditation market was estimated to be valued at . . . $1.21 billion in 2017.” (blog.marketreasearch.com, 10/16/2019) While this sector no doubt delivers quality-of-life improvements to the nine million U.S. adults who currently meditate, it serves those individuals as individuals. Friends have always understood that the plainness of Truth emerges only from relationship – relationships among two or more people gathered together in and with the great Creative Principle.
In Silence: Our Eyes on Eternity, Daniel Seeger wrote, “I once had the privilege of making an excursion to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. . . over 5,000 feet deep . . . [As] one gazes upward . . . past all the strata of rock from different ages and eons, up to the very rim, one realizes that the time that human beings have walked upon this earth is represented only by the top two or three inches of all these layers, and one is awestruck at the great and long creative process which has raised us up to where we are. A true simplicity and stillness of heart allows us to know at any given moment if we are acting so as to be at one with this great Creative Principle, or if we are not.” (PHP #318, 1994)
Seeger also recounts that Gandhi’s program of homespun weaving was not just an economic campaign within the Indian independence movement, but was also “meant to provide a devotional practice . . . Gandhi claimed he could tell the quality of inner silence and centeredness of a person by examining the homespun he or she had made. . . . [He viewed] present-centeredness and inner silence [as] essential to nonviolence. For violence is always, at root, a willingness to do something ugly in the here and now . . .” (1994)
If “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” then decorating one’s ribbon of time with truth is the ultimate artistry. Truth can only be expressed if one glimpses it, which requires staying alert, paying attention. The pioneer of abstract expressionism Wassily Kandinsky wrote that if one pleads “an inability of recognizing the inner life behind the external appearances of things [then] the soul, hardened like an empty nutshell, [loses] its capacity to penetrate any longer to the depths of things where the pulsebeat, beneath the outer husk, becomes audible.” (1926) The Elders at Balby advised us to serve as conduits of truth “without adding or diminishing.” We are not to diminish our encounters with experience; we are not to mince our words. To merely “be here now” is insufficient.
The present moment is, of course, the only moment of truth. And by some miracle, within this present moment, we are able to turn our attention this way or that. Of painting, Kandinsky said, “Externally, each individual graphic or pictorial form is an element. Inwardly, it is not this form itself but, rather, the tension within it, which constitutes the element.” (1926) The tensions we experience in the flow of time are the stuff that truth is made of. May our eyes be sharp and our hands be steady as we thread the needle and repair this ribbon of time we find ourselves in. ~~~