Quaker Basics reflection: David Barry

The Missing Piece

I have been struck twice recently by a jig-saw puzzle metaphor, I fear in any case that it is not original. Once when we were on retreat, and I am very content to use the collective pronoun here, then more recently at meeting for worship in North Adelaide. In both cases people have reported nearly completing a jig-saw puzzle but being unable to finish for the want of a missing piece.

One of the many attractive aspects of Quakerism for me is the acceptance of failures and the gentle focus on the positive aspects of trying to improve the next attempt. I feel that this is allowing me to be more content in the company of my own deficits. I know it would be wrong of me to look for perfection in another, and so I am coming to an understanding that expecting the same of myself is just as wrong. I have come to the possibly misguided opinion that things that are flawed are more interesting and more valuable as a consequence. The Japanese have beaten me to the concept with their term ‘awabe’ – that refers to the uniqueness conferred by a flaw in a mass-produced object.

Gerard Manly Hopkins I think is referring to the same concept when he coined the term ‘inscape’. Hopkins asserted that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” I am certain it is a very conscious use of language on his part, but ‘charged’ has multiple meanings, many of which encapsulate my understanding of Quakerism.

  • Charged with a responsibility for the glory of God
  • Charged in the judicial sense – guilty of expressing the glory…
  • Charged in the artillery sense – ie ready to explode with the glory…
  • Charged in the sense of a battery, ie, the world is a reservoir of the glory…
  • And most powerfully, charged in the sense of being electrified with the glory…

All of this ties in, in some unclear way with the idea we examined in Chinese art that much of the interest of a picture is in what is not depicted – in the absences, in the spaces between.

I found my way to meeting while on a search to create some sense of sacred in my life. Now I find myself being challenged by the idea that every aspect of my life is sacred. That the sacredness in my life is like the chocolate in a chocolate cake – it colours and flavours everything, but it is not the whole cake.

When I first came among Quakers, I was daunted by these ‘…good Quaker folk…”. Now I very much treasure a place where I can engage in gentle humour about Jesus seeming to grow younger day by day. A place where a well a respected member of the community has it in her heart to welcome a stray dog to the meeting. She further honoured the dog by suggesting that the meeting might find some lesson from the dog’s presence, and that he might gain some benefit from being amongst us. If these people have the generosity of spirit to welcome and honour a disregarded dog amongst them, then I can feel confident in my welcome too. Now it is a place too where my absence is felt.

Spice up your life

Simplicity Not wishing to sound complacently ‘saved’ but simplicity is not a challenging testimony for me. Although the concept of a testimony is – but I will leave that to another time. I have always had plain tastes – strong flavours and colours but in simple arrangements. In the past I have wondered whether this was an attempt to hide myself, now I am of the opinion that it is simply my aesthetic. 

Living simply – I have moved beyond the stage in life where I need to have things – life has been quite generous in delivering that particular lesson. In some ways for me it is much simpler to appreciate the beauty in an object without having to worry about its preservation. There is something too about ephemerality that intensifies worth – perhaps because it puts a value on time. Maybe I have just found a workable justification for parsimoniousness. If anything I need to be aware of denying myself too much. I am trying to work with the concept that if I am prepared to do something for someone else, then I should be prepared to do no less for myself.

The first time I thought that I might have the makings of a Quaker, was during a conversation while on retreat when I drew a distinction between simplicity and ease. Tessa was kind enough to comment “That is a profound thought Friend.” It gave me a sense that I was in a right place for me.

Peace Tick. At the start of Quaker Basics I thought this will be a meaty topic for me – it is the one by which I feel most challenged. In my life I think I manage pretty well to hold the peace, and while it has not happened for a very long time that I have been directly threatened, I am fairly certain that I could hold the peace line for longer than most. However, if a third party was threatened I would feel the burden much more keenly and am much less certain of my resolve. I look forward to a conversation about the extent to which I have a responsibility to protect myself from harm and how that balances against the testimony of peace. 

More acutely, I am now actively looking for an alternate job here in Adelaide. While South Australia may be “The Festival State’ and ‘The Wine State’ it is also ‘The Defence State’. It is not that long ago that the British Ministry of Defence was more accurately known as the Ministry of War. Does a peace testimony preclude me working in one of the few technically advanced industries in the state? How deep is my conviction?

Having said that, the issue has arisen previously in my career, and I have always rejected any suggestion of working on defence projects. The local pool is much smaller now though.

Integrity Tick. I have long been of the mind that there is only one (albeit subjective) truth, and that my word is my bond. My signature conveys not a whit of additional protection. The only grey area I am aware of is that of lying by omission. I tend to apply the rule of thumb, who would benefit by the disclosure of information I might hold? If there is no benefit, and a real possibility of a detriment then I am inclined to hold my own counsel. Claiming integrity seems to be tempting providence, prideful even.
Community I am acutely aware of my need for and my responsibilities to community. I try to weave the threads where I can, and I do go out of my way to assist others. I think the most important lesson for me was being obliged to ask for assistance from others. My requests for help have always been met with kindness. On reflection there have been many people who offered help spontaneously in the gentlest and kindest way they could. I try to do the same.
Equality When I first read that ‘good’ scions of industry could be recognized because they know the name of the person who cleans the office floor and empties the waste, and that for a regular period they will take on one of the ‘menial’ roles, I was shocked. I had apparently naively assumed that everyone knew Anna, and was prepared to pick up litter. I am wiser now. I suffer from my own ‘isms’ but they are not many and are reducing. But I am also aware that this is an area that is pregnant with the possibility for multiple blind-spots.

Language is leaving me

If I have a creative gift then it is with language, written rather than spoken. The first time I bumped my head on a philosophical conundrum – not that I knew it as such at the time – was when someone posed the following question. Is it possible to have a thought prior to a language concept to express it? I thought not, and so designated all non-verbal life as non-thinking as well.

Later I stumbled into those little anomalies in English, that we all step over without really noticing. As far as I know there is no verb to describe the action of providing a drink to a human. With food, I can say, that I feed you. With drink if I say I drink you, that conveys a very different meaning to my intended one. The best I can muster is ‘I give you a drink’.

Then as my confidence with language grew I became aware of important concepts that exist in other languages that simply don’t get a look-in in English; enuii, jejeune and zeitgeist as examples. While I can approximate a translation of these, it is not possible to really capture their essential meaning in English. That came as rather a shock. Perhaps dogs had found the whole notion of language as jejune and rejected it early in evolution?

Eventually I came across someone with whom I could not meaningfully communicate particular feelings. I wanted to use words and they wanted to use colours, shapes and textures. At the time I thought they were just being perverse – now I am less certain.

More recently I was privy to a conversation about music – while I deeply appreciate music – I am musically ‘illiterate’ – is there a more correct term? The conversation progressed around me using words that were well known to me, but the concepts they were addressing were alien. I knew the words but not the sense. I have sometimes experienced the same phenomenon with weighty academic texts.

Now I have been introduced to the Quaker concept of silence. A silence that is not simply the absence of speech or words, but has an eloquence, a communication of its own. All those great certainties of life seem to be dropping away from under my feet much like the cartoon character Wylee Coyote when in pursuit of the frankly irritating roadrunner.

It does seem that less is more.

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