Last week someone handed me a Christmas card whilst almost apologetically commenting that he didn’t know whether ‘your lot’ do Christmas but ‘here you go anyway’. My lot being Quakers. Well, yes and no…
It’s true that just as Quaker meetings in the don’t normally involve symbols or set prayers, they also generally don’t feature the marking of any festivals or saints days. Today this is justified by appeals to our ‘testimony’ of simplicity; but its origins lie in the rebellious nature of the Quaker movement in the context of the religious turbulence of 17th century England. One of many ‘diy’ congregational societies formed at the time, its members sought a means of exploring their faith away from the authoritarian oversight of ministers and the trappings and layers of church traditions. In doing so, groups like the Quakers saw themselves as ‘friends of the truth’ and set about forming an understanding of Christianity drawn from what they read in scripture enlightened by their own insights. When it came to the question of festivals and Christmas, seeing no basis for the annual celebration of Jesus’ birth on a particular day in winter, they simply abandoned the idea as a religious prospect.
So this sense of detachment from the significance of particular times and seasons is written into the DNA of Quaker worship and, for many Quakers over the years, interpreted strictly in their daily life as well. But it would be incorrect to characterise contemporary Quakers as puritan, and I’ve certainly never met any who are immune to the Christmas spirit, or the comings and goings of times and seasons throughout the year. Far from it: we might not decorate our Meeting Houses but you might find a ‘programmed’ Meeting for Worship here and there where the odd carol is sung, mince pies are enjoyed afterwards and yes, Christmas cards exchanged.
So what is the deal with Quakers and Christmas (and Easter, and any other national holidays)? I can’t speak for every Quaker but the way I see it is this. Festivals are a way for us all to unwind, celebrate each other, pause for breath, look back on our achievements and any number of other good and socially necessary things. It just so happens that our major winter festival got wound up with the celebration of the nativity and became a time when the church focusses on Jesus’ birth; and the fact that this still permeates the secular celebration of Christmas is testament to the power of the story at its heart.
I see no reason to turn away from the telling and retelling of that story at this time of year; but to be conscious of the distance between the way in which it is commonly told and the likely facts of its origins or the implications of its message. It doesn’t matter when Jesus was born. It does matter that the narratives we have in the gospels have him born into an ordinary family of no status or wealth, outsiders far from home, with the birth being announced first to shepherds – workers doing one of the least respectable jobs available at the time. It matters that the next people to notice were foreign travellers, looking for meaning in cultures beyond their own and seeking the common ground between those cultures. The inference is clear: what follows in the life of this remarkable human is a message for all people of whatever rank or background. Whether we’re interested in that message and what we make of it is up to us – and our conclusions are for life, not just for Christmas.
When I arrived in Airton 2 years ago complete with a brace of young Bramley apple grafts ready to plant where I could find space, doubt was expressed that they would ever produce much of a harvest this far north. Still waiting in their pots, it’ll certainly be a few years before they have the chance to prove their doubters wrong; but if the bumper crop from a neighbour’s Bramley after this year’s long hot summer is anything to judge by I’ll have nothing to worry about.
It’s definitely a mast year for fruit: apples, plums, berries of all kinds seem to be pouring out of the trees faster than their proprietors can sweep them up. I spent a day last week scrambling around in the branches of the aforementioned Bramley twisting handfuls of emerald spheres off drooping twigs, the boughs almost sighing in relief as perhaps a third of a tonne of weight was taken off them. (That’s an educated estimate – six large crates easily equivalent to most of a m3 dumpy-bag at a material density of around 830kg/m3 or allowing for air assuming apples are roughly spherical hence don’t tesselate, maybe 400-500kg/m3 stacked, times by say ¾m3 for the actual quantity picked gets you to about 350kg). So numerous was the crop I started to form the delirious impression that the branches were growing new fruit whenever I looked away…
It was a scene from my childhood. Growing up in a mid-size semi-detached with a garden of what used to be standard proportions (sadly rare to non-existent for newer housing estates) one of my favourite features – indeed as far as I was concerned the only interesting feature of the garden – was the apple tree: a remnant of some long-forgotten orchard supplying the kitchens of the long defunct estate, broken up and sold to the city early last century when the local gentry’s fortunes fizzled out. Neglected, the tree grew with a Bramley’s customary vigour till it filled the top end of the garden, stretching its boughs from fence to fence and thrusting branches skyward so that by the time we colonised the garden in the mid-70s it rivalled the house in the volume of space it occupied. When the old garden appears in my dreams from time to time it’s always with a version of this gnarled old bent-bottle tree stooping low over the lawn and seeming to offer the choice between climbing it or felling it.
Climbing as far into its upper reaches as I dared was the highlight of the year – usually somewhat later than the end of August, but this year’s extreme summer has brought everything on early – tossing the blushing green spheres to my dad on the ground, filling bag after bag, dropping the odd one or ten, so that half of them would end up bruised or cut by whatever broke their fall. It might go into a second day… and then was the sorting into best’ns for keeping, good’ns for using soon, damaged or moth-eaten for this week and no-hopers for the compost. After that the wrapping in newspaper, laying in shallow cardboard boxes and stashing in the attic. Then for the next several months it would be my job to fetch the next few for that week’s culinary creation till the supply finally ran dry early in the year. Sometimes in the dark of the attic my hand would rest on something softer than a healthy fruit – a ball of speckled brown mould where once was an apple. I didn’t mind: the promise of the crumble or apple sponge to come would make any such jeopardy worthwhile.
I took scions from the old tree before it finally gave out to heart-rot, grafting a handful of new offspring, giving them to family in various parts of the country. Then again a few years ago from the one I kept and had planted in my own garden. It’s these grandchildren of my old Bramley that now sit in air pots waiting for their chance to put roots down in our northern soil. They will be smaller – I used M26 rootstocks this time (the smallest I dare for this variety of apple) but after this year’s abundance I’m confident they will eventually produce a good crop between them.
At the time I was first hoiking myself up into that old tree I would have had no other thought than ‘this is fun’. But in retrospect the years of harvest in that garden gave so much more than arboreal adventure and apples – it was this urban kid’s first and most important connection with the abundance that can come from partnership with the natural world. Without that tree I mightn’t have half the passion for nature that I do now nor as a consequence, the same understanding of our role as components within ecosystems, interacting with all other components for better or worse. We don’t own the world; we don’t even own the trees in our gardens – but we do own the way we manage them, how we celebrate them and what we do with their abundance. So here’s to Bramleys, long summers and apple pies!
Nine years ago today I nearly came a cropper in a freak accident on the road – freak mostly because of my extraordinary luck in escaping my upturned car with barely a scratch, considering the number of trees and roadsigns that might have brought the vehicle to a sudden and deadly stop instead of the relatively soft hedge that was the final resting point. I had bounced off a 4×4 that had pulled into the road too soon causing my small car to flip over against the kerb and send vehicle and driver spinning through the air in a state of shock and bewilderment.
These events are traumatic but can have meaning if we want them to. For me, my immediate realisation that I needn’t replace the car, since my living situation didn’t demand one was a huge relief. Over time, however – and quite a short space of time – something much more significant dawned on me. This event could be a turning point: a chance to reappraise my life, stop taking it for granted and above all stop waiting it out with no direction, no hopes and no sense of what I wanted to achieve.
It was then that I stumbled across my local Quaker Meeting. I had long since stopped attending churches through lack of interest in most of the ideas and traditions they appeared to represent (although I’ve a somewhat more rounded view now). In the silent hour’s meeting which I approached with some trepidation – not to say scepticism – I found an astonishing centredness that helped me both consider my own condition and turn outwards to the world. No longer did any particular belief system, rituals or traditions matter: only the unquestioning acceptance and openness of the circle of people in the room, whose individual ideas, longings and preferences could co-exist without hierarchy or favour. It was a revelation.
But the aspect of Quaker culture that spoke to me most profoundly and still speaks to me today was the idea that we should ‘live adventurously’. That I take to mean in its most complete sense – not the self-gratifying pursuit of exploration and thrills (though there’s nothing inherently wrong in a bit of that); instead owning the sense that if life has a purpose it is to be lived: to explore, yes, and to discover, but also to answer need, become vulnerable, build without knowing whether what you build will last, plant without knowing the tree will grow, express oneself creatively without needing the approbation of others, and to experience the marvellous in the colours, sounds, touch and smells of every day.
I often forget all of that. Fortunate then to live in a part of the world where I only need to step outside to be reminded of the glorious brilliance of being alive – and in the very spot that people have practised that consciousness for hundreds of years in the shape of the Quaker meeting and its predecessor dissident groups that first met here in the ‘barn in a field’ when that simple act was considered by the rest of society to be seditious and wrong.
So I thank that other driver – and the hundreds of people I’ve been inspired by to live adventurously over the intervening years – for giving me an entirely fresh perspective on life and above all, countless reasons to live it to the full.
It’s said that the farther north you travel, the greater the quality of the light. Yorkshire may not be as far north as the regions to which that might normally be thought to apply but there are days when the slopes of Malhamdale seem washed in transparency, a cool light picking out every detail of the terrain and making a personality out of every hillside.
Catch a sunrise at Malham Cove and you’ll see the epitome of nature’s dance between sunlight and landscape, fire and earth. One morning, approaching the Cove just as the sun appeared I was treated to the spectacle of its great limestone face lit up like gold foil by near horizontal beams of light that also seemed to burnish the pastures on either side to a reddish yellow ochre.
The transformative power of light is a cultural constant, understood by people of every age and place both as something to be mimicked whilst at the same intangible, impossible to pin down. Faced with charges of blasphemy and sedition, early Quakers modified their talk of God being present in everyone, turning instead to light as a metaphor for the good they strove to identify in each other and in anyone with whom they interacted. More recently, it may be the generality of this concept of light as opposed to the adherence to specific religious terms that makes Quaker meetings comfortable places for people of any religion and none – in its liberal European manifestation at least.
But can the light concept be more than merely a cosy and convenient metaphor for good? For anyone attending a Quaker meeting for the first time (or even the hundredth!) the idea might seem a little abstract and ungrounded. Every now and then, however, I’m reminded of the power of an idea to transform the lived reality of people and the societies in which they live.
A few years ago, some work by Quaker Peace and Social Witness’ (QPSW) East Africa programme brought together the life stories of individuals who after undergoing unimaginably difficult experiences in conflict zones chose reconciliation over violence and reached out to their erstwhile enemies. Publishing the stories in exhibition and book form, QPSW titled the project after a description by one of the participants of what motivated her. ‘This light that pushes me’ is more than moving – reading the words of real people who have engaged in peace building under the most extreme of circumstances is itself transformative. The contributors’ portraits look straight out at the reader, ordinary people every one of them, willing us to identify the same capacity for courage and hope in ourselves as they were led to find in themselves.
In my own travels I’ve come across similar extremes of human reactions to conflict – most clearly for me in the West Bank, where from amongst people being systematically disempowered and dispossessed of their land I’ve met individuals who out of faith in the humanity they share with their enemies continually reach out across the gulf of competing interests and misunderstandings, making friendships and challenging the order imposed by the occupying authorities. We don’t hear these stories in the media, because by and large the media isn’t interested in light; but it’s not only in the factual sense that lack of positive narrative keeps us in the dark – it also tends to underscore natural pessimistic tendencies and lead us into a sense of hopelessness.
This is where I believe Quaker worship can help. I was reminded of this recently on a visit to the Woodbrooke Study Centre in Birmingham. In the large meeting room a stunning triptych hangs – an abstract by Adam Boulter, Anglican priest, titled ‘Dawn of Creation’. Not knowing that title I might have guessed the general theme but also might have kept guessing: the canvas is alive and fluid with almost tangible forms to which any number of meanings could be attributed. On that visit, during a period of silent worship I became so engrossed in the piece that it seemed to pulse with life. On the left is a darkish column – the sea perhaps – in which the dim image of a red circle floats under a pale sky. In the central, main panel, streaks of red and gold swirl across the ‘sky’ and mingle with the ‘sea’, churning it into a boiling mass of colour. The right-hand panel contains another circle, this time of white and from which strands of light trail across the view against a background of yellow and orange. Not knowing the title my musings on this extraordinary imagery were free to roam. What I saw was a kind of restitution: from stillness to movement; from entrapment to liberty; from despair to joy. And in every such interpretation the central panel was essential – far from moving straight from one state to its opposite, the transformation, wrought by light itself, was the location in which the viewer is poised, just as throughout life every person is in a state of continual transformation. The question of what kind of transformation we aspire to is the one we ask ourselves in the silence of a Quaker meeting; and what we’re seeking in that same space is a transformation of ourselves and society wrought by light.
Read more about ‘This Light that Pushes me’ here.
A better image of Adam Boulter’s original painting as well as more of his work can be seen at www.adamboulter.co.uk.