To see the old meetinghouse at China, Maine, as it’s been turned into a Friends Camp arts studio (a messy one, at that) is a pointed symbol of the tensions many of us encounter as we attempt to live out our faith – and not just on the cultural front. (For the record, I am, after all, a published poet and novelist, a professional journalist, an avid contradancer, gallery-goer, foreign film buff, occasional violinist and harmony singer, and a lover of opera and classical music – all of which can raise eyebrows in various spiritual circles, and most of which would have been forbidden in traditional Quaker discipline – all this even before we turn to the struggles of the workplace, families, neighbors, or politics. Call me a snob, if you will.) The fact remains that the Society of Friends today is filled with many artists pursuing every imaginable medium. Dover Meeting is not alone in its range of talent.
A while back, I spoke of practice as something that’s ongoing and never finished, in contrast, say, to a performance or even a rehearsal. Practice as something done more for its own exploration and pursuit of a discipline than for any finished product. Practice as being part of a bigger encounter: the practice of prayer, practice of poetry, practicing musical scales, play practice, football practice, even medical practice. Something done with care, and if freedom follows in critical situations, as we often hear in interviews after a Patriots’ game, then all the better. Weeding and composting, I suppose, are part of the practice of gardening, apart from any harvest.
When I think about qualities that mark Quaker artists, I would tentatively suggest: placing the ongoing work ahead of themselves; “cool” rather than “hot”; a sense of experience and discovery rather than make-believe or escape; honesty rather than pretense; wonder rather than irony; humility rather than egotism or arrogance; candor rather than flamboyance; a preference for simplicity over complexity; directness rather than confusion; economy rather than extravagance; calmness rather than shrillness; curiosity and listening rather than dogma or bombast.
We might also turn the old Quaker views toward a critique of today’s cult of celebrities (almost universally entertainment/professional sports figures) and their exorbitant incomes – a situation that I believe accompanies a lessening of power within our communities. To that we could add the ways the arts are often used as a secular religion to sanctify public occasions. As for the Oscars?
But maybe that’s just another part of our unfolding spiritual awareness.