Cartref: home

(Sometimes ‘adre’ is the Welsh word for ‘home’ but when I looked it up I learned that you go adre, you live gartref, and you own a cartref – so cartref is the one I mean here.)

With the snow on the ground, I’ve been spending more time than usual at home. I’m pleased to report that it is starting to feel more like home, too. I’m getting used to the paint colours – rather than noticing them every time and revelling in their non-magonlia-ness! – I’ve put some pictures up, and although there’s still more to do, everything is okay as it is for day-to-day use.

What is it that makes a home? Something I’ve often puzzled over, in the world of ‘trying to understand other people’, is the report – not universal, but made by a lot of people who become Quakers as adults – that finding Quakers felt like “coming home”. What is it that makes it feel that way? To me, Quakerism is home, of course. Some of it’s like my new flat, where the things I have inherited or found over the years mix with things I’ve chosen just for here. But some of it’s more like my parents’ home, where most things are deeply familiar, changes can be disorienting, and it’s not mine to change, however much the design of the sofa annoys me!

People who have just arrived, and feel they have come home to Quakerism, probably don’t feel like that. The familiarity which creates affection exasperation of that particular kind – the kind I feel for my parents’ sofa, and that passage by Beatrice Saxon Snell – takes time to build up. It requires repeated encounters, looking at it from different angles, sitting with it and discovering all the ways in which it’s uncomfortable.

(To be fair, it’s a terrible sofa but it does make an excellent metaphor.)

Maybe it’s more like the new home owner’s glee which is, for me, fading gradually but still present: yes, this is mine, my space, I can be here and do as I please. Of course, I live alone in my flat, where a Quaker meeting is more like a hall of residence – you can be independent in many ways, but you also have to share the bathroom and the dining room. When I moved into my room in hall, I did enjoy having my own private space and putting up posters and not having to tell anyone I was going out. I didn’t enjoy it so much when someone decided to play cricket along the corridor at 4am! We also have those people among Friends: people whose choices, or ways of expressing themselves, or mannerisms will always rub us up the wrong way. That doesn’t stop it being a home, but perhaps it makes the image a little less cosy.

Perhaps what it’s most like it coming back to whatever space at the end of a long day. Coming to Quakers could, I can see, be like that moment when I shut the door, and sigh, and think: time to relax. I usually start by taking my shoes off. Sometimes I take all my clothes off – one of the virtues of a comfortable home is that it is a space where I don’t have to pretend to be someone else, or conform to other expectations. Quakerism, made up as it is of people, doesn’t always achieve that. Meeting for Worship, where we aim to put God in charge, comes close.


Brwydro: battle, fight, combat, struggle

I remember sitting in the common room with a fellow Quaker Pagan theology PhD student. (I say ‘a’, perhaps ‘the other’!) Anyway, we were discussing theology, as you do when you’re a theology PhD student, and we were discussing whether Pagan and Quaker theologies can be compatible, as you do when you’re a Quaker Pagan theology student. Specially, my friend raised the question of whether it would be acceptable for a Quaker Pagan to worship Odin, given that Quakers are pacifists and Odin is, among other things, God of War.

“I quite like Odin,” I reflected. “Wisdom, words, fetching the runes, that kind of thing.”

“Indeed,” my friend agreed. “He scores a fair number of Jesus Points, too, what with the hanging on the tree bit.” (‘Jesus Points’ are awarded to a character based on how much they resemble Jesus. Other high scorers include Superman and Gandalf.) “But how do you deal with him being God of War, too?”

“I suppose I’ve always thought of it as a metaphorical war,” I said. “Like jihad – the inner struggle.”

I was reminded of this conversation when I read the dictionary entry for the Welsh word brwydro – the first three English words offered (battle, fight, combat) all admit of metaphorical meanings but can easily refer to physical violence, while the fourth (struggle) is much more likely to mean non-physical, or at least non-violent, endeavours.

I’m not entirely convinced by my own argument, by the way. There’s not a lot in Norse myth to suggest that anything expect actual real violence is intended by the discussions of war. But perhaps the acts of cross-cultural borrowing involved in creating this reading of Odin as a pacifist God of Jihad are illuminating for the modern world – or at least my interfaith-aware way of doing theology.

Bywyd: life

Ynddo fe roedd bywyd, a’r bywyd hwnnw’n rhoi golau i bobl. Ioan 1:4

In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. John 1:4

I had already chosen this word for my next post, and then over the weekend happened to learn another way to say it – in British Sign Language. You can watch three videos of the word ‘life’ at the BSL Dictionary. For some reason, the video in which it is signed on the left seems more intuitive to me than the other two, perhaps because it seems to make a link with the heart.

I was thinking about ‘big’ and ‘little’ meanings of the word life. In the Biblical quotation at the start of this post, the word ‘life’ seems to be used for a big, abstract, all-encompassing concept. But there’s also the ordinary, everyday kind of life: the step-by-step process of building a good life. These two meanings come together sometimes, as in Advices and Queries 1 where God brings us “i fywyd newydd/to new life”.

A lot of my time recently seems to have been taken up with the details of building a new life. At one level, not much has changed – I have the same job, most of the same possessions, same friends – but a new flat brings lots of new changes to shop for things, do DIY, and generally decide what the small parts of one’s life will look like. Someone asked me recently whether I was really writing a book or ordering curtains. “Both,” I said, a little bit annoyed by the suggestion that one has to choose – but of course there is always the temptation to let one take priority over the other. It is true that in the last month I have written less than usual, and bought more furniture.

My life needs both, though. The promptings of love and truth (‘cariad a gwirionedd’) include love for oneself. Although I have been known to joke about the benefits of a garret, I actually find that a comfortable chair is most conducive to living out my ministry through writing.

Arbennig: special, distinct, peculiar

Mae gen i ffrind arbennig. I have a special friend.

This is a common enough phrase that you can even buy it on a card. In English, I’m more used to people talking about a best friend (and by people, I mostly mean Brownies – it’s very very important when you’re a nine-year-old girl, and although I enjoy spending time with them I don’t mind that I’m not one any more!). I’m in two minds about whether this claim, Mae gen i ffrind arbennig, is true for me – of my friends, I wouldn’t be able to pick the ‘best’ one, but obviously all of them are special.

I probably wouldn’t call them that to their faces, though. When I was at school, the use of the phrase ‘special needs’ was ingrained enough to have reached the playground, where it rapidly took on many of the connotations of the offensive words it replaced: idiot, retard, and so on. “You’re so special” was distinctly an insult during my childhood. I haven’t been able to find out whether ‘arbennig’ has taken on that meaning in Welsh – although I was able to confirm that it’s used in phrases like anghenion addysgol arbennig, special educational needs. (Language learners gotta love these government websites with a button in the top right to flick back and forth between languages, by the way. I think it makes it easier for me to explore Welsh in a way which would be very difficult, especially alone, with another language.)

In order to find that out, though, I had to wade through several pages of Google results about a restaurant in Cardiff called Arbennig, though. I’ve no idea whether their food is any good but they have made themselves special in terms of page ranking dominance!

Once I got past, though, I was also pleased to discover some other uses of ‘arbennig’: Casgliadau Arbennigspecial collections, often the best part of any library, and Safleoedd o Ddiddordeb Gwyddonol Arbennigsites of special scientific interest. I especially (do you see what I did there?) like the last one because ‘diddordeb‘ looks like it is related to ‘diddorol’ – ‘interesting’ – one of my favourite Welsh words because it’s both fun to say and can be deployed as an answer to so many possible comments!

Aros: to stay, to wait – and an introduction to this year’s blog project

Dw i’n aros yn Llanuwchllyn. 

Roedd hi’n aros a’r bws.

I’m a big fan of getting two jobs done at once – killing two birds with one stone, as the non-vegan non-pacifist proverb has it. So when I was thinking about my goals for 2018, I looked for ways to put more than one together. ‘Go back to working on family history’ and ‘do more creative writing’ added together very neatly when I found a course called Writing Your Roots. Another two items on my list are ‘write blog posts regularly’ and ‘keep learning Welsh’: so I’ve added them together, and my plan is to write alphabetical blog posts as I’ve done before, but this time, using Welsh words. It won’t fit quite as neatly into the year because Welsh has some extra letters, but I’m sure I’ll work it out somehow. 🙂

I did think about blogging entirely in Welsh, but it would be too much of a stretch for a) my language skills and b) my readership! As it is, I hope it’ll prove interesting for you and educational for me. If nothing else, it’ll give me plenty of chances to fail better. (Ac os dych chi’n siarad Cymraeg, cywiro fy gramadeg, os gwelwch yn dda!)

The word I’ve chosen to start with is ‘aros‘. As you can see from that dictionary link, it has a wide variety of meanings. It was the first Welsh word I learned ‘in the wild’ – by having a conversation in Welsh and being told a new word, rather than from a teaching source like an app or a learner’s text. In that case, I was looking for the word to describe ‘staying’, as in a holiday cottage. Dw i’n aros yn Llanuwchllyn, I am staying in Llanuwchllyn, not to be confused – as I did in that conversation – with Dw i’n byw yn Llanuwchllyn, I live in Llanuwchllyn.

Among other things, though, it can also mean ‘to wait’, as in my second example sentence: Roedd hi’n aros a’r bws, she was waiting for the bus. Thinking around this – trying to find the connections which help me commit this sort of thing to memory – I was reminded of two Taize chants which I often get mixed up: Wait for the Lord and Stay Here with Me. The latter is based on the command Jesus gives outside the garden of Gethsemane: stay here and keep watch. Imagine how pleased I was to turn to my Welsh Bible and be able to find the verb there as well, now in the command form: arhoswch yma, a gwyliwch.

My mind thrives on connections like these – I’ve never been good at learning lists, because I always want to know how things are related to one another. Hopefully I’ll be able to find many more in the rest of 2018.

Happy new year and thanks for reading – blwydden newydd dda a diolch am ddarllen!

#oceanofdarkness: early Friends today?

At the end of a recent blog post about Quaker structures and our future, Alistair Fuller asks an interesting question: ” if [early Friends] were forming a new and radical religious society today, what might it look like?”

I’ve no idea what it would really look like. But here are three ideas.

They would use Twitter. Early Friends were all about communicating, whether through preaching in the street or printing pamphlets. They went where people were, and gave their message. Today, that’s Twitter – not just Twitter, but the circumstances symbolised by the speedy, political, argumentative, and interactive style of that platform. This is about being recognisable, as Alistair says in his post, but also welcoming. Margaret Fell used to write to the king on a regular basis, so I think today she’d be tweeting Donald Trump several times a week. Early Friends could be upfront about their beliefs to the point of being philosophically (rather than physically) combative. Where better to take that stance today than Twitter?

They would create structures for people and for what God was really calling them to do, not try and fit people into structures. Someone else said something like this once. Early Friends were in the business of rejecting and remaking tradition, not upholding it, and they didn’t have any three hundred year old grade 1 listed meeting houses to worry about. I don’t think that renewing our Religious Society means throwing all of that out, but it does mean asking at every turn: are we doing this because we want to or because we’ve always done it? Have we chosen the time and location of our meetings to suit people – those we know and those we don’t yet know – or are we just chugging along like a train on lines built to suit a previous generation? Do we search for, nominate, and appoint a sixteen-person Committee on Thermostat Management* to the glory of God, or is it a guru’s cat?

*I think this is a joke, but please tell me if you’re serving on it!

We might not enjoy having them at Meeting. Someone taking the approach of early Friends today could easily look disruptive in a Quaker meeting as much as in the rest of the world. They wouldn’t respect the unwritten rules about the length or style of spoken ministry (or about acceptable foods for shared lunch). They might embrace new technologies and ideas in uncomfortable ways: broadcasting the discussion group via Facebook Live, using Google during worship to find the right passage in Qf&p, Instagraming the flowers on the table – or throwing them to the floor as idolatrous. (Or maybe the smashed vase would make a dramatic snap.)

They also wouldn’t have much patience with meetings who don’t put a sign outside or Friends who won’t tell their friends about Quakerism – or maybe I’m projecting here! If early Friends were forming a new and radical religious society today, would they get eldered?

‘God, words and us’: being on the Theology Think Tank

With the publication of ‘God, words and us: Quakers in conversation about religious difference‘, the work of the Theology Think Tank (for committee detail nerds: a process run by the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group on behalf of Meeting for Sufferings) is in one sense finished, and in another way starting a new phase. The group was convened to address the issue formerly known as ‘theism/nontheism’ – one of our conclusions is that we should call it something else, like ‘religious difference’ – and to see whether Britain Yearly Meeting as a whole can address it productively. The main answer to that question, as embodied by the book, is ‘yes – through honest and caring conversation’. Seeing the book as a starting place as well as a finished product, this seems like a good time to share some of my thoughts about this conversation.

It does matterSometimes when I start talking to Quakers about theology – especially if I use the word ‘theology’ or make it clear that I regard the intellectual processes as important – people try and move away from the whole idea. I can understand this in some ways, especially as a reaction to a dualistic view in which embracing the intellect means rejecting the emotional, but I also think it’s easy to go too far the other way. My thoughts are as much a part of me as my feelings, and to reject the processes by which we try to understand our experiences and create knowledge is to miss out on a huge amount. The includes whatever we can know – and the ways in which we decide that we can’t know – about God.

It never ends. There are always new things to be learned. In the field of theology, that might mean there are new spiritual experiences to be had, new ways to understand and describe our encounters with the Divine, and new insights to be gained from reflection on old texts and experiences which in turn shape our fresh reality. It can be tempting to allow the patterns we can see in cycles of discussion within a community to turn into ‘eras’ with beginnings and endings (everything from the Reformation, to the liberal turn in Quakerism, to the rise of New Atheism), but a movement always has a forerunner – and someone, somewhere, hasn’t yet had whatever debate you thought was settled. It is impossible to divide these discussions from their history and context, and the fuller a picture you have of that, the more likely it is that you will see connections across apart boundaries of time, space, denomination, and religion.

It can be fun. Discussing our spiritual experience and ideas isn’t always fun. It can be vulnerable – especially if some people are sharing more deeply and personally than others. It can be frightening – especially if it seems that in return for their honesty, some people might be rejected from a community which they hold dear. It can be boring – if one question or one person is allowed to dominate, or if the relevance of a discussion isn’t clear, or if it goes round in circles. But I hold, as a matter of faith as well as experience, that talking about the Mystery can be enjoyable. I find it enjoyable in at least three ways: it’s a way to get to know people better, it’s a workout for the parts of the brain which deal with empathy and logic, and there’s always the possibility of novelty, of a new idea arising.

You should try it. I felt incredibly blessed to be able to participate in the Theology Think Tank process. I hope this book will help everyone who wants to join in with these conversations to participate. I particularly hope that it will be a tool to help those who are carrying anxiety about belonging (“would they still like me if they knew what I really believe?”) or about community (“can we really be friends if we disagree about something so important?”) to engage with discussions about theology in a supported and productive way. The book is aimed mainly at Quakers, but I have already had one chat with someone who is interested in looking at it with their non-Quaker church community. You can hold a discussion group or invite in a facilitator or post something on social media – anything, really, as long as it creates a space for honest and caring conversation.