Nor by birth does one become a Noble One;
He in whom is the realization of Truth,
Who has attained to the holy stages,
He is the real Noble One.
Of what avail is thy matted hair?
Of what avail is thy antelope hide?
Within you there is a forest of defilements.
You deal only with outside. The Buddha (Dhammapada 26:11-12)
As a professed member of the Third Order of St. Francis–a religious order in the Episcopal Church–I attempt to live a Franciscan life with a Rule and under vows, but in the world rather than in community. When it was my turn to act as Convener of the local fellowship, I read an item in the job description that surprised me: be on the watch for Tertiaries who seem to make a point of wearing a lot of brown. The idea is that a person who dresses like that may be trying to mimic the brown habits of the First Order Friars, and the Third Order is very firm that we are not “First Order Light,” or a haven for friar-wannabes, but a fully independent Franciscan Order in our own right.
The irony is that I’ve worn a lot of brown for years and years, both by preference and as a part of my Franciscan Simplicity. (Sometimes I mix it up with tan or beige or--when I'm feeling really risqué–olive or rust.) Because life in the world has a lot more variables than communal life, our Rule spells things out much less explicitly than the Friars’ Rule does. It consists of 9 “Principles” that we address in our lives, each in our own way, and write into a personal Rule which we re-write each year as our lives evolve and renew at our yearly Renewal of Vows. One of the Principles is Simplicity, which I address in a number of ways: buying fresh ingredients and cooking them in preference to warming up prepared foods, tolerating a certain number of weeds in our lawn rather than killing them with chemicals, and dressing in a simple way—plain, solid earth tones, made in America of natural fibers whenever possible, and keeping designs, prints advertising/commemorative devices to a minimum.
I buy clothing very seldom; some years, I don’t buy any at all, and I have at least one sweatshirt from my undergrad days. And lately, as items began to need replacing, I found myself replacing them by ordering from a catalog that caters to Amish, Mennonite, Hutterite, and Conservative Quakers customers. Plain unbleached collarless shirts, tough, plain American-made pants in black and khaki, suspenders, simple vests (including an Amish vest with hook-and-eye fastenings) and a Pike Mennonite hat for church and other dress occasions. I also went through my closet and trunk and gave away bags of clothing I either no longer wore, that hadn’t fit in years, or that were not sufficiently plain. I also got rid of all but 2 of my neckties. People began to ask me if I were an Anabaptist.
I simply felt a strong urge to be plain, not by default, but by design. I wanted to do it on purpose, and for a reason. Like the Franciscan Friar who told me that the habit “forces him to be a nice guy,” or the nun who said she had always been a woman of prayer, but before she became a nun people didn’t stop her in the street with prayer requests because they couldn’t tell, I wanted to make a statement with my dress, to make it sort of sacrament–which the Prayerbook defines as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”
But that’s where the Buddha is a step ahead of me, because no matter how (literally) black-and-white I may be on the outside, I know how much more murky things are within. And though there a plenty of warnings in the Bible about overvaluing externals, such things seem to sting a little more when you hear them from a source other than your own.