Sunday, December 27, 2009

Living as if the Truth was true

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

James 1:22, NIV

The gulf between word and deed is untruth.  The dissonance between creed and deed is at the root of innumerable wrongs in our civilization; it is the weakness of all churches, states, parties and persons.  

--from The Life of Mohandas Gandhi by Louis Fischer

I’ve always loved words and ideas.  I’ve devoured books eagerly ever since I learned to read.  I have been stretched, challenged, moved and delighted by other people’s words about faith, love, justice, truth, sustainability.  Sometimes I have been able to speak movingly about these things myself, and I have prized that ability highly.  But as I look at the world I don’t see a desperate need for more eloquent words, more moving expressions of conviction.  I don’t think I have anything to say about the grand scheme of things that has not already been said, and said better, in many different eras and languages.  I don’t think most of the problems in my life or in the lives of my neighbors come from a lack of inspiring words and laudable convictions.  I think they come from our inability or unwillingness to let those words become flesh, to align our lives with our convictions.

I think there is something particualrly dangerous in professing excellent principles and not laboring to bring our lives into line with them.  If I proclaim my trust in God but don’t to listen carefully to God, and follow what I hear faithfully, then I become anxious, shallow and self-contradictory, and it would be easy for people to look at me and conclude that my faith leads to futility and exhaustion.  If I proclaim my belief in peace and economic justice and yet consume things in a way that requires war and the exploitation of other people, then people could easily look at me and conclude that peace and justice are nice ideals but can’t be put into practice.  So I need to learn to embody the truth rather than just talking about it.

The best phrase I’ve heard to describe this unity I seek comes from a Spanish biography of Dorothy Day, which praised her for practicing ‘l’arte de vivir como si la Verdad fue verdad”, which translates roughly as ‘the art of living as if the Truth was true.”  It’s an easy idea to grasp; it’s harder to practice.

Perhaps the hardest thing is admitting the gap that exists between our words and our deeds.  Certainly it was hard for me.  As a child growing up in assorted Protestant churches I believed in and talked about the importance of loving God wholeheartedly and loving neighbors as myself.  I often tried to be fair and kind to my family and neighbors, but sometimes I didn’t try at all, and after those times I was painfully aware of the gap between what I was and what I meant and professed to be.  Often I dealt with this by making grand resolves about future good behavior and forgetting my lapses as soon as possible. 

  As I grew my understanding of God’s call spread to take in issues of peace, social justice, environmental health. (I was homeschooled, so I had time to put into whatever mattered to me).  I read about these issues and wrote letters to my Congressmen and to the editor of the local paper.  I volunteered for various good causes.  I dreamed of becoming an activist.  I thought that before I had to manage money, my own or my possible future nonprofit’s, I ought to study economics.  I did.  It was profoundly disquieting.  I learned almost more than I could bear about how the people who produced the food I ate and the clothes I wore were treated, and how the land that supplied the basic resources I consumed was treated.  I was smacked up against the realization that my everyday consumption required people to be treated as I would not be willing to be treated; that there was a contradiction between my deepest convictions and the consequences of my daily life.  

This time I didn’t try to hide from that realization. I was very fortunate in my mother, who helped my to look squarely at the truth without getting overwhelmed and distracted by my feelings of guilt and confusion.  I was also fortunate in coming across John Woolman’s Journal and reading about his struggle to reorder his life so that it didn’t depend on slave labor.  The Journal showed me that it really was possible, though not easy, to live as if the Truth was true.  It also led me to the Quaker Meeting in Portland, ME, which offered good company, hard questions, and practices for spiritual discernment.  With their help my mother and brother and I found our way to St. Francis Farm in upstate NY.  I’ve been here for the past eight years, working as a volunteer, trying to live an alternative to the consumer culture and to be a good neighbor.  For my part this involves starting and ending the day with prayer, growing food to eat and share, listening to neighbors and guests and helping them as I can.  (More information about St. Francis Farm is available at our website,  A fuller version of the way that led me here, and what it’s led me to, is here in an article I wrote for New York Yearly Meeting’s November newspaper issue on money and class. I’ll post more on the money/work issue soon.)  This life has pushed me into further realizations about what is worth doing, and I am still trying to live into these.

I certainly haven’t arrived at wholeness.  My life is still full of contradictions.  But I have taken some first steps and I keep going.  And I find myself less and less satisfied with disembodied statements about the Way Things Ought to Be and more and more hungry for others’ stories about how they are living into the truth.  

So, in this blog I want to write about some of the ways in which I am trying to practice the truth as I understand it, what helps me and what hinders me.  I am interested in hearing about how you—any of you—strive to embody the truth as you understand it, and what helps and hinders you.  

I want this because it helps me to find wholeness in myself.  I also want it because I believe that this kind of dialogue can bring people into communion across political and theological divides.  It’s easy to dismiss someone else’s theological or political creeds.  It’s harder, at lest for me, to dismiss someone who says “This matters deeply to me, and I am doing this and this to try to live accordingly, but I still struggle with this obstacle, this blindness, this fear.”  I have learned about faithfulness from people whose faith had a rather different content from mine.  I think support in faithfulness is one of the best gifts we can offer each other.


Anonymous said...

Wow. Several things jumped out at me when I first read this post, but the one thing that struck me the most was the fact that we share a desire to live our expectations rather than only give them lipservice. As you are aware, this is incredibly hard to do - the daily struggle between self-preservation in this world and conviction living is a constant, but welcome battle. How many people are not even aware enough to know they are not living their convictions? I was also struck by your conviction to live more simply and in harmony with that which surrounds you, something I too am striving for.

I'm curious to know, how would you describe "social justice" and "environmental health"? These are both phrases that people banter about, but seldom think through what they mean to them - although I suspect you have.

To me, social justice immediately invokes a bad taste in my mouth. Justice being defined as "giving to each that which they are due", social justice seems like a catch phrase on redistribution of opportunities, possessions,and wealth to those less successful than others the identify as possessing the ideal. This sort of thing goes against my grain - regardless of what racists may say, we are all born equal. Regardless of skin color, socio-economic status, or geographic location, every child born has the inherent ability to be successful. The difference is the extent to which a child is exposed to dependency thinking and brainwashed into believing they have no other options. I came from a very poor childhood in a geographic area that had no opportunities, I still managed to belief in my ability to not only define my ideal of success, but work diligently towards that success. So any notion of a need for social justice says to me that we need to stop teaching our youth that their only option is to loot from those who have, instead of working hard towards a goal.

As far environmental health is concerned, I haven't really thought about defining that phrase and what it means to me. It produces images of Al Gore and volcanos, honestly, and an excuse to tax me more for working hard. I'll have to give it some more thought, though and I'll get back to you.

Great first post - I'm looking forward to more.

Kat Freeman

Joanna Hoyt said...

Thanks for the questions. I need to remember that some of the terms use as shorthand may not translate well for other people.

Systemically, I think of legal ‘justice’ as concerning itself with whether people are abiding by the rules, and social justice as concerning itself with whether the rules are fair and lifegiving. In terms of my own life, ‘social justice’ is shorthand for one the aspect of the imperative to love my neighbor as myself which requires me to take responsibility for my proxy actions--what my government does, what corporations do with the money I give them, what the social structure which supports me does to the people who support it--as well as my face-to-face interactions.

Maybe an example will help. The cheap onions are cheap in our local grocery store are supplied by two very large farms in this county. The farmers recruit migrant laborers to work the fields and promise them eight- to ten-hour days, $8/hr and decent housing; on arrival the workers are crowded into housing without reliable running water, paid minimum wage and expected to work 12-16 hours a day. Many of them are legal immigrants, either Puerto Ricans or contract workers, but it’s hard for them to leave; they don’t have their ow vehicles, or (in many cases) valid drivers’ licenses for this country; they’ve just paid to get into the US, and the employer starts charging them for food and housing immediately and doesn’t pay them for two weeks, so they’re in debt; so they stay. One man was told to clean a jammed harvesting machine; it wasn’t turned off because that would have wasted valuable time; when the machine cut his fingers off the boss called him stupid and refused to take him to the hospital until the workday was over. His story wasn’t uncommon. As I’ve read more I’ve realized that these farms aren’t uncommon either. This strikes me as a clear case of social injustice in which I, as an eater, am necessarily involved. There are several ways of addressing this: not buying onions, and growing more of my own food to eat and share; continuing to support groups that offer humanitarian assistance to these workers; supporting changes to the NY labor laws which currently deny farm workers (of any nationality) the right to collective bargaining, overtime pay, days of rest...

I don’t think of social justice as redistributing wealth to those who work less, but as preventing and remedying exploitation. I think it’s true and vitally important that people in difficult situations can still make important choices and live with some measure of freedom and dignity. I don’t think this excuses us if we make their lives unfairly and unnecessarily difficult in order to make ourselves more comfortable.

forrest said...

Many people have learned to automatically deny the fact that our social institutions quite deliberately treat people unfairly--and unavoidably produce inequalities in education by customary priorities in what kind of schooling we provide, how much we set aside for teachers and books, what kind of effort we make to encourage people to learn vs the vast effort devoted, in practice, to making most people consider themselves ineducable!

I don't think that one, individual person can somehow arrange to keep our society's innocent blood off our hands, nor would there be much point. We really need to collectively wake up, wise up, prepare everyone to see themselves what needs to change. Mere words are what we have to begin with. Handwashing behavior can carry a message, but not necessarily the message intended!

First off, to "live a life so centered in God that all things take their rightful place." That would imply... not only receiving guidance on what we should practice, but probably becoming less centered on rules, less concerned with what behavior can or cannot be "excused," more aware of how widespread alienation from God perverts and disables even the best intentions.

Joanna Hoyt said...


I agree that individual actions are bound to be inadequate. I am still called to take them. And I'm not trying to keep myself pure in isolation; I am trying to live more faithfully, less harmfully, and to invite others into more faithful ad less harmful living. I do think this behavior can carry an important message.

When our guests who come from poorer countries and have tried to buy into the "American Dream' encounter Americans who live below their means and work with their hands, some of them look again and see value in the lives they had at home. Some of our rich American guests say they've learned something from our time with us about the value and satisfaction of a life that isn't crammed with things. We do try to articulate our reasons for living such a life, but I think that whatever real power the speaking has comes from the living.
I don't mean to dismiss 'mere words', but I think they are most meaningful when they are embodied.

And yes, the important thing is to be centered in God. I often need this reminder--it is easy to get caught up in each day's work and forget why I am doing it. So far I have found that I hear God better and obey God more fully as I attempt to be more available to my neighbors and to harm them less, and that the gap between my words and convictions and my daily life also separates me from God. But if what God has laid on you is teaching, not changing other aspects of your life, who am I to question that? I know that the gifts and callings God gives are diverse. May we both listen faithfully and be transformed through the renewing of our minds.

Fran said...

Joanna, I really enjoyed reading that post. I hope to check more of your blog as time goes on.

I think it's true that most people (if not all) do not live up to what they preach. Even when we ARE actually trying to live up to what we preach, we may not achieve wholeness as you have noted. Even worse, in my opinion, is when we change the truth (ie. distort it, or outright kill it!) to make it conform to our present lifestyle.

Sadly, that has been my experience in most religious circles, including Quakers. Truth becomes whatever is politically correct and respectable.

I do feel that I need to keep trying to live more Christ-like, which is an ongoing journey for me.

I always appreciate hearing about what you are doing. Since Kim and I met you at the World Gathering, we have held you in a special place. God bless you as you continue seeking to do His will.

Joanna Hoyt said...

Thank you, Fran! Sorry to be late responding; I've been away from the blog for a little while.

“Even worse, in my opinion, is when we change the truth (ie. distort it, or outright kill it!) to make it conform to our present lifestyle.”

Yes, I've experienced that, from both sides. I think it's one of the major dangers of claiming to live the truth as well as knowing it; it's probably better to know and not to do than to falsify the knowing so as not to have to change the doing.

Your community's example, our conversations at the World Gathering and Kim's letters encourage me greatly and challenge me to stick close to the truth.