Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Quakers and Sharing Difference

At the moment I'm on holiday with my family staying with friends in a small town in southwest France called Montignac. I am away from Sheffield for a full year and one of the things I realised I would miss were the Quaker meetings. When I found that there was a blog I asked if I could contribute not knowing quite what I would want to say. So this is my first entry and it's not about missing the meeting but about an example and a contradiction of difference.

I've been thinking about the festival I saw in Montignac. It is an international folklore festival that has been running for 25 years now that brings folklore groups from all over the world to this small rural town for a week. The shows they put on are 'more' than just folklore: I mean that they are full performances of, for example, classical Korean Dance or elaborate ritual performances from Burkina Faso.

What struck me particularly during the parade at the close of the festival was how this is a model of a certain sort of non-integration experience. It is the experience of specific difference, of people's folklore traditions being an example of their difference. Of people enhancing and demonstrating their differences to evoke something they share.

One of the French groups that came was from a different department in France and there was no visible difference to them for the outsider: black hats, black shawls and accordions, yet there was clearly for them a desire to re-find their specific tradition, to define their difference.

There is a desire to enhance co-operation and understanding by focussing on what is different through its re-discovery or at times its invention. The rediscovery of tradition, the enhancement of difference and its confident manifestation in one place leads to a sort of dissolution of difference at the same time.

Sunday, 12 August 2007



It is truly said that we Quakers are all on our own journeys. We do not expect necessarily to arrive at our destination, wherever our destination might be. Shall we know it, if and when we arrive? But we are all travelling.

But there are different sorts of travel. Some travel in order to get from A to B, because they have a meeting in B. They sit in the train, bus or plane, not looking out of the window, only switching on again when they pull into B. They probably do not engage any fellow passenger in conversation. Maybe they work away on the laptop or mobile, maybe they read a book. Either way, if you asked them what they had passed after leaving A and before arriving at B, they might be able to tell you, “We stopped at Derby and Leicester,” but probably couldn’t tell you whether there were any animals in the fields.

Others travel to far-off places and take photographs, so that when they get home, they can show them to their admiring (or, preferably, envious) friends. “This is us in front of the Taj Mahal. We found this wonderful little restaurant in New Delhi,” means, “We’ve been to India, you know.” Photographs crystallise the experience and prove to other people where they have visited, or remind the travellers themselves, in case they might otherwise forget.

On the other hand, Lin Yutang, a Chinese philosopher wrote in 1936:

“The true motive of travel should be to travel to become lost and unknown . . . Everyone is quite respectable in his home town . . . He is tied by a set of conventions, rules, habits and duties . . . A man stands a poorer chance of discovering himself as a human being if he brings along with him letters of introduction, and of finding out exactly how God made him as a human being . . . A true traveller is always a vagabond, with the joys, temptations and sense of adventure of the vagabond . . . A good traveller is one who does not know where he is going to, and a perfect traveller does not know where he came from.”

The other day, I heard a reference to people who are worried about the Left Bank in Paris, because the little, old book-shops which Hemingway and Sartre knew are being bought up and made over into souvenir shops. Souvenir is the French for memory. I thought, “How absurd, to think that anyone could sell me my memories. As absurd as to think that anyone could tell me what I feel, or (in my case) what to believe.”

Even more absurd in my opinion is that people actually manufacture so-called memorabilia by the thousands – as if anything that is so blatantly mass-produced could remind you of anything really special. People even manufacture so-called collectables. “Buy the complete set!” This is to be resisted. “Hey, don’t try to tell me what to collect!”

It seems some forms of Christianity specialise in souvenirs, memorabilia and collectables. “A present from Lourdes.” We Quakers don’t go in for icons or relics. We do look for reminders of the presence of God. But we know we’ll never collect the complete set.

Paul Hunt