by Sven Ryberg
Table of contents
What led up to that decision?
I came here, to Charbonnières, from Chartres, where I spent the night between Good Friday and Easter Eve in a solitary vigil in a crypt under the huge cathedral. During the history of that remarkable church a sort of religious fever broke out in the 1140s and people of all classes began to pull and drag heavy wagons and carts to the cathedral. It was the well known “cult of carts”. Princes and peasants alike put themselves into the harness of beasts and dragged in silence, heavy loads of building materials and food stuff to Chartres from all over France and the Continent. The motivation to do all this must have been religious conviction, of course, but some may have joined because it was religiously à la mode.
If we follow the lead and do just as the others do, it so easily will become a pretence, I believe. After more than twenty years of experience as a farmer (by choice) and of simple living (by compulsion), I can hardly believe
that any serious decision “to live simply” will last for long or work out positively if it is not part and parcel of an inner context.
- But, looking over the inward connections and patterns of a lifetime, who took the initiatives?
- Who opened me up for the true listening? And how to map such a vast field?
- And how to prune the most interesting question in the world: “Who am 1?”
This was in fact an early question of mine, partly perhaps because l may have had identification difficulties. I was brought up under the ownership of my mother, a dancer of a most domineering temperament. It must have been, I presume, rather rough sailing now and then. In order to survive that mental “pas de deux” and its exercise of “the five positions” one probably had to pretend a good deal. Therefore, also: “What is Truth?”
Uneven in school, to put it nicely, I became one of these abashed and confused adolescents, mainly interested in painting and the writing of verses. As far as I can remember, I was constantly followed by a certain dim idea, which, I guess, has hunted many a young fellow. A good picture or a poem could, I was sure, become a sort of landing-net capable of catching that hidden real Reality which, as I saw it, must exist behind the screen of the “Normal” reality. Then, seen in that relation, I could find out what life was all about. Thus: “What is Reality?”
Eivor, my wife, and I came to know one another already in our early teens. We married in 1939 and the war came and separated us. After the war our life together came out in a completely changed pattern. For me personally two different trends led to a new view of life. One, short and unexpected, can be exemplified by a book of Fritz Künkel, the psychologist, which gave me a hard, sudden punch. Another, a longer and more gentle process, led slowly from deep admiration of the classical Chinese brush paintings in Indian ink and of the Tan lyrics, via Rabindranath Tagore, to Sri Ramakrishna, who I thought was another Indian poet, when I first picked him out. A religious Reality of a sort had thus slowly begun to dawn and in 1945, in his “Perennial
Philosophy”, Aldous Huxley said gravely to me that amazing: “Tat twam asi!—That art thou!”
My life in the world of the Perennial Philosophy was very captivating, too beautiful, indeed. But, nevertheless, now I had turned a corner. Rather soon, however, I discovered how lofty it was. Bookish all over. It was impossible to remain “religious” all by yourself and by that I meant to keep going on the top of an emotion. I had a very scornful and preconceived attitude toward the Christian churches, so primitive and narrow-minded compared with Eastern wisdom. A year or two earlier, however, someone near to me had told me about his own odd life. In England, during the bygone Edwardian days before the first World War, he met some Quakers. They had, he told me, a new kind of religion, clean and based on Truth only. Nothing of the usual paraphernalia of the churches, the blood and the lot. No: come just as you are! And what he had told me then, came into my mind now, and I looked for the address in the telephone book and wrote a question to the tiny little Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends in Sweden. The year was 1946 and they consisted then of about 70-80 members.
I remember still very distinctly the precise moment when for the first time I stood outside the closed door of the meeting for worship. It was in a dark and Sunday-empty corridor of an old folk-high school in the city of Stockholm. Purposely I was a little late in order not to meet anyone. When I had the cold handle in my hand it went through my mind so astonishingly clearly: “Beware! If you press that handle down now, your life will change completely!” It did. Mainly because a young American Friend ran out on the street after me, when I tried to escape after the meeting.
Within a short period of time we, Eivor and I, became members and deeply involved in the life of that small group. In fact, anybody was needed. And nearly anybody was also welcome. That was, I guess, part of the dilemma of the group: “Who are we to judge anybody?” Another was this: “Who are we to order anybody?” It was up to you yourself whether to go to Meeting or not, to pay any money or not, to study anything or not. I was profoundly impressed by the respect shown to everybody’s integrity and peculiarity, but I, the unaware, living in post-religious Sweden, was also soon bewildered by this limitless tolerance.
Peter, the fisherman, wrote the advice: “…be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you….” (1 Peter 3:15). That faithful advice was not applicable here, it seemed. What hope? We were more inclined to let common sense shape our faith. Speaking of Peter and his Christianity, I remember very well the deep embarrassment and near-shock an aged English Friend brought about when in a meeting for worship he knelt down. He was, I am positive the London YM representative to our YM 1947, when in a small private meeting he knelt down, put his clasped hands in my lap and said something to Jesus. I think the present Swedish Friends, including myself of course, found it very alarming behaviour, to say the least. Jesus, treated in that way, was no acceptable figure at all. We had, as I see it now, turned the boundary-breaking visions of Fox inside out. Our spiritual situation was limitless, yes, like a wide and empty airfield, ready for take-off, but what to do with this silent freedom?
Two years later, in a manner which was really somnambulistic, I quit the job I had had for 15 years, without knowing what to do next. I had been doing animating pictures for education. Perhaps I was, being a Friend and a pacifist, somewhat annoyed that in the coming autumn we were to start the making of a film for army tactics instruction. But the main impetus to leave, by far, was a dim, in fact a most dim and unidentified feeling, growing more and more awkward, that we had to do something before “religion” had run out of us completely. When “it had no root it withered away” (Matt. 13:6). This time it was no hunt for emotions. I was out for that hope Peter is writing about, that kernel, that innermost motive and mainspring. But, of course, I didn’t express it in these terms because I didn’t know what it was all about. I was chanting the usual mass of general bad social conscience and general undefined kindness, all wrapped in the smoky incense of lukewarm pantheism and half cooked do-good-ism. I had a feeling of creeping failure and lurking defeat.
I can’t remember how we came across the idea of retreat, but Eivor and I did not know more about it than a sentence or two in an encyclopedia: you make a military retreat in order not to be defeated; you may go to a Jesuit retreat to have religious experiences. – “Let us start a retreat-place!” “What we desperately need is factual religious experiences! No more intellectual discussions, pretending to know what religion is!” — “How much money do we have now?” — “Not more than 25 pounds if we make use of all our resources!”
The same autumn, being at a Swedish folk-high school to learn about fruit growing—an impulse we got, having met a Quaker couple in Beccles, England—I was, to our absolute surprise suddenly invited by the London YM to go to the World Pacifist Meeting in India, all cost paid. It was naturally a terrible waste of money. The meeting was far above my head and my presence must have been of microscopic profit for the gathering, if any at all. To me personally it was an experience with great impact. I learned a lot about Gandhian nonviolence, but also how superficial my conception was concerning Eastern religions. Eating outdoors at the campus of Santiniketan, I was once approached by one of these unbelievable, skinny, scurvy and fly- covered Indian street dogs wagging his tail for food. The look I got from the sad eyes became in that moment a concentration of all the Indian misery and sufferings I had seen and it made me quite unintentionally whisper to the eyes: “Hi, Jesus!” To me it was an unforgettable eye-catch. During the long aea voyages out and home again an old English Quaker couple told me about their Christian experiences: the spirit of persistance in seeking, knocking and asking and of a simple dialogue with the Inward Friend. My exuberant jangle of “tat twam asi” became more and more an empty desert fit for the “I AM” – experience (Exodus 3:14) of total presence. But it took another ten years before I understood what it all was about.
Back in Sweden, where Eivor’s continuous work had made the whole trip possible, we were now more convinced than ever before that we should make a retreat-place – even if we hardly know anything about retreats. But did we for that matter know much more about farming? After really great difficulties we managed to borrow money enough to buy and start a small farm north of Stockholm; Svartbacken. It was A.D. 1950.
What have been the problems?
I am going to take up four main problems: money, manual work, defeat and caring of souls. Let us start with money, a capital thing. For a war you are supposed to have three things: money, money and money. It is the same about peace, inward peace, a precious thing. The permanent presence of Mammon is felt by the encumbered and debt-ridden small-holder day as well as night. The absolute necessity to get hold of cash, or of names on bills of exchange, or to calm down bank managers, or convince contractors, or persuade buyers, all this is a tough school and hardly simple living. You are in a low position, however, and if you want to survive you must humble yourself. If nothing is certain in a farmer’s economy, neither is anything certain concerning his animals or his machines or the weather. A true old saying among Swedish farmers goes: “One doesn’t know anything about the crop before the money is in one’s wallet!” You may easily worry 24 hours a day if you are
bent that way.
Secondly; a small holder and his wife are of course manual workers. That is such an obvious fact, but calls for some attention. Socially there is a vast and intricate number of differences between the blue blouse and the white collar or today we may perhaps say between the Sunday overall and the everyday overall. Regarding physical exhaustion the consequences go far deeper than merely bodily fatigue. “The Potato Eaters” on the painting of Van Gogh have not the sort of conversation as, let us say, the upper class world in “A la recherche du temps perdu”‘ of Marcel Proust, to take two extremes. It is all so obvious, so clear, so often talked about, but yet, when it comes to everyday confrontations, it is nevertheless overlooked again and again. The position as a manual worker deeply colours your mind, your relations, your loyalties. Let there be no doubt about that. You have, somebody said, the majority of mankind on your side; alright, but that is a very theoretical consolation.
A third problem, also of psychological importance, but seldom thought about, I believe, is how to know when you are defeated. It is not so nutty as it sounds. Let us take money first, once more. If we had to follow Christian Faith and Practice or even common sense, not to speak about normal business procedures, we should have left Svartbäcken fully twenty years ago I have numerous examples of total or near-total loss of crops or of animals, not always depending on my stupidity or our lack of knowledge. How skyhigh should debts be allowed to rocket? Is sheer bankruptcy the only limit? To what extent can you rely on “money miracles”, viz. unexpected gifts and the like. Such things happen, you see. You have also the question of acceptance of physical defeat. To judge one’s own body and soul is fair enough, but what about wife and child? A farmer’s wife has, as the planner and buyer and mover of the household, her full time schedule indeed, everybody must know that, but add to it a large amount of outdoor work, not only as occasional stand-in for the sheepdog, but as a snow-digger, a wood-chopper, a hay-maker, etc., etc. Last not least: are we defeated or not when the realization of the spiritual aims of our project linger and linger? Not one year or two, but five, ten, fifteen years? how reliable is our own judgment put up against everyone else’s? When has our faithfulness and loyalty and constancy become just stubbornness and inflexibility and pride?
The last problem I wish to mention is very much connected with this. It is, as I see it, of great magnitude. It concerns the very common lack of having someone to talk with about the state of one’s soul, as well as the
disastrous lack of a reliable framework of references for verbal communication. Even if it shocks a number of Friends, we too have to face the well known law of the inward world that the path to inner progress cannot be trodden by someone all by himself and only with emotions and opinions and intellectual ventilations swinging freely from one unidentified branch of impressions to another. Friends are in no way excluded from the regular procedures of the inner life. When we are forced to dig in where it matters most in life, we are soon to discover that we must aim where it concerns the spiritual care of souls, whether we like it or not.
Certainly this is nothing typical for some odd Quakers who had become farmers far off in the Nordic forests. I am most seriously stressing the central importance for any Friend of having a continuous contact with a spiritually experienced person. It might save years of aimless drifting about, if one at all cares to go on seeking. After years at Svartbäcken I was pushed to face my inner confusion and ignorance and standstill in full. I couldn’t identify or interpret and of course not communicate what was going on. A series of outward events, looking like downright failures, were literally thrown on my head, like lifebuoys. By the circumstances I was forced to take an attitude to Christ, and do it totally, body and mind, soul and spirit. Why not Zen or the Perennial Philosophy, for instance? Because my conceptions and framework of references in this difficult field must be even more unsure and hazardous there, in a completely foreign culture, than in Christianity, which, within my Western hemisphere has been worked at for more than one and a half millennia. Apart from all religious and theological aspects.
I believe that especially Friends involved in some kind of work for the sake of our Society as well as Friends who have become interested in an active spiritual life are in frequent need of having their inner state of affairs looked over. Not to be dissected intellectually but laid open and lit up by the new Light. “It is far better to feel sorrow for your sins, than to be able to define them’, said Thomas à Kempis in deep simplicity. How are we to understand in full the advice of genius our old Friend Fox gave Lady Claypole, not to look at her sins, but to the Light which shows her the sin, if we do not even know the meaning of the word “sin” or our own relations to the phenomena. Not to speak about the word “Light”. “If then the only light you have is darkness, the darkness is doubly dark” (Matt. 6:23). A faith does not become simple because we have made it up by our personal whims and dislikes. May I here parenthetically slip in a reminder about the resources we all have in Woodbrooke, only at letter-box distance.
What is given – taken?
Svartbäcken is a very small farm, only 150 acres or 75 hectares, and it is heavily encumbered. Compared with the normal Swedish standard of living we are poor and simply forced to live accordingly. But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that we have in any respect suffered through these 23 years. Far from it. Eivor’s life and mine have been plentiful and rich and meaningful. Farming is the most complete of professions. What you produce is primary to life. From the ploughing to the harvesting, from the moment you spot the white little tip of the lamb’s cloven hoof to the day of slaughter. Furthermore, as Europeans we are in a favoured part of the world and as Swedes we have had peace in our land for more than one and a half centuries. Personally we have got the gifts to be able to walk and talk and see and we have had more than enough to eat every day. We have a son, Mats Erik, who is a blessing. We have had a home all the time and it has always been filled with many other children too. Friends from near and far are constantly sharing our meals at our kitchen table and we live in the midst of Nordic nature.
Most precious of all, in our souls the Divine Seed has, by the Grace of God, begun to germinate slowly. Surprisingly enough it was able to seek its way through all the dark and dry sods up to the surface. I am, somewhat, in the position of the prodigal son: ‘…but while he was still a long way off his father saw him, and his heart went out to him. He ran to him, flung his arms round him and kissed him….’ If I hadn’t had that beautiful parable to rely on—and the first words the son said to his father—it would have not been possible for me to handle all my temptations, neither of high spirits nor of depression. In short, we have lived a privileged life.
Well, then, should everybody go farming? The idea of simple living is, to say the least, something very relative. If therefore we equal simple living with rosy ideas of farm life, we are, really, I think, in a blind alley. It is, naturally, a tempting alternative to the polluted town-machine and to the grim, inferno-like ” 1984-sort of society. Farming is indeed a very satisfactory occupation – under certain circumstances and for some people. But we all know surely what a hell of a place a farm can be to many. We all know too that the world community needs innumerable other professions. How, to take that aspect, would we be able to maintain and deepen a world conscience without world-wide mass media? Slowly we seem to emerge into a sort of gigantic world body and it looks as if we are responsible to give it a world soul, as well as that cybernetic rigging we already have happened to invent, the consequences of which we know nothing about.
I am sure simple living has to be looked at from quite another angle. In fact, is simple living, to be provocative, linked to material things at all? If so, what about the overwhelming majority of our sisters and brothers, the ill paid, the ill clad, the ill fed? They have already what Quaker simplicity is out for. Why not just join them?
How is our situation today? Who am I as a modern Western citizen? Certainly a consumer, first and foremost. The slave in an economic system built largely upon the sand of perpetual consumption. I am a victim of clever salesmanship, mostly anonymous, domineering, irresponsible. Here only a simpleton lives simply. Every moment I am awake I am manipulated so as to satisfy my selfishness through buying. I can get. I am offered. I have to have. I must own. I have to enjoy, to relish, to suck! Buy to be equal! Buy to escape! Up to the neck we are forced to wade in a system which for its very maintenance must produce a type of life which cultivates pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger and sloth. All of them deadly threats to the birth of the Spirit of love within our world body. Day after day this trash piles higher and higher as the shit on our dunghill, home on the farm and it becomes a more and more heavy burden to everyone. Therefore I have deep sympathy with people who turn away from this impotent world of sheer egotism and sense less wasting with disgust and nausea. If we expect Quaker simplicity to be something more than just a sham ideal or romantic coquetry and escapism, then we have to do away with it and work for a radical solution. That would be the true testimony of simplicity. Otherwise we do no more than a little insubordination in the prison yard.
Let us remind ourselves that a rather radical challenge, considering that it was produced by Friends and nearly sixty years ago, is described in the Swarthmore Lecture of 1918, The New Social Outlook by Lucy Fryer Morland. Already in 1915 a War and Social Order Committee was put up which later incubated the famous “Eight Points”. [ed note: These Eight points were part of a document called “Foundations of a True Social Order adopted by London YM in 1918.] The humble commotions calmed down, however, in 1930 and thereabouts, altogether.
One outstanding characteristic of our Western society is the primitive dogma: earn, grab, keep. One salient characteristic of the first Christian community was: share. Koinonia is Greek for “common participation” and it is used in the Acts about the first Christian body (Acts 2:42). Its most intense and symbolic expression was that communal meal which Paul, the tentmaker, came to call “the Lord’s supper” (1 Cor. 11:20). A very learned Anglican pundit (E.W. Hunt, Portrait of Paul, Mowbray, London, 1968) holds the view that the Lord’s Supper was neither a Passover meal nor a Kiddush meal—eaten on the eve of the Passover to sanctify the imminent feast—but more a Chaburah meal, withal no ordinary one. Chaburäh means ‘fellowship’, almost ‘love’ and its root is ‘chaber’ which, he says, means ‘friend’. To the Chaburah meal everybody contributed something. Quite apart from all theological conclusions eventually drawn from it, I wish to direct our attention to that communal meal, here and now, because the Lord’s Supper became the very symbol of the spirit of koinonia, of participation. It was the feast of sharing, vertical as well as horizontal, so important for the first Christians: come just as you are into our breathtaking new and real Reality, incessantly fresh as morning
dew, the death knell to a world centered in Ego and its law of earn and grab and keep.
All over the Western scene quite a number of people have drawn their conclusions and acted, perhaps in obscure and unsure ways, acted nevertheless and begun a different life in a sort of non-Christian koinonia. Married and unmarried and single people rent a house or a roomy flat together. In that kind of community living the traditional humdrum values are mercilessly exposed in their real worth rather soon. No more papa offered the slippers; no more mama hiding behind the sink; no more sacred cult of holy belongings around the walls. To put it very plainly an invitation to trouble, of course, and more trouble and trouble again. All wide apart from the closed and sheltered “just-we” kind of family, where the personal phobias are so easily stacked away in the cupboard and where our Quaker simplicity may be disclosed as a whited sepulchre and our Quaker smile just window dressing.
Naturally, nothing of what I have said here is new in any sense. You have heard it all over many times before. Again and again, now as well as in bygone days, men have tried new ways of living together. The group here at Charbonnières is itself one outstanding example. But nothing is said to convince you that our way is your way or in order to serve you an intellectual appetizer. On the contrary, the purely intellectual attitude misses the mark. I look upon my undertaking as to describe what has led up to our transformation through actions. A simplification of life was a minor, but unavoidable result. The bread of life within has to be harvested, baked, broken and shared by deeds, not read about in a recipe.
To adopt simplicity by parting from anything is like losing the tip of your tail when you are caught, like the blind-worms do as a means to escape. We certainly don’t want to part from anything at all, but how happy we are when we suddenly discover that we have made some spiritual progress because something dead has been sloughed off! Instead of being blind we need a John Woolman-like ability to look intensely at things and habits and to discover if violence is lurking in them. We need in fact a new sight, a new insight. Or to put it in old wording: what is the will of God?
Who am I to know that and how? In the New English Bible, in the 12th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the second verse is rendered: “Adapt yourselves no longer to the pattern of this present world, but let your minds be remade and your whole nature thus transformed. Then you will be able to discern the will of God and to know what is good…..” My reading of that bit relates the text to our actual situation. The essence of simple living is to know what is good. Therefore adapt yourself not to the wicked values of the current system. They only breed destruction and pollution in all directions. Disobey, revolt, but not in a pretending or theoretical way, it will never put you in the new situation, necessary to remake a mind. To transform our whole nature goes even further and requires to be in the test-tube body and soul, in other words, a discipleship. Living without any sort of security, true discipleship is shaking our very foundations. When we have gone down into the silent crypt of our soul and discovered our true relations we may discern the will of God. Some people, like myself, use the expression “to be in Christ” and it means communion and community at the same time. I see the picture of the high fir-tree. We are members of one body and partakers of the Chaburah feast – where Judas always is present too, as a matter of fact. Without his presence we would not fully grasp “the breadth and the length and the height and depth’ of that experience. (Ephesians 3:18).
Because we do live in the world and do have to act there and because to share is more “in Christ” than to keep, some of us must by now see our fatal Christian dilemma: socialism is more “in Christ” than, let us say, apartheid. For the decent middle class-rooted Christian it must create almost a sort of trauma, to draw some practical consequences out of that in our complex Western world. Not the least because the radical political systems, based as they are on rational and intellectual conceptions, have not yet produced love, hardly even basic civic rights. What, then, is the way to the truth in the life? It must be an “in spite of”, viz. the radical on his knee; the koinonia community; Imitatio Christi. So-called Quaker simplicity alone produces no love. On the contrary, it may probably often become a dangerous temptation to self-seeking, to domestic tyranny, to escapism. In the first place it was a testimony against the wide gap between the classes in the 17th century. Like all the other Quaker testimonies it was born only, and has to be born again, only out of love, as a fruit of faith, as the Comforter’s gift. In our time, when churches and denominations reconsider their creeds and customs, we, as Friends, must dare to expose and explore our testimonies and habits and hypotheses too, to rediscover their roots as well as their buds.
Maurice Creasy has, in his important Swarthmore Lecture of 1969, “Bearings, or Friends and the New Reformation’, thrown fresh light on our traditional religious attitudes and gone into unfamiliar dimensions of truth. When he makes a chart of the radical “death-of-God” theology or of secularisation and the new morality, he is helping us to get a frame to work with, thus making it possible for us to give Quakerism back its right proportions and rich possibilities, because Quakerism is far more powerful than its testimonies, however flowery they look.
No testimony, but “that hope that is in us”, has to be our starting-point. When we put ourselves into the harness of the poor, which we must, treated as they are like beasts, and drag our contribution to the creation of the world cathedral, whose outward expression is sharing, we have more to give than silence under the huge arches of human worship and adoration.
Allow me to end now by passing on to you an old saying which that aged English Friend wrote in a book of ours 26 years ago: “Christianity is not a theory to be discussed, nor a problem to be solved. It is a life to be
lived, a Person to be loved”
Eivor and I couldn’t read it out then, but that is Quaker simplicity.
This talk was given by Sven E. Ryberg of Sweden YM at the Annual Meeting of the European and Near East Section of the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC), held at Charbonnières, France, Easter 1973.
Sven Ryberg in his paper, shares his personal search and discovery. He worked in the film industry for fifteen years before leaving it to take up farming. He and his wife joined Friends in 1947. He has travelled widely among Friends visiting the other Scandinavian countries, France, England, Scotland, Ireland and India. He has written various articles and is a regular contributor to his local paper.