Monday, December 25, 2006
This is especially ironic given the fact that, only a few years ago, I wasn't celebrating Christmas at all.
Before my daughter reached the age where school was not to be missed, and before both my husband and I took jobs that make taking time off before a vacation week extremely fraught, our family used to celebrate the solstice itself--and I mean _on_ the solstice. We stayed up the night before--theoretically all night, though in reality, I don't think any of us ever made it that far--and we kept a candle, lit during the last hours of daylight, burning all night through as well. At sunset, we'd set up the Yule tree (which is, yeah, pretty much the same as a Christmas tree, but that's one borrowing from Christian tradition it's hard to feel shy about, since it fits so much better with Pagan mythology than with Christian...) and, for some reason which I don't think I ever understood, we got into the habit of bringing out all the dolls and stuffed animals in the house, and setting them up around the tree to keep vigil, too. I would make my family's traditional cinnamon buns and oyster stew (a pairing I could invent a Pagan iconography for, but, with your permission, I won't bother.) At sunrise, we'd heat up mulled cider, and, after waking up the earth with the loud banging of pots and pans, pour out cider to the trees, go inside, and make with the presents. Big feast later. Not too different from the Christmas traditions I grew up with, but different enough. The connections to family were there, but so was the connection to the seasonal mystery of the Pagan wheel of the year. It was an unapologetic blend. (Real, rich religious traditions are always syncretistic in the corners, anyway.)
I liked this way of celebrating quite a lot.
I especially liked, in the days after the solstice, on Christmas day, wandering around downtown in the city where I live, and seeing the streets empty and quiet--being able to hear bird song on Main Street, where traffic and crowd noises had been dominant so long. And we'd typically truck on out to a Chinese restaurant (the only places open on Christmas) for a kind of counter-celebration.
I loved the quiet of that. This time of the year really seems to need some hush, some kind of a pause in the craziness of daily life. Isn't that what winter really is?
Unfortunately, these traditions were always difficult to maintain. Peter's parents, Sheila and Ed, always join us for the vacation week, driving out all the way from Ohio. As busy college professors, it wasn't the easiest thing for them to arrive on time. Sometimes they'd miss the Solstice-night dinner. Sometimes they'd miss the Solstice morning, too. Some years, I tried to make the traditional feast foods both times--for Yule and for Christmas--and wound up exhausted. One year, I remember, I didn't do that, and Sheila and Ed celebrated _their_ holiday all on their lonesomes, opening their gifts to one another sitting in the living room on their own, and then sitting down to a rotisserie chicken afterwards. It was just too sad...
And how does _that_ way of treating one's in-laws suit a religion that emphasizes respect for the ancestors?
So we changed. We moved Yule to Christmas.
It turns out that the ancients, who learned to mark the solstices with their megaliths, didn't have such miraculous aim as I had once imagined. Maes Howe, for instance, the great chambered cairn, is in darkness for most of the year, but at sunset at the winter solstice, the rays of the setting sun make their way down the long, dark stone passage to strike directly on the back wall of the tomb. For that one moment, everything is gently and warmly illuminated by the dying and reborn sun. Which is lovely and inspiring... but it does turn out that that "moment" actually repeats over the course of several days.
Turns out, megalithic stone clocks aren't as accurate as modern quartz-movement timepieces. Go figure.
We began to celebrate on Christmas, when everyone's work gave them the day off. We left off trying to stay awake all night on solstice eve, or clanging our pots and pans at daybreak. But still we kept up the tradition of the sun candle that burned all through the night, and we even extended it, so that, in addition to lighting the candle before sunset on solstice eve, we kept a seven day candle burning right through Christmas, symbolically "moving" our holiday to join it's older/younger sister holiday.
But these last few years have been a challenge beyond even that. Given our commutes and the hours we work, Peter and I both typcially arrive at work and leave work in darkness. It has become logistically very difficult to get that sun candle lit.
This year, both Peter and I promised one another to _try_ to get home from school in time to light that candle in the sunlight. I knew that, even trying to leave early, the prep for the next day's classes would need to be done, and I might well run late, so I brought a votive candle with me to work. Alas, I could not find anything to light it with. Furthermore, we were out of seven-day candles.* Clearly, a stop at the supermarket after school was in order.
I made it out the door at the end of my work day as shadows were beginning to lengthen, and the sun's rays to shade toward gold. I made it over the mountain, across town, and into the supermarket parking lot as the sun's light took on an amber cast, and as the spindly shadows were turning amber. When I came out again, laden with lighters, candles, and gingerbread men for my advisory kids' party in two days, shadow had engulfed the parking lot, but I could just see the reddish light of the setting sun reflecting from the very top of the nearby cell-phone tower. Good enough! Diving for the votive in the cupholder of my car, I touched flame to the wick, carefully sheilded the candle from the breeze, and drove home, bearing the sunfire with me.
I reached home to learn that Peter had, in fact, been delayed at work. Good thing I'd rushed, I thought! And I brought my votive into the house, set up our altar with the seven-day candle in the cauldron.** Somehow or other, despite the rush and the stress, or maybe _because_ of it, _because_ it had been difficult and something of an ordeal, lighting that sun candle felt much more satisfying than I'd imagined it could.
I will spare you the comedy of errors that followed, except to say that it entailed finding that we lacked any clean altar cloths, that, as is traditional, our strings of lights and electric window candles were missing or burned out, and that, somehow, in the following family festival of decorations, I managed to douse the light in our sun candle. Damn. Damn, damn, damn! All that fuss, all that rushing, all that trouble--for what?!? Fortunately, while I was busy freaking out, Peter and my daughter were efficiently solving the problem for me. Flame gone out? No problem--think of where we have a perpetual flame. Stove is electric, so no help there, but--aha! Pilot light on the gas hot water heater! Voila! Peter created a long handled taper out of a screwdriver and thin little Chanuka candle, Hillary pulled out backup lights in case the 7 day got doused again, and hugged and comforted me, and, sure enough, the flame was rekindled... possibly before the wick had quite lost the last glowing ember at its tip.
The effect of all of this was, wierdly, to make Yule seem more real, and more like a family celebration, than it has in years.
And now it's Christmas morning. Breakfast is being served, my daughter is awake, and soon we'll be unwrapping our gifts to one another.
Simple it is not. But I think that perhaps there are times when confusion and complexity are an important part of the process of getting on with life.
*Those who knew us back in our coven leadership days would have been appalled. No Wiccan priest or priestess is _ever_ out of candles: we had cornered the market on inexpensive, useful candles for all occasions. Incidentally, in case you were wondering, the very best purveyors of Pagan all-occasion candles are stores that sell kosher foods. Because they also sell affordable yartzeit candles, sabbath candles, and Chanuka candles--ideal for 24 hour candle-magic, full moon circles, and short, individual rituals respectively. 7-day candles, however, are best purchased wherever Hispanic foods are sold. Marketed both to Santerians and Catholics, they are found near the tortillas in our local Stop and Shop, just as the Jewish candles are located near the jars of matzoh ball soup. Of such esoteric knowledge are the inner mysteries made.
**More esoteric mysteries: for safety's sake, a careful Witch puts any long-burning candles in the bottom of something flame-resistant. Cauldrons are excellent for this, and, frankly, not much good for anything else. Kitchen sinks and bathtubs also work well, but they lack a certain je ne sais quoi...
Saturday, October 28, 2006
Richard M, at A Place to Stand wrote a recent post on the importance of eldering, in the sense of nurturing gifts when, like volunteer seedlings in a garden, they crop up unexpectedly. Though I'm not 100% sure I agree with everything he had to say (for instance, I question whether a lack of positive feedback from elders at meeting regarding spoken ministry can be taken as meaning that the messages we gave were not right to be shared. I think that there are a lot of indicators of good vocal ministry, and that feedback from elders is only one of them) I did really like the post. He writes that good spoken ministry will "resonate with what is going on within some of the Friends listening."
I think that's so. So I was heartened to read, in a recent comment from Plain Foolish, that my post on Grace had spoken to her (him?), and when I bopped on over to Plain's blog, I found the thread continuing on, the way a message sometimes will begin with one person and then be carried with another. Plain Foolish writes, "one day, as I sat in church, not praying, not doing anything in particular, just sitting there thinking whatever thoughts chose to show up, I felt as though a little light had lit up inside me. That light seemed to say that the way to see the face of God was to look, that I wouldn't see it if I weren't looking... ...My experience of that light hasn't been tied to one religion or anything that easy to pin down. All I can do, I think, is say what my experience of it has been. At times, it's been like an aching love for other people - both people I've known all my life, and people I met for an afternoon, or even just smiled at on the street."
There's more. I'll fight the temptation to reprint the whole entry--though I do urge you to read it for yourself.
I'm reminded of Gus DiZerega's really powerful account of his first direct experience with the Goddess, at his first-ever Wiccan circle:
"As the invocation came to an end I was suddenly enveloped in a presence of incredible power, beauty, and love. While nothing was visible to my eyes, the closeness of that presence was palpable. There was a sense of nature, of forests and streams and meadows. At the same time, there was a pervading sense of beauty beyond words, power beyond imagining, and love beyond conception... In those brief moments within Her presence, I realized that I had never really understood what love was, never deeply comprehended compassion, never truly grasped what acceptance meant... ... it was akin to seeing the light of the sun after having lived in darkness illuminated by candles." (_Pagans & Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience_ p. 55)
I'm not quoting Gus to say that all religions are the same. But I do think that there's something out there that an awful lot of different religions are trying to touch on, and that's far too large to fit neatly inside any particular set of definitions. I am increasingly content to admit I'm unsure what that reality is, or how it fits into the ideas I have about life, the universe, and everything.
However, I'm not content at all to relegate experiences like this to the status of nifty memories and stories. As Plain Foolish puts it, the way to see the face of God is to look, and we wont see it if we don't look. There's more to understand.
And, if the threaded messages I'm living this week are any clue, the "more" can be quite specific and concrete.
At the Ministry and Worship meeting this week, we were discussing one of a number of situations that are an ongoing area of work in our meeting. And, as always when our discussions touch on so many Quaker procedural matters that I have only ever read about once, in passing, in a handbook (if that) I have a wierd, out-of-joint feeling about the discussions. It's as if the conversation were time-lagged from outer space, and I had to listen across odd, out-of-synch gaps in meaning... or, as I remarked at the time, like trying to read in Spanish, a language I once understood slightly, but that is slipping away from me year by year. I understand most of the words--but I can't help but feel a sense of how much I am missing.
In the middle of my chronic confusion, sitting and attempting to listen spiritually as well as with my ears (If I can't contribute knowledge and experience, I feel that the least I should do is work at _really_ listening), I had a brief, sharp flash of light--almost like the pop of an old-fashioned flash bulb. And I had an idea that I _thought_ made sense, though, ignorant as I am of so much Quaker process, I couldn't be sure my idea wasn't either a) obvious and not useful, or b) incredibly foolish and impossible.
But I trusted us. I admitted I didn't know for sure I understood all I should, but I offered the idea anyway. And immediately, I could see in the eyes of the other members of the committee that it _was_a useful insight. I was excited. _They_ had been excited by the idea.
OK. Not huge. But that the group of elders I was sitting with (you know--I really _like_ that group of people!) picked up the thread.
When messages resonate--that _is_ one of the signs that you're listening is on track. And the listening--the _hearing_ what is next--that's one of the points of this whole thing.
I'm pretty sure.
Thursday, October 26, 2006
The thought/message that came to me in MFW this week (it didn't rise to vocal ministry, but it had that SMACK-into-the-baseball-glove feeling of a message at the time) came up something like this.
As I was centering into worship, one of our members, a mom whose warmth and integrity I really admire, came into the meeting room. As she crossed to her bench, I noticed how lovely she was--regal, almost. And I felt a sudden fierce tenderness toward her (if that makes sense) that made me so glad: glad she was there, glad I was, glad she is a kind and caring human... I don't know. Just... glad.
And it came to me that, when I look at _you_ and I see God, that is grace.
When I look at you and see God.
That is grace.
(Pagans distressed by my terminology, see the comment below.)
Sunday, October 22, 2006
The scene begins with a fire kindled in a watchtower in Gondor, signalling for aid... and the camera pans over mountain after mountain, rushing over snow and rocky summits, so we see fire after fire lit, on distant peaks, as one after another, men set to keep watch see the signal, and respond.
Finally the signal reaches Theoden's citadel, and Aragorn, who has been trying to persuade Theoden to answer Gondor's appeal when it comes, rushes into his hall, taking two immense stone steps at a time in his haste. He throws open the doors, and cries out,"Gondor calls for aid!" and there is a long, pregnant pause. Theoden is a King. He has been ignored in his own hour of need. Will he stay true to the old alliance, or no? And then, visibly making up his mind, he calls back--"And Rohan will answer!" And since Viggo Mortensen and Bernard Hill are breathtaking actors, the scene is incredibly potent.
The part that makes me cry, _always_ chokes me up, is the visual of the distant watchfires being lit, one by one, on peak after lonely peak.
I think of what that implies. Hundreds of years of men and women making sure that there is always dry wood, dry kindling. Keeping watch at all hours and in all weathers, for a signal that never comes, a need that never rises.
Until, one day, it does. And they are there.
I love Viggo Mortensen and Bernard Hill, and I love their characters. But in that scene, the heroes are never on camera. Which is why I love it. Because _that_ is faithfulness. In daily life, too.
Faithfulness is this idea, this _ideal_ that is more and more alive for me these last few months. It is the faithfulness of Friends I saw deliver important messages at Yearly meeting that moves me, even more than the messages do. The purity of intent... the openness... the determination in the waiting. I feel such love for those I see practicing this. I think that maybe, more than anything else, it is this faithfulness that creates that Light I see in the eyes of our "facing bench". Where does that ability come from?
Today, in meeting, I found myself thinking about my dog, Jeffrey. Jeffrey is a pound dog. And the hard thing about bringing a dog home from the pound is that you can bring only one, and must leave so many behind. So you think carefully about what it is you're looking for in a dog. Jeffrey was responsive--more than any of the other dogs, he was sensitive to my movements and my vocal tones. He watched me to see what I wanted of him, where I was going next. He's still that way--his eyes meet mine when I look at him, follow me when I move... This dog lives for the chance to respond to us.
He is faithful.
Dogs don't have such a good rep. Doggish faithfulness is seen as fawning, and we humans look down on submissiveness. And, well, OK--I will admit that doggy breath and doggy hygiene are not things to boast about. But still...
I would be God's dog. I would go for that. That's a good way to be, I think. I'm gonna leave the whole question of what I mean by "God" (or "Gods") for another day--those questions are too big for me. But I'm going to try to remember my dog's wisdom, as a way of staying "low down to the Truth" of faithfulness. I'm going to try to remember the importance of little acts of faithfulness--the kindling and dry wood, without which there is nothing--stuff like keeping promises to my students even though I am sick of grading essays, or cleaning out the bathtub because Peter is feeling down about how out of control the day-to-day of life is. All that minor stuff, that isn't really minor at all, because it's how life gets done.
Hm. I was gonna write more. Had some stuff come to me in meeting on the topic of Grace, too, that I think is worth writing down. But not now. Peter spent a chunk of the morning writing the latest chapter in our fantasy epic, and I promised to listen to him read. So, in the spirit of faithfulness, that's what I'm going to do now.
Blessed be, everybody. And good night.
Saturday, October 14, 2006
So I'm so happy to have found Diane Sylvan's Dancing Down the Moon. What a terrific blog! Some of her entries, like her most recent, where she explains "Why the Rest of the World Thinks We're Wierd" are funny, but others, like her discussion of why her altar is arranged as it is, or the poetry she features, are really resonant for me.
Here's an excerpt from a recent poem:
"In the name of the sun and its mirrors
and the day that embraces it
and the cloud veils drawn over it
and the uttermost night
and the male and the female
and the plants bursting with seed
and the crowning seasons
of the firefly and the apple,
"I will honor all life--
wherever and in whatever
form it may dwell--
on Earth my home,
and in the mansions of the stars."
Definately one to add not just to my own personal blogroll, but to the permanent links on this blog. I've seen her book somewhere or other--_The Circle Within_, I mean; she has written others--but not yet read it. I'm going to have to go looking for it now...
Hooray! Another Pagan writer with some depth!
This was the first year Michael stayed (after a _long_ hard day of work, too) to attend our main ritual, a harvest blessing. We were so moved that he was there... Michael is a deacon in his Lutheran Church, and a man who takes his spiritual life very, very seriously, clearly working to walk his talk. There's a reason he means the world to us...
Anyway, this is what he wrote:
Chef Michael has left a new comment on your post "From the Greenwood":
Dear Cat and Peter,
As I do not have an e-mail address for you, please see this as communication of sorts rather than a comment on your recent blog entry.
Thanks for your web site card I have read the entire site.
Thanks for being true friends over the years that you have been coming here. I really apprieciate the fact that you both were really interested in hearing my story about the past year. My wish for next year is that I have time for you to share your year with me. if it is possible I would like to e-mail with you both as I feel that what I experienced at the circle/ritual needs to be explored and from what I read on the web site you may the people that I could share with.
I can be reached at m---@----
I wished that I had thought to look up the site before We had our weekly management meeting on Thursday. Word got out around that I had attended the ritual and that I had worn a kilt most of the weekend. Tim took pictures so there was no denying it. It was not a problem, but my boss was inquisitive about what went on. I did not share much, other than it was very low keyed and very humbling to be there. He was very interested in what went on during the day. I tried to explain that cooking for 130 people left little time for me to get to any presentations. sometime I think he thinks that I just say a prayer (spell?) and the food miraculously appears. I did share that your group is really tied to this place and many were happy that the relationship would be able to continue. I did talk to the soon-to-be new owners and they assured me that they do not want to lose any business that exists now. There is no reason to be concerned about my boss as I think he was just inquisitive.
Some one from your group asked what I thought of the ritual. Can't remember names to save my life. Anyway I responded by saying I found it very interesting and that the passing of the corn bread and mead and the blessing of"may you never hunger or thirst' Struck a cord so deep that it surprised me. He wondered if it upset my sensibilities. He then said that everyone knew I was tolerant but was really wondering if it made me uncomfortable. I tried to respond by asking how he felt about what had gone on and if he were comfortable with it. He said yea and I said that I was glad that I was there.
I seem to be rambling and beg forgiveness. Your blog gave me insight into the other world that surrounds the kitchen. The goings on that are the real reason you gather. It also gave me insight to your group and why I feel increasingly drawn to it. There were two comments on the evaluations that I would like to share and then I will say good bye for now. First there was one that said I was very important to the Nameless Gathering and that I should be kept happy. It then went on to say 'that when Michael dies he should be stuffed and propped up in a corner of the dining room.:) The second said that a spiritual connection with me had been made by some over the years. This touched me very deeply.
I enjoyed your blog very much.
I hope that you are both well.
Sunday, October 08, 2006
I am typing these words from my laptop, sitting outside the tent we're sleeping in in the middle of a hemlock wood in the Catskill Mountains. Let me describe the scene for you. I hear the soft, sweet soughing of the wind in the leaves over my head, a late-summer cicada very slowly marking time, distant shrilling of frogs, and a thread of flute music drifting in from across the stream very much like the leaves that are drifting down from the canopy over my head. I look around me and I see two... no, three other tents, a high, savagely grey ledge of stone, carpeted over with fallen leaves, and the stained-glass contrasts of yellow maples and hornbeams punctuated by green-black hemlock trees. Beside me is a rotted stump that is as textured and intricately carved as a Georgia O'Keefe skull...
The last of the afternoon sun is slanting through the forest giants atop the ridge, and I can see that same sun warming the sides and roofs of the cabins across the pond. Sounds of a bodhran that come and go, of a pickup basketball game, morris dancing, and laughter...
This is the setting from which I write today.
I am at an annual Pagan retreat which will remain nameless here, because it is a closed retreat. Unless you know someone who invites you, you will never hear of this one, not because we are such special people that we don't want to know you, but because we are a committed community of "dirt-worshipping tree huggers" (as the bumper-sticker says) and we know that there really are no shortcuts to creating community. We know each other. We watch each other's kids grow up (lots of people have been eager for news of mine, who is not in attendance here this year) and we look out for one another, stay in touch with one another, mourn with one another at need, and celebrate each other's triumphs when we can. We're not open to the public for the same reason a family is not: because that's just now how this kind of human connection works (though we'll be delighted should you meet one of us, fall in love, and "marry in", metaphorically speaking.)
There are about 150 of us here this year. The weather is amazing, and the mood is friendly and warm.
Wandering around the grounds today, skirting the edges of at least one Maidening ritual, a dance tutorial, a workshop on Hindu deities, and any number of intimate conversations, I found myself thinking that this is how I like to think of us in the Pagan movement.
Peter and I have been doing Quaker-Pagan MFW each morning--sparsely attended this year, in comparison to some, but having met Quakers who show up and keep meetings running week after week with only three or four attendees at times, I find I don't at all mind it. I like to think that keeping the space available for those who need it, when they need it--that just knowing it's there, never mind someone starting the day holding the retreat in worship--that that's enough. Usually, since it's such a small group, it tends to be pretty quiet. Today, though, Joan was with us up the hill at the pavilion, and first I, then Peter, and then Joan had a message. Hers comes back to me now. She said she thinks about world events since 9/11, including recently the school shootings, and it seems to her that evil, human evil, is out and about in the world, and needs to be challenged. This is a somewhat remarkable thing for a Pagan to say--officially, we don't have much use for the concept of evil as it's own force. But what she said next, about hoping that both she as an individual, and we as a religious community, needing to be present and active, to stave off a sense of the human world being "rotten at the root" felt important to me. As it did after meeting, when Joan said she hopes that we Pagans are accomplishing more than entertaining ourselves, dressing up and playing together. And I knew just what she meant. There it is again: that need to balance the inward, spiritual experiences and the outward, active, acting in the world part of life.
I think that here, at this particular Pagan gathering, we're cultivating human connection first. There is a sacrality to community. It's slow, and it's not marketable or easy to package and distribute, and, by itself, it isn't clear how it will change the world. But I think that changing how humans relate to one another is going to be the key to how we find our way out of the messes we've made on the planet... Learning to live in community, including all the ugly bits: finding a way to reach out to (or at least tolerate) people who have (inevitably) hurt us in the past... finding a way to deepen spiritually even when the person next to us is getting, well, frankly, silly and self-promoting, as certainly does happen.
Pagans generally shape their beliefs around a central testimony (to use the Quakerese) of earth-stewardship... though I think we are, as a movement, rather less good at actually _living_ according to those lights than Quakers are at living out our peace testimony.
But for myself, despite my love for woods and the non-human world, and despite the near-physical force with which the peace testimony propelled me into Quaker meeting, it's human connection on the most personal level that seems to be my own core testimony.
My most powerful worship experiences over the last few years, in the Quaker world and the Pagan one, have been mostly about connecting with--through?--other humans. The worship sharing Peter and I set up today, on the subject of connecting with Spirit, brought me to that deep, bright-lit place for the first time this weekend. I had been fighting off a certain sadness, a feeling that I was no longer able to connect fully to Pagan people and Pagan ritual. And it's true that ritual doesn't generally do much for me any more. But when others spoke from the heart about their deep truths, well, just as happens in Quaker meeting, suddenly I wasn't striving to get to a place of connection with Spirit. I was just there.
My path has been a strange one. It has wound through lots of varied landscapes: Wicca, Paganism, the Quakers, and just plain folks. I have a sense that I'm standing where I need to be at the moment. It's a bit frustrating that I can't really express how to get here, to another person. I could teach you how to be a Witch. I'm beginning to be able to teach (a little) how to be Quaker, or at least what that means. But I have no recipe for becoming whatever it is that I am. I'm a little bit different than anyone else, including even Peter, who at least shares my ritual vocabulary.
But perhaps, when we get where we're supposed to be, each of us, we find ourselves on the Path With No Name, learning what can't be taught, because it's just for us.
Hmph. I may be maundering. It's so hard to rely on words to try to communicate the Big Stuff.
But I will say that it is a priviledge and a joy, to be sitting here in the gathering chill, in a hemlock forest in October, surrounded by people who, silly or wise, grumpy or serene, are a People to each other and to me. I am quietly, happily grateful.
This has been a good retreat, even if I do have wait till next year to try the morris dancing myself...
Chef Michael, known and loved to all of us at the nameless gathering, added his comments; I've given them their own post, which you can read here.
Sunday, September 24, 2006
I suppose that isn't a very "spiritual" line of thought, in some ways. On the other hand, the biggest challenge I've faced, since becoming a teacher, is managing the business of daily life and still having time for friends, family, solitude, and exercise. For the last two years, it was time in Pagan ritual and in Meeting that got cut, a luxury I don't think I have this year, having agreed to serve on Ministry and Worship. This is the part that scares me most about having said yes--everything else can be learned, but keeping up with planning and grading for my classes just takes an awful lot of time if I'm to do it well.
I am always fretted by Quaker testimonies against excessive busy-ness, that challenge me to live simply enough to be able to come unhurried to my spiritual practices. I get that making spiritual life a prioritiy matters. But I also believe that some kinds of work are inherently busy--but, when you're led to them, they're also what you're supposed to be doing with your spirituality. I mean, a spiritual life isn't about what you do at Beltain and Samhain, or on First Day in worship--it's where you take those experiences the rest of the week, month, and year. Surely people who, say, are trying to make a difference in war zones or on the scene at great humanitarian disasters are sometimes behind in racking up hours of meditation. You can't always build that time in (though I know many people do find ways to build in a surprising amount of time to Be with spirit).
I think my discomfort means that I feel the tension between spiritual needs and spiritual actions. I've accumulated a net "debt" to myself in a number of areas of life in the last few years, as I became a teacher. I'm seriously behind on getting regular exercise, staying connected to friends whom I love, and finding time for spiritual practices. (The Pagan practices have suffered most, as Pagan ritual tends to need more setup, when done with others, than does Quaker worship... and is easier to procrastinate on when done alone.) But just as a runner can build up an oxygen debt in the course of a long race, and must then rely on glycogen to carry him onward, so, surely, a man or woman trying to build something out of spiritual leadings will sometimes find themselves drawing on their reserves for a time. That _can't_ be doing it "wrong."
But I do feel uneasy. Not because it's a mistake to have become a teacher, or because I think I'm out of line with the amount of passion and energy I devote to my work. That feels right. But I think it's that I'm aware of how little safety margin there is built into this new life of mine. I think I could easily lose touch with either my spiritual hungers or forget how to feed them. It's as if I'm a distance swimmer, and I'm aware that I'm an awfully long way from land. I know I could drown here. I don't like the feeling.
If the politicians ever do carry through with the noises they make about extending the school day or the school year, I'm out. I can't give more; I'll sell shoes or something, but I'll have to leave teaching.
At the same time, I feel like this year there is a kind of synergy, for the first time, between my spiritual life and my life in the classroom. Worship this summer and thus far this fall has been deep and sweet for me, and I'm finding reservoirs of peacefulness inside myself I never thought I would. I'm feeling myself opening in forgiveness to people I had long ago closed the door on (though we'll see how that works itself out in day to day life). And in the classroom, where I have been astonished, since becoming a teacher, at how angry a room full of fifteen year olds can make me, I'm feeling much less bothered.
Partly, that may be the good fortune of having some wonderful students, very few practiced trouble-makers in the mix, and smaller class sizes. Not being hurried and taking the time to listen is all very well, but I challenge anyone to manage it in real time with a fractious room of 30 kids, many of whom have learning or behavioral challenges. Gandhi himself would find himself shouting on occasion!
This year, my total number of students is down by almost a third. And for the first time, I've got two, not one, classes of "advanced" students--students who come in the door ready to sit down and learn; I don't need to begin by competing for their attention before I can begin to teach them. So that is inherently more peaceful.
But I think there's more to it than that. I'm a better teacher; I stocked up on centeredness over the summer, and I'm working hard to build it in during the year; and I think I'm learning to be more open spiritually in all situations, including the classroom. Which is definately the prize in the spiritual Crackerjack, after all.
OK. Gotta decide now--right now--if I'm going to make it to meeting this morning, or stay home and nurse my cold. There are, as always, arguments on both sides. Let's see what my inner quiet says about it this morning.
Inner quiet says, "Get real. Stay home. Take zinc. Get well." Not to mention the fact that I would walk over fiery coals before willingly exposing any of Mt. Toby's frailer elders to any uneccessary microbes. (It is amazing how easy it is to love some people--how dear they can become in only a few short years...)
Last thought for this post: I've discovered a webcam, not for Schoodic, the lake I get to visit every summer, but for the next best thing, Sebec Lake, only ten miles away. As I grade papers and do my this-and-that, I've been refreshing the image every hour or so.
It's wonderfully tranquil to look at...
Sunday, September 10, 2006
I know that, in Wiccan circles, I often felt that there was a way in which the most important thing we did was share that warm connectedness over cakes and ale after the active ritual working of the night. Not that I'd want to skip the working--because I don't think you can get that depth of communion and friendship except through active spiritual work in a group. But the glow of the candles and the relaxed, loving companionship of a good full moon circle just before bringing it down... I think the Goddess is probably even more present then than in a ritual invocation or even a drawing down. She's shining out through everybody's eyes.
I am aware, since experiencing the depth of worship at NEYM, of how much more real gladness I feel during fellowship after worship at Mt. Toby. There are so many people I'm happy to see and catch up with. Of course the words we exchange aren't as powerful as what we experience in meeting... but they have been much harder for me to ripen into. Seasoned and spirit-filled are two good things for a blog entry to be. But I know my own blog is going to include a certain share of tea and cookies (or cakes and ale, for the Pagans in the studio audience today ;> ) maybe just because I'm at a place where a lot of my current spiritual work is remembering to stay connected to people on ordinary, everyday levels of just enjoying each other...
I think this was a pretty light entry, for instance. But I really do recommend reading Liz's post--and her previous one, Got Toilet Paper?, a terrific post about answering the call of the ordinary. After all... it's all sacred.
I'll write again whenever I get to come up for air next. Everybody, be well.
Friday, September 08, 2006
I can't believe how tired I am already...
Still. A great two days. The third year of teaching is much, much, much easier than the first two... Not only that, but: my class sizes are small, almost private-school-sized small (two sections of 17 students each and one of 24); I have, temporarily at least, a work-study aide who has graded my first two sections of pretests; the kids are actually _listening_ to me (huzzah!); and, best of all, at the end of the day, one of our master-teachers came by my room to pass on a comment she heard from one of my new kids, who says I'm cool and they're glad they are in my class.
It does _not_ get much better than this. (Though the stamina to have a personal life wouldn't be terrible...)
Good night, blogosphere!
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Kwakersaur is trying to organize his thoughts about Quaker tolerance, laying down some of his basic assumtions to serve as a springboard for discussion. I'm hoping to engage him, not in a debate, but in speaking and listening deeply that may lead to some degree of unity between us, even standing as we do at near opposite poles on the Chritian language issue.
Lynn Gazis-Sax, on her blog Noli Irritares Leones ("Don't annoy the lions"?) posted about God, language, and triggers. My response to her has begun to focus my thoughts on what all Quakers--different as many of us are--have in common.
Today was day two of a week of inservices before the students come back next Tuesday. I'll try not to disappear from the blogosphere altogether, but if I do, that's why.
Marshall Massey, challenging my comments on the relationship between programmed and unprogrammed Friends in NEYM, asked a question I think he meant as hypothetical: whether I was "ready to change my actual religion?" But this question is not hypothetical, is never hypothetical perhaps, for those of us who practice blended spiritual paths. Maybe it's never hypothetical for anyone with a listening spirituality. In Quaker terms, isn't that what ongoing revelation implies? As the UCC puts it, "God isn't done speaking yet." In Pagan terms, hey, if the Gods talk to you in circle, trance journey, what have you, what are you _supposed_ to do if They tell you to add or change or eliminate a practice?
The word "faith" is loaded for me, a non-Christian. Too often, it seems to mean, "believe what you are told to, or else." (Lest that statement stir another round of hurt feelings, let me hasten to say that there are many, many people who use the word in a very different way. I'm not describing what you mean when you use the word, just what I sometimes hear.)
The word "faithfulness," though... a word that is also rare in Pagan usage... that word means more and more to me as I try to walk my talk. And for me, being faithful to the lights I've been given, as a Pagan and as a Quaker, has often meant having to be willing to sacrifice what I _thought_ was my religion. Several times now, I've had such a fear of following where I was being led that I have been sorely tempted to sit down on the path to whatever-it-is and not go any farther, because I was leaving the security of the familiar behind.
As a new Witch, only a couple of years into my practice, I once attended a three day Pagan retreat. While I was there, my whole life was changed. (To Peter, who was there and just becoming close, I refer to it as _That_ Twilight Covening.) It's hard to talk about. (Isn't that often the case with the really important stuff!) But among a host of other things that happened, I spent that time viewing the world with a kind of spiritual double-vision. While I saw all the ordinary reality things around me--trees, sky, dishwashers, cups, paper napkins, and squirrels--I also seemed to see, or sense, a non-ordinary reality at the same time, sometimes speaking directly through the apparently ordinary world around me. A white stone was just a white stone... and it was the Goddess reaching out and placing her hand on my shoulder, comforting me and explaining to me the limits of her comfort for me at the same time. A solo guitarist practicing classical music was just another camper at the retreat... and he was the God of the Wild, inviting me into a relationship of intimacy, trust, and a very personal love.
At one point, I realized that I was seeing and feeling and doing things in this doubled reality that were not well described by the specific descriptions of Wicca that I'd been taught beforehand. I remember vividly the moment of fear I felt, realizing that, if I kept on, I might not be able to call myself a Witch anymore. It was a lonely thought, and a cold fear. But it also seemed clear to me that if the Gods were calling me outside the comfort of the Witches' circle, well, I had to go.
And, oh yeah. In spite of all the arguments against syncretism and cultural appropriation, I began working regularly with techniques of Harner-esque core shamanism. Because they worked; they helped me find again the Gods who had touched me so powerfully on retreat. (This is where Penczak's book comes in. Despite the almost ridiculously mixed metaphor of his title, what I'm reading of his _Temple of Shamanic Witchcraft_ feels like home. I'm fully aware of all the plausible arguments against adopting this sort of practice... but for me, well, it feels more as if the practice adopted me. Whaddaya gonna do?)
In a somewhat similar way, after September 11, I became a Quaker. I was drawn to Quaker meeting the way, after holding my breath, I am drawn to air. I was in a state of spiritual emergency, and I did not have time to spend debating with myself the fine points of whether or not someone like me _could_ belong to the Society of Friends. Something without a name called me so powerfully I could not do anything but follow. Call it the Spirit of Peace, call it the paraclete, the Inner Light, the Seed--there is something I need to spend time with. And I don't know what it is. It is not entirely unfamiliar. I've felt it before. But I find it most consistently, and deepen my connection to it most effectively, in Quaker Meeting for Worship.
I may not be able to define this spirit that I feel, but I do know what I experience, and I do know some things that evoke that experience.
In times of trouble and pain during my Pagan life, the Gods have always been there. I'm talking about that double-vision reality thing again... It doesn't always comfort me. In fact, I once spent so much time howling and shouting at the God that I lost my voice for three days. He was right, and I was wrong, by the way, and I would not have married my husband without His help, unappreciated though it was at the time. But, so far, any time my heart has been truly desolate, I've felt Them close. And when I stop storming and tantrumming, I _am_ comforted, and grateful.
The same has been true in my Quaker life. Recent years have held great joy for me... but also some terrible pain and fear. And during those times, especially during meeting, I feel held and enfolded by something vast and tender. It is strong enough and powerful enough to have broken through my New Englander self-sufficiency and reserve, and has made me ask for (and receive!) comfort from the members of my meeting. Sometimes it is so strong and powerful that it makes me tremble and ache, and sometimes...
When I was a new Pagan, I was living in a small town in Vermont on a branch of the White River. I lived near the town's only bridge, and, after the ice was out on the river, it would flood. I used to walk out onto the middle of the bridge, and stand there, my hands resting on the balustrade, watching the torrent pass beneath me. And that bridge shook. The river roared and thundered, but still more impressive was the way the bridge silently trembled all over with that force, as a guitar string vibrates with the musical note that has just finished.
Since that time, the image has come to me over and over again. There is something like a river in this world. If you put your hands out, lightly, especially in times of trouble, you can feel it, trembling through all the fine particles that make up the world.
The river is joy. It is laughter. It's compassion, too, and it reaches out, ready to flood through everything and everyone who needs it. It never stops, and it never sleeps, and it is more powerful than anything I know, and I swear to you, I feel it just beneath the surface in every smallest thing. Sometimes I forget to hear it. Sometimes I'm too busy or distracted to feel it. But week after week, in Quaker meeting, and especially when I imagine the faces of men and women I love, Quaker and Pagan alike, it rises in me until I shake, too.
I'm not being metaphorical here. This isn't poetry I'm writing. It's just what it is.
You may have a word for this, or several. Me, I don't know how to explain it. It doesn't seem to be pushing the Pagan Gods away from me--so far, if anything, I think it may be drawing them closer, though not in the old, traditional ways I was taught, either. I sometimes think in terms of a great World Tree, that everything that is is a manifestation or outgrowth of. Sometimes I think this river is the sap of the Tree, or the well at its feet. Maybe it's beyond the Gods, or maybe the Gods are part of it, or... I don't know. Nobody has ever explained to me how to use Google Earth to find out the Gods' exact street addresses or telephone numbers, so there's a lot that's unclear to me here.
What is clear to me is that I need listen to the River, as best as I can. What's clear to me is that, if you feel the same thing I am feeling, we are kin, no matter what words describe our beliefs or practices. It's clear to me, too, that none of our beliefs or practices are strong enough to contain that whole River. And if my kinship with Quakers means my Pagan community sees me as less Pagan, well, I'll hate it, but there it is. And if my not owning the same vocabulary as my Christian friends means they deny I am a Quaker, well, I'll hate that too, but there it is.
I am syncretistic, not because I'm picking and choosing from the smorgasboard of spirituality, but because I'm _not_. So maybe I will change my religion tomorrow, or the next day, or maybe I never will. But it won't be a rational, thought-out decision. At least, I think it won't be--not if I'm doing it right.
Monday, August 28, 2006
The upshot of all this anxiety is that I'm realizing that the things I've taken for granted all summer long, like time to exercise, see friends, and blog, may not be around for me much longer. I've resolved that this year, Year Three, WILL BE DIFFERENT. Somehow (miraculously) I'll get my grading and lesson planning done, be home by 6 every night, and have weekends off to have a personal life. (Stay tuned to see how _that_ works out...)
But just in case, I wanted to take advantage of one of my last mornings free to post a series of odds and ends that really merit more attention.
First, I'd like to draw attention to an excellent Pagan podcast I've recently discovered: Deo's Shadow. Deo's shadow is a kind of weekly Pagan variety radio show, with intelligent guests, some decent music, and a host who has a kind of freshness and a solid and grounded feeling that I really, really enjoy.
The quality _is_ uneven. Some of the regularly featured hosts, on subjects like herbs, crystals, and chakras, are a bit Wicca 101 for my liking (well, maybe 202) and some of the humor is in poor taste. Some of the interviews are maybe a bit _too_ scholarly for the average Pagan. But still... there's something there. It feels to me like the early days of a project that may become an important community resource--maybe not on the scale of a Witches' Voice or a Cherry Hill Seminary, but important to our evolving culture nonetheless. The show is currently on episode 23; back episodes are also available to download or subscribe to.
On the Quaker side, I'd like to draw attention to NEYM Friend Will Taber's blog, Growing Together in the Light. Though I'd never met Will before Yearly Meeting, I learned quickly to listen closely whenever he rose to speak. Will impressed me as someone who has labored hard and well to hone his faithfulness to the leadings he receives, and I am eagerly looking forward to reading his blog on a regular basis. His comments on NEYM, and on the morning Bible half hour sessions (which I did not attend, unsurprisingly) ring very true to me. I know that Meeting for Business was consistently among the deepest worship I've ever experienced, in any setting, and, judging by the one morning that I arrived early, part of the reason for that was the deep worship that the Bible study sessions had established each morning. Just walking through the door into the Meeting for Business, the presence that had been invoked was there, waiting to enfold us as we came in each day. I'm grateful to Will and the other Friends who opened that door and held (meaning, held in the light, as opposed to moderated) the business meeting each day.
Sunday, August 27, 2006
This business of communicating with one another in loving openness and sensitivity--it's definately harder than it looks. For instance, I know that, coming to Quaker ways late in life and as a member of another religious community that is often marginalized, I tend to assume that I'm the outsider in any Quaker discussion. I feel defensive at hints of difference, and I don't always realize this. I am coming to understand that the place in the world that feels so insecure to me looks solid to others--solid enough that I can come across as the insider, shouldering others out.
I know that about my place in the Pagan world. I'm good at remembering that I'm an elder--and I think I'm pretty good at supporting people who are coming into visions different than my own there. But among Quakers...
Peter and I were constantly surprised by how little we felt marginalized at NEYM. But there were other surprises, too... There seemed to be some feelings of hurt, of feeling prepared to feel judged or condescended to, from some surprising sources. It seemed to me, for instance, that members of programmed meetings were ready to feel judged or shouldered aside by members of unprogrammed meetings. Given that the overwhelming majority of Friends' meetings in the world are programmed--including projects that fill me with pride and hope, like the Ramallah Friends' School--I would have predicted that it would go the other way around: I expected to find smugness on the part of programmed Friends, and to feel condescended to.
Maybe we are all sitting here, expecting to be sent out of the room by the Other Guy--the one who thinks we don't belong here. I'm not saying there isn't real arrogance or condescension going on--but I'm guessing there's a lot of us responding defensively to other people's defensiveness, and none of us even having a clue that's what's going on.
I saw a t-shirt at NEYM that read, "Hicksite." I wanted one. Now I think I don't. It's not that I'm not proud to worship in an unprogrammed Quaker meeting... it's that I'm starting to realize that shirt, which feels affirming and positive in my eyes, might feel hostile and rejecting in other eyes. Huh. Go figure. I'm not the only one who is afraid of being silenced?
So... Zeus and Semele. How does Greek mythology fit into this mix?
It's like this. I'm noticing, reading some of the same threads in the blogosphere that Liz wrote about (and aware of my own less-than-perfect contributions in that department) that when we begin to communicate in ways that strike me, at least, as less open to one another, we do so with words that become more and more notional. I'm not saying that it's wrong to discuss theology or religious history or to quote from sources that inspire us... but things seem to get off track when we begin speaking from our minds only, without consulting our hearts as well. In Pagan terms, it's not enough to discuss the hard things from our top three chakras (crown, third eye, and throat). We need to pull the words we are taking in from others all the way down--not just to our hearts, perhaps, but all the way to the root, and let them sit there for a while, resonating. Only when we've had a chance to feel as well as think--in our bodies, in our souls, not just minds--are we open to hearing what's behind the words.
And until that--? Well, as Margaret Fell said Fox asked her--what canst thou say? What can _I_ say, of my own deep experience, do I actually know of the lofty subjects being discussed?
Sometimes we talk about God/Gods/the universe as if we so thoroughly understood it all that our minds easily grasped all we say. As if any God were small enough to fit into our vocabulary and human thinking. That kind of hubris... there may be Biblical mythology that talks about it, but what I find myself thinking about is the story of Zeus and Semele.
You may know it. Semele was one of Zeus's many human lovers. As always, Hera was deeply offended when she learned of Semele's affair with Zeus, so she went down in disguise as a little old woman to talk with Semele. Semele told Hera that her lover was the Great God Zeus. Well, Hera managed to plant a seed of doubt in Semele's mind, and told her, if her lover was _really_ Zeus, she should insist he prove it by appearing before her in all his glory. So, the next time Zeus visited, Semele got him to promise to do her one favor, whatever she asked, and she asked that: for Zeus to appear to her in his true glory.
When he did, of course, poor Semele was instantly scorched to ashes.
When we try to act as though the deep love affair we have with the divine is something we can contain in our mere human eyes, minds, and words, if we're lucky, we will ourselves be scorched to ashes. If we are unlucky, we can take a whole community with us, pulled into the firestorm of thinking we own, we understand, what is really to large to be contained by words.
There's a flip side, though. I've seen it at work in my own community. (I'm talking Pagan community at the moment.)
I attend an annual Pagan gathering. I won't post the name here, because it isn't an event so much as it is a village--it's only open to new members who are closely connected to old ones, who invite them because they love them. This means that even newcomers are not really new--everyone who comes is part of the family. The webs of connection are deep and strong, in the way that only family can shape them. And, just as the most painful fights occur among families, our community was deeply torn by a painful dispute not so long ago.
This group has been meeting for over a quarter of a century, and the founders and those who have been part of the Pagan movement for all that time (remember--the Pagan movement, as a movement, is only 50 years old!) are treasured. Seems like everyone has one or two elders we feel especially connected to. So, when two of our most loved elders, Penny and Judy (if you're reading this, guys, hello!) found themselves on opposite sides of a controversy in our community, and at loggerheads, it was really awful. Never mind what the controversy was--though I have my own opinions on the whole thing, there really were arguments of love and justice on both sides. What there also was on both sides was passion--gained through life experience--and a growing sense of righteousness. Not just Penny and Judy, but all of us were angry and beginning to feel that these Others we had (foolishly, apparently) called friends for so many years were being underhanded, manipulative, Bad People (not like us).
A lot of people, most especially including the two women I just named, did a lot of work to reconcile hurts. There are, I know, still tender feelings on the whole subject. But there has also been a lot of healing and compassion in the last year or two. And Judy found words to express some of how that has happened.
We had met for--believe it or not--Quaker-style worship sharing. (Peter and I have been sponsoring workshops in this format for the last few years, and it seems to be an especially Pagan-friendly technique for bringing about deep listening.) Among other things that rose in that discussion, people spoke simply and sincerely, from their hearts, on the subject of the dispute and the pain we were in because of it.
There is a Wiccan byword, a phrase that gets used to sum up what we hope to bring to or gain from our spiritual work: "In perfect love, and perfect trust." A lot of silly things are possible, if you take that phrase the wrong way--pretending love for those in community with you when you don't feel it, for instance, or ignoring the wrongdoing of community members for the sake of that "perfect trust." That's clearly not what the phrase is about, though.
I'd heard it expressed, "Perfect love _for the Gods_, perfect trust _in the Gods_" before. But Judy, I think, hit closer to the truth of it when, after sitting and listening in that spirit of reconciliation and love, said she had just realized--the "perfect trust" _isn't_ about people being perfectly trustworthy. (That's an unrealistic goal--even the most loving and spiritual people will let one another down. We can't not, being people, and _not_ Gods.)
But we _can_ trust--trust that the motives of another, in community with us, are in fact good, and sincere. We can trust that, however clumsy their words are, there is something loving underneath the words that means well... even when there's that which is painful, too. Trust--trust that the other person, deep down, is _trying_ to do right, too.
OK. She said it way, way better than that, in terms of the wording. Actually, she said it way, way better than that all around, because it was a lived experience of reconciliation and kindness, and it was absolutely sincere and spontaneous, and she gave it to us whole and from the root. I can't possibly capture that--or even her turn of phrase--in my writing here.
But I can testify to the healing power of open-hearted listening, to heal some of the damage we're apt to inflict on one another in our notional, I-understand-what's-right/I-understand-God frames of mind.
This seems like a good time to say, if my words or my actions have caused you harm, readers; if my inevitable human arrogance has caused me to give you pain, I am sorry. Please let me know how I can make amends.
I will at least--at _least_-_try_ to hear you... What else can I do, to honor my teachers, Pagan and Quaker?
Saturday, August 19, 2006
Actually, that sounds a lot wilder than it really is. After all, I'm posting to out blog, so we're not on the Allagash. We are, in fact, only an hour from the nearest shopping mall, and only twenty minutes from the nearest soft serve. However, though there is dialup web access, it is awfully slow, so I won't be updating the blog until we're home again. If we are slow to post moderated comments this, week, that is why.
So, until we're back in the land of broadband, I'll leave you all to visualize the lapping waters of a peaceful lake, the sound of loons calling over the water, and the smell of pine needles and moss.
There--isn't that nicer than another closely written philosphical post?
Here's to the last hush of summer. May you enjoy it at least as much as I am doing this moment. Blessed be.
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Sunday, August 13, 2006
A woman died and could not go to Heaven because she had been mean and cruel to everyone all her life. She went to Hell, and from there she prayed for mercy. Was there no way she could be admitted to Heaven?
The angel who guards the gates looked around and asked all the souls in Heaven, "Is there anyone here who has ever had a kind word or an act of generosity from this woman?" Only one stepped forth. He said that in life he had been a starving beggar, and one time this woman had given him an onion. The angel told him, “Bring me the onion.” It wasn’t much of an onion—small and shriveled—a pretty poor meal even for a beggar. Would it be enough of an act of kindness to raise the old woman out of Hell?
The angel took the onion and reached down with it into Hell. The old woman grasped it and the angel began to pull her up. The thin dry stalk seemed like it might snap at any minute, but as she held onto it, her feet were lifted from the ground. The other damned souls around her saw her beginning to rise Heavenward and they grabbed at her skirts and her feet, hoping to be pulled up with her. The onion stalk was so spindly. Would it hold?
The old woman looked down at the other damned souls clinging to her and yelled, “Let go! It’s my onion!”
And with that, the onion broke.
I have always taken that as a cautionary tale aimed at those who would make their religion into an exclusive club. But the new insight this week is that hollering at the Christians to stop consigning the rest of us to Hell might not be something we do just for our sake, but for theirs as well. That perhaps those who want to slam the door to salvation shut behind them and then stand there demanding the password before letting anyone else in—that they might be in the same position as the old woman shouting “Let go! It’s my savior!” and that confrontation from a place of compassion (as one might do for an alcoholic) is more appropriate than simple, reactive rage.
Of course, the only way to do that kind of confrontation is to be very secure oneself. You can't be effective if you've got something you’re still trying to prove to yourself about your own relationship with alcohol (or with God, as the case may be). Having once believed, myself, that the only way to satisfy God is to believe in Our Lord Jesus Christ and accept Him as one’s personal Lord and Savior, …
Hmm. Where was I going with that sentence?
1) The reason it is so difficult for me to hear and work with Christian vocabulary in a universalist context is that I was once so fluent in its other, more literal uses. I have read the Bible with the eyes of a fundamentalist, and when I hear Jesus say “None may approach the Father save through me,” it always feels like a cop-out not to take him at his word.
2) The loving confrontation is really with myself. The old woman with the onion will go wherever her own higher self and deeper nature discerns that she needs to go. My issue isn’t with her. My issue is with the angel, because when I meet him, the reason he isn’t going to let me into Heaven is that I’ll spit in his eye. And I’ll do that because I believe that he will consign me to Hell if I don’t give him the right password (“I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and accept Him as my personal Savior and I promise to make everybody else do the same and if they don’t I will help you stoke the fires of Hell.”) And this isn’t really about the angel, is it? It’s about me, having internalized that message.
3) Except it isn’t. It's also out in the world. I had a student last year who was a skinhead neo-Nazi. (No exaggeration. This kid had a shrine to Hitler in his basement.) And he was always looking for ways to justify hating—not hating anybody in particular, just hate all by itself as a way of being. And the only remotely Christian thing I ever heard him say was once when he made the comment “Homosexuality is wrong because it’s against God’s laws.” Now, liberal theologians can pontificate all they want about how Christ’s message is really about love, but they are never going to be able to say it loud enough that a kid with a shrine to Hitler in his basement will hear them. But our Christian heritage, the religion that conquered the Holy Land, supported colonialism, justified the enslavement of Africans and the extermination of native Americans and the forced conversion of Jews and the burning of Witches and…and…and… you get the idea. That is loud enough for this skinhead punk to hear, even down in his basement.
So I really want the Christian church to STOP USING LANGUAGE THAT IS IN ANY WAY AMBIGUOUS ABOUT REPUDIATING HATE.
Which, of course, is a pretty tall order. “Don’t say anything that could possibly be misunderstood by anyone.” Sounds simple enough. Why can’t people just do it?
So what do I do, given that there are no words that will bear the weight of what I want to say? What I took away from this past week at Yearly Meeting is not that the Christian vocabulary is OK; it’s that the words—any words—are not the thing that’s carrying the message in a Quaker setting.
Maybe not in any setting.
Quakers do not just listen to the silence; they speak the silence. I don’t mean they speak from the silence (though they do that too). I mean that Quakers, besides listening for the Spirit behind whatever words might be said, also carry the Spirit and live out the Spirit and hold the Spirit so that it is there to be discerned.
Friday, August 11, 2006
I think it's part of how I do newness that I go through an almost paranoid period, feeling off-balance. I certainly went through it as I became a parent, as I became Pagan, as I left psychotherapy and became a teacher... even each time I've adopted a new dog. Things that are important to how I experience my own identity shake me up as each new change settles into place. I've already been through some of that, when I became Quaker, but so much else was going on that the feelings of upheaval really did seem normal. Anyway, all that is preamble. My point is that, this summer, I think I'm feeling a change in my Quaker self, and in how my Pagan identity entwines with that. It's not done yet, but I think the verbal confusion I've had with the words in conversation (misspeaking and saying "Quaker" when I meant "Pagan" and vice versa on many occassions now) is a signal of a time of changes. And NEYM seems to have been some kind of a threshold around my sense of myself as a Quaker among Quakers. (Accepting, and really committing to, a committee appointment has been huge, too.)
At this point, perhaps I should insert a wierdness alert for the Quakers in the audience. I'm going to work with a fair amount of Pagan vocabulary, and it may sound kind of peculiar from here in. Just letting you know.
I realized at one point that this six days (four full days and two travel days) was the longest period of time I'd spent in a sustained altered state since my first Twilight Covening. I don't think that that's how most Quakers would describe it, or even that that's how everyone there would have experienced it. But I was really, really working to stay, if not in worship, worshipful, most of the time I was there, and certainly all the time I was in the Meetings for Worship, Meetings for Worship for Business, worship-sharing groups, and workshops. Peter and I also celebrated a full moon at the event, and though our celebration was no more than burning candles to the moon down by the pond, it was a very numinous moment for me.
As with Drawing Down the Moon, there were times when I felt sort of stretched by what I was experiencing. I remember, when I first Drew Down, when I opened my eyes after the chant, and looked around the circle at my coveners, it was as if they were each of them limned with gold, shining with their individual dearness. I felt how much She loved and yearned for each of them. And though that was not a prolonged encounter, it left me staggering around for days, as my sense of the world changed in a hundred little ways. That is not an experience that has been repeated, at least with such strength, on many occasions. However, sitting in silence with a hall full of 200--600 or more Quakers, there were times when that experience came back in waves of great, intense tenderness. Quakers talk of the Light--and, as a Pagan, I know that shadow and night is as sacred and as much a part of life as light and day is. But despite that, I have to say that this experience, like most of mine in Quaker meeting _and_ of the Drawing Down, was not of shadows or night at all--it was a flood of... bright, bright, brilliantly bright light.
It was not, for me, personified in the way that Drawing Down the Moon is. I will say, though, that in addition to the sense, within worship, of that overwhelming Light that I have associated with the Goddess*--though not, as I say, with any clear sense of personification--I felt as if Herne, the God of wild things whom I especially love, were very close to me several times as I moved about between worship sessions. It was not a verbal sense, and it was usually outside of worship rather than during it, but I almost felt as if He were walking next to me or behind me through the halls and across the campus.
It was wild. It was also unexpected. I had concluded long ago that Pagan worship and Quaker worship, though complementary, are different. I don't seek out the Pagan Gods when I'm in MFW (though sometimes they find me there). I wasn't particularly looking to find them at YM--though I have been yearning for a way to knit together the colors of my religious experience.
Part of what was happening was surely about how open I was.
Peter and I, for instance, are always happy to be together, but I can't remember when I've been so delighted to be in my husband's company. Partly it was the joy (and relief!) of having someone to talk to who understands all of my vocabulary and history, but mostly, it was just plain joy. It was, I found myself thinking, good to have one part of the whole loving cosmos that I could spontaneously throw my arms around and kiss without causing anyone to become afraid!
I'm not used to so much spiritual work at a time. I'm not used to carrying myself so openly for so long at once. It was tiring. And, at times, it did overwhelm me. I remember how, after the rise of a meeting I found particulary powerful, how I couldn't stop giggling and joking and talking. I don't know if I would have looked manic or ungrounded to another person. But I knew I was over the edge of what I could carry in a sustained way.
And, of course, I didn't sustain it at that level for the whole time. By the time I'd been there for three days, I was way past the duration of this kind of work that I'm used to, and I had reached the stage where the amazing, delightful, inherently loveable people around me were really starting to tick me off. They were, after all, still human, and so was I. The last two days of my time at NEYM, I had to work for my feelings of loving-kindness, because I'd started to notice every last character flaw in the men and women around me. I was also struggling with feeling pretty unloveable and paranoid myself.
One way to talk about what I was going through would be to say that I was passing from the stage of pseudo-community into a sense of real community. And, without doubt, the people I already knew from Mt. Toby who were there came to seem less and less distant and imposing, and more and more like personal friends I could trust with the reality of who I am: talkative, quicksilver, sometimes arrogant, and probably tiresome more often than I'd care to know. But we had some _real_ conversations, and I think I'm going to stay feeling close and connected to many of them as friends, not just Friends. It's such a relief. The paranoid part of this transformation is, I hope, over, and it's time to settle into being in ordinary human relationship, neither idealizing the members of my community as saints, nor fearing them as strangers.
As if to punctuate that last paragraph, I got a call from Lisa, a Ffriend I spent a very happy time getting to feel truly comfortable with, who had gotten a flat tire only a few blocks from my home. I kept her company while we waited for the AAA guy, and I'm happy to report she's just as easy to talk to out in the world as at YM.
Perhaps more later. Worth writing about: Micah 6:8; That Tarot spread. Peter and the crowing of the cock/Gawain and the Green Knight. Knocking on the door, and the escape from pseudo-community.
* I frequently refer to "the Goddess," which is a term that somewhat distorts my lived experience of Her. Lots of Wiccans and Pagans are Goddess-centered monotheists who focus on a single Great Mother (what a friend of mine once referred to as "Yahweh in drag"). I'm not one of those--nor am I a pure polytheist, believing that the sacred is subdivided into many clearly distinct and separate Gods and Goddesses.
Anyhow, even though it would map very easily onto liberal Quaker thought, "the Goddess," when I refer to Her, isn't a single supreme being. I call Her that to avoid trying to give Her--the Goddess or Goddesses I personally commune with--any single, specific name. The only time I ever asked Her for a name, She replied, in tones of great amusement, "You can call me Rosy," which may have been an allusion to the ritual in which a priestess invokes Her: "By Thy rosy love, descend Thou unto the body of Thy servant and priestess here." In other words, I think she meant to say, "I'm the Goddess you been hangin' out with, honey--you really think you can give me a name that _means_ something as big as I am? In your dreams, sugar!"
So I can't give Her a name. And saying "my Goddess" really, really doesn't feel right--as if She belonged to me? Sometimes, among friends (small f, and Pagan) I do call Her "Rosy." But like you'd have understood that one, if I'd used it when I mentioned Her for the first time five paragraphs ago?
Language can be so limiting! (In spite of how much of it I have poured out here.)
Wednesday, August 09, 2006
Jan Hoffman, clerk of the committee on revising Faith and Practice, spoke in the meeting for worship for business. I scribbled down as much as I could. I got less than half of it, but I caught the gist:
“What words might we hear together?
“We will not eliminate every word that anyone might object to until all we have left is wishy-washy words that could mean anything. Nor will we try to include every single word that anyone might want, hoping that if we just throw enough of them in together then we’ll have a document that will represent us all.
“We must surrender ourselves to a sense of the corporate meeting. There is a corporate integrity that is not the same as individual integrity. I may wish that we were somewhere other than where we are; I may wish that we were where I am. [Appreciative laughter from the meeting] But we proceed with the faith that we can find the place where we can stand together. This does not prevent me from acting as an individual.
“It is difficult to listen to the needs of the corporate body. In a democratic society, we think that each individual must be satisfied in order to be part of the corporate body, but we do not. Faith and Practice states where we stand together, which means that where some of us stand individually will not be in the book, and that is a hard discipline. We are looking for words that might pull us to that place where we can stand together.”
A theme of this gathering for me has been listening for the truth behind words that we may find difficult or painful. Last week I started to write a response to Patricia Loring’s Listening Spirituality, which grew into an explanation of polytheism for those not familiar or comfortable with the idea, and then led into a howl of anger and pain, not so much at fundamentalist Christian bigotry, but at liberal Christian complacency with fundamentalist Christian bigotry. I called it “The Spirit gives life, but the letter just pisses me off,” and I was starting to compile a list of “words that piss me off.” (God, heaven, savior, salvation, sin, Christ, etc.) So much of the Christian vocabulary seems to mean completely different things to different groups of Christians, but they insist on sticking with the vocabulary because it makes them all sound the same so they can pretend they’re all somehow united in the worship of that “one” God. Which I’ve always had a big problem with because the vocabulary leaves me damned.
(Things to write about later: Thomas Moore’s fellowship, Tolstoy’s onion, The Edges of Language, Faith as “believing what you know ain’t so” vs. something real.)
I may be close to a breakthrough here. Christian vocabulary—the letter that kills—has been like a rotten tooth in my mouth for decades. I work around it when I can, but it makes me wince in pain when I bite down on it unexpectedly. And it’s sort of like I can feel the tooth wiggling in its socket now, and maybe it’s ready to come out. Yank the damn tooth, forget the words, then listen to the spirit and begin trying to talk about it afresh.
“When Friends ask that crucial question ‘What canst thou say?’ our answer takes place in a living, changing tradition. The fabric of New England Friends is made up of threads from our history and of a rich variety of contemporary experience. It will continue to grow and change as new light is given to us. Some of our paths follow a universalist orientation and some are Christ-centered, focused either in the person of Jesus, in a universalist Christianity, or in a cosmic Christ-consciousness. Some of us find ourselves blending wisdom from a variety of traditions such as Buddhist, Jewish, and Pagan into our Quaker way. Some of us find our primary grounding in Spirit through the natural world. Others of us find a connection to the sacred is one that floods our consciousness but is unnamable and not in need of naming. Many of us are led to focus on actions to which we are called in the world, and to let our lives speak of the faith that underpins it. Some of us live with theological uncertainty, or are uncomfortable with traditional concepts of deity. These paths are not mutually exclusive; the same Friend may experience any of them at various times.”
--Faith and Practice Revision, Second Draft: “Introduction.” 2006 NEYM Advance Documents, pg. 21
“As we learn from each other, we may initially need to translate the words other Friends use to describe their faith, much as we would a foreign language. With practice this becomes easier, and although we may never adopt their language as our own, we are enriched and brought closer to each other by the ongoing practice of being able to listen outside the comfort of our own religious vocabulary. We rejoice in the Grace of a God who speaks to each of us in a voice we can understand, but who also provides others to help us understand those things which are outside our own experience.”
--Faith and Practice Revision, Second Draft: “Introduction.” 2006 NEYM Advance Documents, pg. 21
“When listening, Friends need to be aware that certain words carry powerful emotional weight for them personally, and that they may hear meanings which reflect their own emotions and sensitivities rather than the intentions of the speaker. Each person is encouraged to be faithful in using the language which feels authentic and appropriate to their message, and those listening are encouraged to hold the actual words as lightly as possible, while seeking to be open to the Spirit which enlivens them.”
--Faith and Practice Revision, Second Draft: “The Dynamics of Meeting for Worship.” 2006 NEYM Advance Documents, pg. 23
“Speak with your own, authentic voice, using the terms true to your experience. Encourage and welcome others to do the same. Hearing truth as others understand it is a way of deepening your own faith. Offer the message you are given in simplicity and sincerity, dispensing with preamble, apology, or justification.”
--Faith and Practice Revision, Second Draft: “Advices on Worship.” 2006 NEYM Advance Documents, pp. 24-5
It’s getting easier for me to hear people using Christian vocabulary and not react defensively. It’s gotten easier just in the last two days. I can listen with tolerance. I can hear the spirit behind the words. I can translate. But a couple of questions remain:
When am I self-censoring to avoid conflicts that may be off-topic at the moment? If every time I identify myself as a Witch, a Pagan, or a polytheist, I cause mild apoplexy in the people around me, and if I really want to be talking about other substantive issues for a change, then there is very great temptation to avoid using the hot trigger words…you know, just for now, until there’s time to get into it later. And then it becomes a habit, and you wake up one morning and realize everything you’ve said for the last hour/month/year to your closest spiritual community about your deepest spiritual identity has been a lie.
When do the words that trigger my defensiveness actually imply real hate? Someone I otherwise like and respect may frame a genuine impulse to virtue and nobility in terms of not wanting to be like the niggers and spicks. How long before you wake up and realize that your friends and neighbors are (very polite, very kind and generous) Nazis?
When might it be possible to forgive an insult to myself, but still wrong to do so because it is also an insult to others? One kid calls another kid “faggot,” just as a random insult. I confront him. He apologizes to the other kid but I’m not satisfied. The real insult wasn’t to that kid, it was to gays and lesbians everywhere, that he would use such a deep part of their identity as an insult to hurl at one of his straight white buddies. And the kid asks, “But you’re not gay, why are you offended? There aren’t any queers in the room right now, so what’s the big deal?”
Later—Two more questions:
When am I self-censoring to the degree that I forget my own identity? As Cat said the other night, “I don’t want to have the kind of light that comes from John Preston’s eyes if it means I have to lose the fire in my loins, if it means I have to lose Herne.” It’s not just about lying to others; it’s about forgetting my own truth.
When is confronting someone about their unconscious bigotry actually an act of service to that person? See Tolstoy’s onion. But later. Gotta run now.
Monday, August 07, 2006
Anyway, there are oak trees rustling right outside my open window, and I can hear the shrilling of cicadas... and it's shady and quiet and calm here. So I think this is good.
I'm not entirely sure I will post this entry--I'm not entirely sure of the ethics of it. I'm often at a loss to tell what the boundaries are around talking about what happens in Quaker meetings. They are so intimate, that the fact that they are open seems beside the point. I understand (intellectually, at least) that minutes and epistles are written the way they are, with so little reference to individuals, in part because they are supposed to reflect, not the ideas and actions of individuals, but the movement of spirit among the whole meeting. I am confused, though, about what it's OK to talk about on the level of individuals, and what it isn't. This story is one of those confusing cases.
As I mentioned yesterday, the worship element in meeting for business has been, at least to my mind, quite deep and rich. Today, though, it seemed to me that we were less centered in our business meeting, and I think it showed in the quality of the questions and comments made from the floor. There seemed to be less deep listening and discernment, and more people speaking in what seemed like set patterns. Perhaps other people, like me, are hitting the wall in terms of energy levels. Of course, it could be that I'm tired, and so I'm not picking up on the depth that is there... but for whatever reason, it seemed that we were less centered today in our work.
Again, for the Pagans in the audience, may I just say that conducting business as what we would call ritual is an extraordinary experience? I know that there are some groups that are experimenting with things like it, having designated people who do aspecting or grounding work during a long meeting. I imagine that's something like the work of "holding" a meeting as Quakers sometimes do.
In any case, we seemed less focused and spiritually grounded today than yesterday. The meeting still went reasonably well, and there were moments that were very good, particularly when, at the end of the agenda, we reached the memorial minutes. This is another practice I think would translate well to Pagan settings. Just as, at Samhain, many groups celebrate the ancestors who have died during the year, NEYM is reading memorial minutes, written by the monthly meetings of members who have died in the past year. They have, so far, been quite moving, focusing as they have on lives lived so fully and so well. And after each minute, members settle into silence, and messages may rise relating to the minute or about the life being celebrated.
There was a good deal more here. Towards the end of the meeting, some troubling messages rose, and it seemed to me that, because the group was less centered in worship, we did less well at sitting with those messages in a helpful way. I know that at least some people did walk away hurt.
Initially, I wrote up the story with a good bit of concreteness. That's part of being a good writer--making a story real, even though of course it will remain subjective. But anything published on the web should be assumed to be about to be viewed by the very people you would least like to see it. I was troubled about the entry, feeling that it was good writing (or would be, once I'd given it a once over for copy editing), but also feeling that some of those in attendance at yesterday's meeting might be hurt by reading my words.
I get a lot out of reading other people's stories, when they are True (not just factual, but candid and coming from a deep and real place) and I don't think there are enough stories of simple experience in either the Pagan or the Quaker world. Pagans tend to write "how to" manuals, and Quakers often write in an almost disembodied way. It feels like Quakers sometimes, in an effort to transcend the merely personal, wind up writing bland and sanitized text. The exceptions are there, and they can be breathtaking. And it's not that I don't see the point of being careful with words that could hurt what are, after all, members of my community... nor of reaching for ways to express the experiences of discernment and worship that go beyond individual experience. But I _am_ a Pagan. When Liz Opp writes about placing God at the center of her expectations for Yearly Meeting, rather than herself, my mind goes blank. I just don't get that one--though I respect that it makes sense for her. For me, though, one of the implications of immanent divinity is that my own fallible, subjective, unpolished human perspective is precious, to the world as well as to myself.
I have grown a good deal over the years through stories that I've been told that named the names and left in even the embarassing stuff. Pagans can be difficult, quarrelsome people, but I also think that the Pagan tendency to tell stories--which might be called gossiping--is often a strength. People do get hurt at times--but they also grow, and grow to know one another in ways they might otherwise not.
However, as I said, I was troubled. And the cool thing about being at a gathering of 600 or so Quakers is that a number of my Quaker friends are handy to talk with. Peter and I went off and found Nancy, who agreed to come back to my room and read through what I'd written, and help me figure out whether or not it was reasonable to publish it. (OK, OK--the Quakerese is "find clearness". But sometimes I like plain English...)
She shared my concerns, actually more strongly than I did. She also suggested that, if I wanted to communicate with the people who were involved in the incident that troubled me, I should do so directly, face to face--that it would be hurtful to come across my description accidentally online, which I can't disagree with. I knew I did not feel any prompting to talk to the people involved directly on the subject. So, with some ambivalence, I decided not to go into detail on the story, leaving instead all of these probably annoying generalizations.
The story of what I observed in the meeting for business is my story... but it's not just my story. I am clear that it is valuable, and maybe vital, for humans to tell their stories. But I am not clear on where the lines ethically need to be. So I'm not giving much information here outside my subjective responses. Perhaps it makes for dull writing, which is too bad, but it's all I feel clear to do today.
My other lingering discomfort is that I probably talked poor Nancy's ear off. I hope not--good listeners deserve not to be used up by overly gabby folks like me. But that I do feel I can ask about face to face. Hoping that Nancy did not feel used or used up by the amount of her time and energy I took up with this yesterday, we will, perhaps, have created the kind of stronger bond of friendship that _good_ gossip--the kind that's really truth telling, with open hearts--can bring people sometimes.
I do know that I'm learning a lot here this week, about the reasons not to speak in worship, without carefully testing a leading to speak. Where to draw those lines outside of worship, whether in the context of the Ministry and Worship committee, or in this blog, is much more confusing to me.