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.
Sunday, August 06, 2006
OK. Not universally wonderful. I admit, I'm still early enough on in my love affair with Quakerism that I do idealize things (and people) more than is wise... but there were certainly plenty of reminders of how human (Irritatingly, maddeningly, entertainingly, and endearingly human) we all are here. I'll let one example stand for all: the young adult friend who spent what seemed like half of the unprogrammed meeting for worship clicking and clicking and clicking his pen in restless boredom. CLICKA-CLICKA-CLICKA-CLICKA!
It was excellent discipline--for me. Can I have my worship focus on anything but the struggle not to get shirty over another worshipper's restless tick? Mostly, I was able to stay centered down. Worship this morning was good--as was noticing differences and similarities to what I'm used to, my first experience with programmed MFW (Young Adult Friends were in charge of that portion of the meeting) and a chance to practice finding ways to really center down and find the depths in meeting.
It was also great to have a chance to connect with Mt. Toby members that I don't normally get to spend much time with. Nancy is a friend as well as a Friend, but it really feels like every time I talk with her, she's more so. Margaret and Kathy D were also there at lunch, and it was a novel experience, to talk about my experience of meeting with someone other than Peter. It was terrific to be able to reality check my perceptions with more experienced and seasoned Quakers.
But the big payoff so far has been the business meeting, which really has been a meeting for worship for business. Especially tonight, when the committee that is working to revise Faith and Practice presented. (For the Pagans in the room: Faith and Practice is the book that's roughly--very roughly--equivalent to the Yearly Meeting's Book of Shadows... except that it is less prescriptive and more reflective. If Doreen Valiente had written in Queries instead of poetry, the result might have been something like this.)
The focus tonight was on the section on worship. The advance materials handouts have long sections from the latest draft printed out, and there are some deeply evocative and resonant passages in it. New England Yearly Meeting is extremely diverse, and, as a Q-P, I'm happy to see that recognized. One passage that was pointed out to me, in fact, reads, "The fabric of New England Friends is made up of threads from our history and of a rich variety of contemporary experience... ... 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 unnameable and not in need of naming..."
Now, it's gratifying to be recognized by name (and not just by name, but with a capital letter: "Pagan" vs "pagan" is a fight Pagans have yet to win with most of the country's newspapers) as part of the family. But more powerful still was the phrase about the connection that floods us but is unnameable. Yeah. Just so.
It felt terrific to read those words, among others.
But, when I said that tonight the Faith and Practice Revision Committee "presented," I was not doing the event justice. In reality, what happened was a profound and deep experience of unity. Jan Hoffman, clerk of the committee, addressed us, saying that the committee was not actually presenting a draft for approval tonight. In fact, we would not be reading or commenting on the current set of revisions at all. Instead, Jan spoke to us of the "hard discipline" we are called to by our diversity. All of us, she said, have our favorite ways of experiencing and describing worship... but it is the unity we experience in worship, the whole that is greater than the parts that any of us can bring singly to a discussion, that Faith and Practice ought to reflect. Some people have said that there are words which, if present in the chapter, will make the chapter no longer speak to their experience. Many others have favorite words and phrases. But the job of the committee is not to produce a reflection of all of our individual visions or experiences, but of the shared experience of unity in worship that is wiser than all of us.
She asked us to speak--not waiting for the microphone to reach us, in the fashion we had been following, but as we were moved--but in no more than half a dozen or so words. She asked us to listen deeply, not for our favorite words and phrases to describe our individual experiences of worship, but out of the shared experience, using words "that we can hear together."
There was confusion, at first. Someone asked Jan if she would give an example. Of course she said no. (She couldn't, after all, give an example of what would, in effect, be a message.) Another member asked her to explain more fully. I thought I could see her hesitate, feeling after what to say or do... and then she spoke at some length, going into detail on the ideas I've probably stated badly above. Most of what I've written, in fact, came out of that second explanation--where, at the start, Jan's words had the resonance of a worship sharing, her answer to the request for more was simply and beautifully a message. It flowed and it wove us in with her, and it stayed very, very close to the root, and I was so admiring of her faithfulness.
I think it must be especially hard to stay faithful when everyone can see you doing it, so well. (Mind you, I think Jan knows what she's doing in that regard. She carries with grace a load I would stagger under. _Thank you_, Jan.)
Probably because Jan was so faithful--and because of the discipline and faithfulness of all that had gone before, we very, very quickly settled into a strong and gathered group. One after another, as in a popcorn meeting, person after person stood and named their experience of the divine, of worship. But unlike in a popcorn meeting, each speaker brought the group deeper and into a greater sense of connection.
There were many words and phrases. Some of them were Christ-centered or Quakerisms, and some were new, at least to me.
The words didn't matter. That was the ironic and deep truth that rose, in fact. Having generated words that we'd reached for, out of unity, to express that unity _in ways others could hear_, we created the reality that the Faith and Practice will try merely to reflect. All our words were just reflections--though some of them were beautiful, and resonanted with me. But by reaching first for the thing we are trying to evoke with the words, rather than simply reaching for the language, we moved that much closer to really understanding what it is we need to say.
_We_ need to say. As a people, a community.
It was grand. I can't really explain how powerful it was--not on the verbal level, but on that realer level. I will say, though, that I have never felt more included, more enfolded, by any worship, among any community, ever, than I felt by those fifteen or twenty minutes at the meeting tonight. The struggles of being an insider/outsider (which, perhaps, everyone feels in community) just fell away. Something about listening for the words that would speak to one another, rather than for ourselves as individuals, made it clear how little the things that divide us are.
And I had an insight. One of the gifts Peter and I have had, without even being aware, as Pagans who came to the Quakers from outside Christianity, is that we have _always_ had to listen "where the words come from." When Jill H speaks about being moved by a new understanding of a scriptural passage, though the passage means nothing to me, the joy and depth in Jill's voice nurture me, as a member of her community. So I've always, as a Quaker, known that I can be fed by those whose language and understandings are radically different from my own.
It was only tonight that I consciously realized that, or the obverse: that Christ-centered Quakers _don't_ have that grounding automatically, _don't_ neccessarily know that they will be fed by those they do not understand as well as by those they do. Peter and I are lucky in this way. We got to have this great gift, the instinct to listen underneath, for free, just as the price of admission.
It was a wonderful day.
Friday, August 04, 2006
John laughed at me (one of the things I love about him most). Then he said, "You know what your problem is? You've always been a sucker for God."
I love that. I really love it when somebody finds a way to say something that's really true--and says it in a way that cuts truth down to size.
Yep. I'm just another sucker. I'm not sure what "God" means, but I do think that I am indeed a sucker for it... And John has known me long enough to laugh with me about it.
And, lest I forget, the last meeting of M&W was much less frightening. I was a lot more comfortable asking dumb questions--and it doesn't matter if they aren't dumb questions, because you never know that until after you ask them anyway--and M has agreed to be an offical answerer of dumb questions for me. Which helps a lot. Plus, we laughed a lot. (I don't know if I can trust spirituality without laughter; hence my delight with John's turn of phrase...)